Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

Andreas Gursky

Posted in art, perception, photography, technique by Jason Gray on May 11, 2012

Many people know Andreas Gursky from the prices that his images command (twice, his photographs have set records for the amount paid), and possibly also for their scale (his images often are printed as large as some Abstract Expressionist works).  However, Gursky is less understood for his approach to photography, an approach that is as equally contemplative as it is controlled.

“The significant step from representational depiction to representational photographic design comes when the subject, the motif, is no longer shot for its own sake, but is demoted from its own meaning to the status of an object of the design intention.”[1] This quote summates the transition, from one to the other, of the two major, Post-Modern approaches to representational photography, New Topographics and the Dusseldorf School.  While included in the first New Topographics exhibition, Hilla and Bernd Becher were technically the founders of the Dusseldorf School.  The Bechers’ students at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in Germany, and those students’ intellectual diaspora, represented this new approach, which differed primarily from the first one in that, while the New Topographics were engaged in showing the results of human occupation (depiction), the Dusseldorf School were interested in reorganizing the world in front of their camera (human beings or not) in a way that suited their vision (design).  This photography, including Gursky’s, is formally a way of cataloguing according to common references, like books in a library, but not so much according to the subject as the photographer’s handling of it.

Consider the three photographs above.  Although their subject matter is entirely disparate from one another, Gursky has organized the activity unfolding in front of his camera in such a way that a person viewing the images together cannot help but observe similarities in pattern.  Questions arise.  Did the photographer wish to make a Malthusian comment on human population?  Are these moments/places photographed historically/spiritually significant? “…It is…obvious why the artist avoids events that live purely from the moment.  He is intent on a description of the world that goes beyond hours and days- A world that is not made up of hundreds of solitary instances, but configurations that are to some extent repeatable.”[2]

It should also be obvious that Gursky’s version of the world is no Family of Man-styled look at humanity.  Rather, the photographer is pressing his thumb to the wrist of our planet, seeking not a pulse, but a rhythm in the heartbeat.  In his book, Serial Imagery, John Coplans wrote, “Essential to the morphology of serial imagery is the abandonment of the conspicuous uniqueness of each painting.”[3] Mr. Coplans may as well have been writing about Andreas Gursky’s photographs.  Although Gursky has photographed a myriad of subjects, ranging from designer boutiques to unremarkable German landscapes, his photography is not concerned with the individuality of them.  His pictures, when you look at a lot of them, seem somewhat repetitive despite looking nothing alike; this is the serial nature of his work.  It’s not easy to photograph the New York Stock Exchange and a 99 Cent Store, and make them evoke one another, but in his work they do (and that’s his point).  To accomplish this feat, Gursky does not alone rely on what his camera can provide.  He was one of the earliest photographers to include digital manipulation in his workflow (he uses it to stitch photographs together, add/remove objects, etc.).

Andreas Gursky; Rhein II, 2009 (currently world’s most expensive photo at $4.3 million)

[1] Otto Steinert; quoted by Martin Hentschel in Andreas Gursky: 80-08; 2009

[2] Martin Hentschel; Andreas Gursky: 80-08; 2009

[3] John Coplans; Serial Imagery; 1968.

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