PRINT January 2001

Katy Siegel

Andreas Gursky makes really big photographs. This is the one thing about his work that everyone can agree on. Why does he do it? The answer seems obvious: to see the big picture, things too vast to take in with either the human eye or a camera fixed at a particular viewpoint (mountains, public architecture, mass leisure, modern industry). The grandness of these phenomena, both natural and un-, begs to be writ large. But Gursky also grinds exceedingly fine, cramming information into his images, as if we were peering simultaneously through binoculars and a microscope. Looking both long and close, he shows us everything.

A few months ago, I met a man who lives in London and does things with money; he said he solved problems for major wealthy types. He gave the example of a computer king in Seattle who was buying a boat, made only in Holland, that cost the equivalent of $50 million American. He wanted to pay for it all at once, while the dollar was high, but the Dutch yacht company wanted him to pay in installments, over the course of the three years they would need to build the boat. My acquaintance’s job was to figure out a way to get the magnate’s dollars into guilders before the dollar weakened.

The computers were made in Asia and sold in the US. The bank was in London, and the boat was in Holland. There were nuances I didn’t grasp. But the moral of the story is that we live in a big, complicated world, where Korean microchips are subject to innumerable permutations at the hands of thousands of people in several nations, to end up (temporarily) as a giant Dutch yacht.

Gursky’s images of global commerce resemble neither the mechanist celebration of technological progress (Strand, Renger-Patzsch) nor the humanist critique of labor (Lewis Hine) of the early twentieth century. When he visited more than seventy prominent industrial companies over the course of the 1990s, he often found, to his surprise, a nineteenth-century romanticism lingering in the worn, looming machinery. In order to render the factories perfectly “contemporary,” he cleaned up many of his images digitally, sharpening the grids of architectural design and mechanical placement. Gursky explains this arrangement in two ways, claiming first an aesthetic rationale: “As a person who primarily experiences his environment visually, I am always observing my immediate surroundings. Consequently, I am constantly putting things in order, sorting them out, until they become a whole.” The other explanation he offers is more cognitive, less artistic: “My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire, perhaps illusory, to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the world.” Order makes a better picture, but it also gives us a deceptive feeling of control—through comprehension—of our environment.

Gursky’s static, even antiseptic factories contrast sharply with the chaos of his stock exchanges. They are almost always frenetic, swirling masses of people; with the exception of the hushed arrays of computer operators in his 1994 diptych of the Hong Kong exchange, these pictures look loud. In fact, to emphasize the sense of movement, Gursky double-exposed sections of his most recent image of the Chicago Board of Trade (Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999) blurring many of the figures. And as he often does with these pictures, he digitally tweaked the colors for maximum saturation, to almost hallucinatory effect. The effect does not exaggerate the reality; digital manipulation merely compensates for the short exposure time needed for sharp resolution. These images condense the human, phenomenological experience of being there—moving while looking, seeing through time and space. Gursky makes photographs that are at once superhuman and all too human: images that see more than we can see, in better focus, with more density of detail. Yet whether this leads to greater understanding isn’t clear, and the artist isn’t saying.

Recently, Gursky has been photographing stockholders’ meetings, the annual conferences where corporate shareholders gather to vote on policy. He wants to merge thirty different meetings and corporations into a single image, taking place in a fantastic architectural setting, which he will generate digitally (a first for him). The one picture will literally represent a worldwide network of exchange. (The image will appear in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective if it can be completed in time.) But even when the photographs are, as they say, “straight,” Gursky begins with an image in his mind, often waiting years before finding the right situation to start shooting. He used to travel with his camera, finding his images as he went. Now he goes without; he builds the pictures in his mind’s eye, waiting until they’re fully resolved before he begins to assemble the actual photograph. Like many artists, Gursky relies on his visual sensitivity to navigate. As he told interviewer Veit Görner, “I have the ability to sort out the ’valid’ pictures from the images we are inundated with every day and have them ready for use when my intuition tells me the right moment has come, before mixing them with immediate visual experiences into an independent image.” He wants to represent the world—not to document it, but to crystallize physical and social reality.

