As soon as the technique is available, Gursky proceeds to the digital manipulation of the image.
By Stefan Beyst
After the big retrospective in the MoMA 2001, a new big show in the Munich ‘Haus der Kunst’ is dedicated to the photographer whose ’99 cent II Diptychon’ (1999) has recently been auctioned at Sotheby’s for $3,346,456 – the highest price ever paid for a photograph: Andreas Gursky.
Born in 1955 as son of a commercial photographer, he studied photography from 1977 to 1981 with Otto Steinert at the Folkwangschule in Essen and, on instigation of Thomas Struth, at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf – yes, the bastion of other giants like Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, where he joined the class of Bernd and Hilla Becher until 1987, together with Thomas Ruff, Tata Ronkholz, Candida Hofer, Petra Wunderlich, Axel Hütte, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth. Nearly graduated, they all start a successful career, although only Gursky succeeded in becoming the ‘world’s greatest living photographer’.
Gursky soon replaces the industrial settings of the Bechers with the world of leisure. Gradually, also people are introduced: from the solitary wanderer under a bridge to the masses of raver parties and sport events. But increasingly also anonymous people at work: in the stock exchange, the parliament, the factory. In still other photos, people give way to the buildings in which they live – apartments and hotels in cities like Hong Kong, Cairo, New York, Brasilia, Tokyo, Stockholm, Chicago, Athens, Singapore, Paris, and Los Angeles – or work: industrial plants and offices. And, finally, the accumulation of people is often replaced with the accumulation of goods: in department stores and libraries, and, eventually, the accumulation of constructive elements in abstract patterns: from blocks of rock (Cheops, 2006), over the knots of a carpet (‘Untitled I, 1993) to the elements in a neutrino tank (Kamiokande, 2007).
During his training, Gursky used the traditional formats (30 or 36 inches). From 1988 he introduces large formats, and from 2000 onwards he even proceeds to combining sheets to produce giant prints up to five meter.
This inflation of the size, however, does not entail a corollary enlargement of the object, like with Claes Oldenburg, as rather the construction of large panoramas, exemplary in ‘Montparnasse’ (1993). In order to achieve this, Gursky has to distance himself ever further from his object and to elevate himself above it: from another apartment building (Hong Kong, Shanghai Bank, 1994), from a crane (Mayday V), and even from a helicopter (Bahrain). The adoption of a bird’s-eye view goes hand in hand with an opposite move: zooming in to the tiniest detail. The high resolution of his images allows us to discern the tiniest details: on Montparnasse (1993) the details of the countless living rooms behind the windows, on Bahrain (2005) the bolides on the racetracks, on Beelitz (2007) the asparagus in the baskets of the pickers, and on the photos of the mass-meeting in Pyongyang (2007) the expression of each of the countless faces.
Let us remark that an increase in perspective, even one that goes hand in hand with a zooming in on the details, need not necessarily lead to a dramatic increase in size. The question remains what may have been the reason for Gursky’s predilection of giant size. Before answering this question, let us first have a look at the other characteristics of Gursky’ photos.
As soon as the technique is available, Gursky proceeds to the digital manipulation of the image.
Of colour in the first place. Colour has long been experienced as inartistic, also in the Becher circle, until William Eggleston conquered the MoMA in New York with his ‘New Color Photography’ in 1976. From 1981 onwards, Gursky joins the new trend. But his colours are not precisely realistic. He often chooses them from a rather restricted array. Such colouristic homogenising – exemplary in ’99 Cent II Diptychon’ (1999) – leads to a repetitiveness that comes to endorse that of the objects depicted. In a series like ‘Stock exchanges’, the stockholders thereby seem to be stuck in a uniform.
