The Big Picture

Matthew Israel
Feb 6, 2014 6:40PM

Andreas Gursky’s 2001 retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was one of the major reasons for the current ubiquity of large-scale photography, as well as the perception that photography—in galleries, in museums, and at auctions—could be equal in status to painting.

From the point of view of many U.S. critics, Gursky was the representative artist of our time, holding a mirror up to life, “our world,” at the millennium. For example, Vince Aletti of the Village Voice explained “forget digital erasure and computer enhancement: this is your life. Get used to it.” Taylor Holliday in The Wall Street Journal called Gursky’s photographs “windows on the world”; in ARTFORUM, Katy Siegel noted, “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).” And Peter Galassi, the exhibition curator, explained in the exhibition catalogue, that these were images of the  “contemporary zeitgeist” and commented in an interview: “In terms of an artist trying to capture the here and now, [Gursky has] done it more boldly than anyone I can think of.”

Raised in a family of advertising photographers; taught by the conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf; and influenced by others such as William Eggleston, the New Topographics, Jeff Wall, as well as his fellow students at the Kunstakademie, such as Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer, Gursky became recognized in the mid-1990s as one of the pioneers of large-scale, and digitally-manipulated photography.

Gursky’s photographs as a whole have certain characteristics as opposed to other digital photographers. First, his subject matter has often been seen as “modern life,” “the contemporary world in its public manifestations,” or the icons of our time, and his photographs have been viewed as an encyclopedia of it. For this reason, Gursky was often called the photographer of globalization and his subject matter ranged far and wide. Among other things, he has photographed stock exchanges, industrial sites, office blocks and ports, rock concerts and raves, sites of leisure, museums and paintings, interior abstractions, retail stores, garbage dumps, sweatshops, cattle feedlots and prisons.

Secondly, Gursky’s works have distinctive stylistic characteristics. They have a very high degree of detail and no distortion, which is made possible by his use of the view camera, and his images are consistently taken from an aerial point-of-view or a point-of-view slightly off the ground so that one does not think his images are taken by a human but by something else—maybe an alien or a plane.

Thirdly, Gursky’s work is characterized by its digital manipulations—which he began employing in 1992 as a retouching device, to delete distracting elements—but since has used to heighten his overall focus, montage images, multiply them, delete entire areas, enhance his colors and tonal values, and all of the above in various combinations. Gursky also exaggerates the abilities of his 8x10 camera to manipulate and/or eliminate perspectival distortion and the focal point (or what has been called the “zone of concentration”) in an image.

One of Gursky’s best-known images is his Paris, MontparnasseAmong the first digitally-manipulated works he ever made, it reflects on the power of modern architecture as well as the alienation of modern urban planning. The building is actually the Mouchotte Building, a major emblem of postwar architecture in Paris built between 1959 and 1964 and the largest residential building in the city. The image is actually two stitched together of the monumental building. Gursky seamlessly brings them together and subtly crops the sides off of the structure to suggest its infinite extension.

This concludes the survey of modern and contemporary art. Please don't hesitate to send me your questions or comments.

Matthew Israel