One of Gursky’s strongest (and largest) photos, Untitled V, 1997, is an arrangement of athletic shoes on six long shelves. He once encountered a similar display but thought that the original “would not have sufficed for a convincing photograph. The real shoe display was pictorially ineffective and harmlessly presented.” (Interesting to hear a fine artist criticizing the consumer culture for ineffectuality.) His father was a commercial photographer, and Gursky is comfortable with, rather than wary of or enraptured by, the techniques of advertising photography. The artist built a short double shelf, which he then photographed six times, painstakingly figuring out the proper angles from which to shoot and restocking the shelves with different shoes for each session. The negatives were then pieced together digitally to make a single, monumental image, reflected on the floor. The final picture not only symbolizes the dizzying plenitude of these commodities, their sameness and difference, but re-creates the phenomenological, cognitive experience of visiting a place like NikeTown. The shelf is impossibly massive, impervious, yet clearly registers a subjective perspective, as we pass along the length that approaches the size of the display.

NikeTown isn’t the only big show around: Nature is huge and unmasterable too, if no longer sublime—this isn’t the eighteenth century, after all, or even the nineteenth. Gursky’s work of the ’80s, which tended to emphasize leisure and nature, was often placed in the German Romantic tradition of the sublime, in the vein of Caspar David Friedrich. But, much like the stock exchanges, Gursky’s ’90s nature pictures often feature antlike figures participating in almost humorous social formations rather than braving God’s country on their own. As he puts it, “The camera’s enormous distance from these figures means that they become de-individualized. So I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.” We see tiny beings in an Olympic skiing parade (Engadin, 1995) or out for a frigid dip in the Rhine (New Year Swimmers, 1988), evidence of the strange things people do in groups.

However, in Gursky’s most iconic image of the river, Rhein II, 1999, the human presence is conspicuously absent: The background has been erased, wiped clean of both incidental shrubbery and man-made edifices. The artist expunges not in the name of natural purity but to provide the “most contemporary possible view” of the he, rather than an “unusual, possibly picturesque view.” Instead of a split second stolen from a constant flow, he renders the river as a frozen archetype; flattened into bands, the image, as many have observed, becomes a natural Newman. Monumentality and timelessness can, ironically, be found as well in one of Gursky’s fashion pictures, Prada I, 1996. Not only do the immaculate shelves conjure modernist sobriety, but, on taking a closer look (as these images always demand), you can see shoes from both the fall and spring collections, a simultaneity never encountered in a Prada store. Despite the fact that fashion in general (and this label in particular) is all about currency and ephemerality, Gursky creates from it something so paradoxically solid that the image compresses “fashion” to become its emblem.

Shoes aren’t the only seemingly slight subject to attract Gursky’s monumentalizing attention. He takes an interest in phenomena still more minor, less obviously in need of a large format. Some of these subjects are small in scale, like the details of representational paintings. Others, such as industrial carpet and fluorescent lights, are metaphorically small, normally beneath notice. As Gursky puts it, he sees both microscopically and macroscopically.

In the mid-’90s, while visiting a Bonnard exhibition, Gursky found himself drawn to small areas of the tactile, stucco-ish paintings. He thought about this experience for a few years, photographing in the meantime a group of Turners at the Tate (Turner Collection, 1995) and a Pollock at MoMA (Untitled VI, 1997), staged as if for an auction catalogue. In 1999, Gursky returned to his original idea, photographing details of paintings by Constable and van Gogh (Untitled X and Untitled XIV, respectively), perhaps not incidentally two of our most famous nature painters. The artist blew up the passages by a factor of at least twenty; the paintings’ materiality comes into focus as the surface images lose resolution, further abstracting already cropped and isolated images. That is to say, we can hardly tell what these paintings are “of.”

This diffusion into abstraction seems to operate as a metaphor for the materiality of the photograph, the way that photographic images reveal either grain, in straight photography, or pixels, in digital photography, when sufficiently enlarged. (Gursky uses both: His images are conventionally printed, but the negatives are often digitally scanned and manipulated before being output as a large negative.) We can identify a tree in the Constable because the paint is strongly differentiated in size, hue, and value; the paint surface is so astonishingly complex as to verge on the arbitrary. The van Gogh is harder to read; although the marks vary in size, they are more regularly placed and almost monotone in color.

Rhyming with the theme of allover painting, carpets (like oceans and sky) are subjects that beg allover depiction. Because of its anonymous, industrial quality, the Kunsthalle carpet in Diisseldorf (Untitled I,1993) makes a particularly good subject: Not only could this particular allover stretch of carpet extend infinitely, it could easily be any number of identical carpets in various public buildings. Like Gerhard Richter’s gray paintings, the image presents a deadpan all-things-being-equal face. Above all, it reminds us of the photographic emulsion itself, blown up; in a double irony, the photograph is itself composed of those grains of silver. This reciprocity echoes in the hyperreal, gritty texture of the foreground road in Toys R’ Us, 1999, and, less perfectly, in the enlarged dirt patch of Untitled III,1996. The scale and structure of the photograph’s constituent material elements and the material elements of its subject converge.