The most drastic digital intervention is the combination of distinct shots in one and the image. The number of shots may vary from two (Montparnasse 1993) to some dozen in images like ‘Stockholders Meeting’ (2001), or ‘F1 Boxenstopp’ (2007). In ’99 cent II Diptychon’ (1999) also the reflection of the merchandise on the ceiling is added, and in ‘Mayday V’ (2001)’ some stores are added to the Westfalenhalle. Such digital collage necessitates the above mentioned homogenising of colour, because Gursky’s collages are not collages in the traditional sense of the word. In traditional collage, heterogeneous elements are combined to an estranging whole. With Gursky, a probable reality is constructed from related fragment in the real world: ‘I strive for a condensation of reality’
In his construction of a new reality, Gursky does not hesitate, finally, to remove unwanted elements from his photos. In his ‘Rhein II’ (1999) every trace of industrialisation is eliminated, so that it seems as if a virgin river streams through unspoilt nature, and in ‘Stockholm public library’ (1999) the floor and an elevator are omitted.
FROM DOCUMENT TO CONSTRUCTION
With Gursky, digital manipulation is obviously more than some cleaning up of the image. We are dealing with a sovereign (re)construction of reality, rather than with the usual ‘documentary’ reduplication of it.
And such urge for sovereign control sheds a new light on the combination of macro and micro level. Gursky’s eye wants to reach the tiniest detail, but is not prepared to give up its broad view. That is why he equally zooms out, without losing the details from sight. Nothing should escape the voyeuristic greed. That is why Gursky willingly gives up the traditional Renaissance perspective, that wanted to overlook the world from one single vantage point – with all what that entails in blurring of the image in the periphery and the depth. The stereoscopic human eye thus is multiplied into the hundred eyes of Argus – if not into the all-seeing eye of god that is everywhere – to the left and the right, above and below, nearby and far away. That explains why Gursky’s images, although he takes a bird’s eye view, and although his eagle’ eye penetrates the remotest corners of the image, nevertheless look rather flat, as if it were decorative carpets. That equally explains why the viewer is not assigned a place from within the image: he never knows where he is situated. And that is certainly not only because Gursky’ image are taken form unusual vantage points.
It equally explains why Gursky submits the huge amount of details to the described homogenisation. That is an attempt at restoring the unity that threatens to fall apart through the multiplication of vantage points. Suddenly, a further characteristic of Gursky’s images catches the eye. The multitude of separate elements is caught in an encompassing macrostructure, mostly of a rigid geometric nature. The symmetry is often obtained through placing the cameras at angles (Korea Stock Exchange) or opposite to one another (Times Square, 1997). Says Gursky himself: ‘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.’ Such encompassing abstract structure can be caught by the viewer in one glimpse, at least if he regains the required distance to the picture, so that the impression is maintained that the image is taken form a single vantage point – as opposed to Cubism, where the disparity is deliberately stressed. Thus, the geometry converging in the eye of the beholder, that was destroyed through the multiplication of vantage points, is restored in the compelling magic of an abstract pattern. But, otherwise than the geometry of perspective, that penetrates and animates the visible world in a harmonic way, Gursky’s encompassing geometry is a distal, impersonal stamp on the visible world. Thereby it becomes the counterpart on the macro level of the homogenised abundance of details on the micro level. It is not the prolongation of our gaze in the image, rather a kind of mesmerising pattern that stares at us from within the image: the eye of the Medusa that puts a spell on the mobility of the multiplied eyes of Argus. Thus, the onlooker, who thought to penetrate into the image, is driven out of it through the gaze of the Medusa.
Neither is there a temporal perspective in Gursky’ images: even where people are very busy, as in the series ”Stock Exchanges’, there is a strong sense of timelessness.WORLD VIEW?
Pyongyang IV, 2007
Kuwait Stock Exchange
World Spirit or extra-terrestrial: the question remains whether Gursky is really interested in revealing us our contemporary reality in all its contradiction.
Eine Photographie der Kruppwerke oder der AEG
ergibt beinahe nichts über diese Institute.”
Bertolt Brecht, Der Dreigroschenprozeß, 1931
Compelling, all-encompassing structures that hold countless homogenised elements in their grip: that cannot but remind us of the way in which, in the era of the world-wide re(in)stauration of capitalism, the ‘globalised’ economy subordinates innumerable individuals as interchangeable elements – consumers and producers. Or of the way in which the relentless increase in scale sweeps away every local difference and homogenises the consumer goods and thereby their consumers on a global scale.