A carpet is a grid system: thousands of fibers woven into or knotted to a matrix or a support surface at regular intervals. Carpet, like photographic emulsion, becomes an articulated representation when light is refracted off those tiny fibrous elements. That is, the light picks up certain elements, making some lighter than others, forming a distinct image. Because the light varies, the carpet—its image—fails to completely flatten out.

Refractive light and perspective interact quite literally in the ceding of Brasilia, Plenarsaal, I,1994. The abstraction “light” becomes banal fluorescent lighting panels in a grid formation (much like the grid of digital pixels that structures many of these images). But the lights are irregular, some of them brighter and some dimmer, creating a pattern rather than a continuous, undifferentiated surface. The irregularity is emphasized by the fact that the ceiling does not parallel the picture plane; its orthagonals recede sharply from the photographic surface, as seen from the photographer’s perspective. This perspective is the final element that guarantees the appearance of irregularity in even the most regular subjects-it physically slants them. When Gursky minimizes perspectival effects, as in Rhein II, the picture flattens. In Brasilia, a straight photograph, human perspective distorts a blandly strict subject; in life, the grid always fails its ideal incarnation. Asked about the common characterization of his work as inhuman, the artist replies that even his unpopulated pictures are made and seen by people.

Gursky works the visual theme of refraction or reflection in many of his photographs, including Bibliothek and 99 Cent, both 1999. He also capitalizes on the effect of light bouncing off a large regular surface in May Day IV, 2000, his most recent rave photograph, for which he used a giant flashlight. Here, the even, undifferentiated matrix is composed of human beings, not fibers, and the raking light picks out “irregularities” both formal and social, such as individual faces and gestures. Like paint strokes or the grains of photographic emulsion, the people are both random and ordered, independent and responsive to the demands of a larger, structuring order. This is industrialism set to a human scale, nonetheless overpowering.

Perhaps the contrast between overarching order and its constituent parts is most emphatically underscored in Gursky’s photographs of pages taken from Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, such as Untitled XII (Musil), 1999. Reading on vacation, the artist experienced a sudden shift in perspective, as the page in front of him lost its meaning as part of a transparent narrative, becoming instead an opaque, whole visual image. To represent this perceptual paradox, the artist chose passages from Musil, a quintessentially modern German-Austrian writer known for his plain, straightforward prose; in order to preserve the writing’s general quality, he focused on stretches of text that lack the names of characters. So in the end, the four photographs of pages from the book read not only in terms of the content of those specific pages; they represent language per se.

The Man Without Qualities is not, of course, a sheerly aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) choice; the selection resonates too specifically with Gursky’s project. The book describes a network of characters and events that is both extraordinarily intricate and strangely neutral. In a passage photographed for Untitled XII (Musil), Ulrich, the protagonist, senses this: “He basically felt capable of having any virtue and any vice, and the fact that a balanced social system generally, albeit tacitly, regards virtues and vices as equally burdensome demonstrated something for him that occurs throughout nature: namely, that every interplay of forces eventually strives toward a mean value and an average standard, an equilibrium and a rigidification.” In 1948, Clement Greenberg described a similar impression of both social and formal leveling, based on his experience of contemporary abstract painting: “the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other.” German critic Rudolf Schmitz uses the wonderful word Aufmerksamkeitsverteilung—an even distribution of attention—to describe Gursky’s formal response to this phenomenon, one seemingly proper to the medium of photography. As nineteenth-century Pictorialist photographer Peter Henry Emerson inveighed against the new sharpness of photographic printing: “The [subject] is there, but she is a mere patch in all the sharp details. . . . Our eyes keep roving.. . and all the interest is equally divided.”

We need these big brilliant photos to show us our big bland, dense world (as Greenberg once argued we needed “Apollonian” painting to reflect postwar American materialism). If Richter both generalizes and personalizes by blurring, Gursky does the same by clarifying, revealing and creating an order of things (however arbitrary) to, as he puts it, keep a “grip” on the scale and complexity of our world. He views his oeuvre as an encyclopedia of modem lie; thumbing through it, we might find such entries as Business, Fashion, Hotels, Nature, and Sports. Seen as a whole, the work also catalogues the various elements of representation as it exists today: the digital grid, pattern, value contrast, photographic emulsion, reflection. It’s all here-virtue and vice, romance and rational order, nature and culture, analog and digital, image and material. “I have a weakness for paradox,” Gursky says, and, like the best modem artists, he refracts the conditions of his time. Sometimes ambivalence is the strongest statement.