And indeed. In the press note for the exhibition in the ‘Haus der Kunst’ we read: ‘Gursky shows the interrelations of modern life and sketches an analytical image of capitalism in all its shapes’. And in the text for the above mentioned auction at Sotheby’s: ‘his photographs survey the post-Capitalist landscape, searching for the signifiers which define our daily lives.’ Other authors do not feel at ease with the term ‘capitalism’ and prefer to speak of ‘globalisation’, or, even more neutral – and also more ‘German': ‘Zeitgeist’ (Begg*, Bell¨*). Still others rather play the green card. Next to ‘the more negative aspects of the capitalist system, such as working conditions’ Weski* refers equally to ‘the factory farming of animals, the abuse of the environment and the phenomenon of consumer terrorism’ yes, even to ‘our intrepid representatives forced to prevail against a seemingly overwhelming natural world’. And that sets the tune for more philosophical voice that are talking about the relation of mankind to the cosmos as such, like Pierre Sterckx* who believes that Gursky is above all interested in the ‘question of the cosmos and the development of the universe’, if not about Burke’s sublime or Kant’s ‘Erhabene’ (Alix Ohlin*, Caroline Levine*). But no doubt the apogee is the approach of Schlüter*, who does not hesitate to call Gursky ‘the flying eye of the World Spirit’.
The idea that Gursky would be interested in a view on our contemporary world is initially supported by some of his statements. Thus, in an interview with Veit Gorner, he legitimises his digital construction of reality as an endeavour to make visible the antiseptic reality behind the ‘socio-romantic air’ behind which many enterprises hide. In a well-known quotation, it is phrased more generally as: ‘Reality can only be shown by constructing it’. That suggests that reality is not visible to the unarmed eye and that Gursky will unveil it to us. But Gursky becomes increasingly more reticent: ‘I think my images are neutral. I neither idealise the country (North Korea), nor do I criticise it” (Schlüter*). Whereas Schlüter proclaims him to the World Spirit, he himself rather prefers to pose as an “extraterrestrial being, knowing nothing of the world’.
World Spirit or extra-terrestrial: the question remains whether Gursky is really interested in revealing us our contemporary reality in all its contradiction.
To begin with, it is telling that the people that Gursky shows us, if they are working, are not the people who decide, nor those who are the victims of their machinations, and even less those who are excluded from the system altogether. Apart from scarce exceptions (the asparagus pickers in Beelitz, 2007, and the basket weavers in ‘Nha Trang’, 2004), we only get to see the executers of activities, that are only vicariously visible in the bodies of the personnel and their computers. On closer view, Gursky’s eye is not as panoptic as might appear: what he does not show speaks louder than what he does show.
We can further ask whether the people on Gursky’s image are really to be interpreted as the atoms in a ‘globalised’ world. The recent images of the mass-meetings in Pyongyang – rather a phenomenon that will soon be wept away by the ‘globalisation’ than an embodiment of it – suggest that Gursky is more interested in the phenomenon of accumulation as such. In ‘Untitled I’ (1993) there is an accumulation of the knots of a carpet, in ‘Salerno I’ (1990) of cars and containers and in Kamiokande (2007) of neutrino detectors. Such elements could still point to industrialised production, but that relation is altogether absent in the accumulation of books in ‘Stockholm Library’ (1999) or of rocks in ‘Cheops’ (2006). That forbids us to read photos like ‘ 99 cent II Diptychon’ (1999) as images where uniformed humans are replaced with uniformed goods in the store house. Such neutralisation of potential political freight is reflected in a shift in Gursky’s language. In his interview with Veit Gorner:he declares ‘I have never been interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment as such’. The historical (‘Marxian’) perspective is replaced with a timeless (‘Darwinian) view on the ‘human species’. And, as far as this species is concerned, Gursky seems not so much interested in its internal ‘struggle for life’, as rather in its relation to its environment – exemplary in the image of the Tour in France (2007). Eventually, Gursky bluntly declares ‘I have stopped working thematically’. And he describes this development as ‘a logical progressing that end up in abstract pictures”.
‘Abstract pictures': Gursky certainly refers to images like ‘PCF Paris’ (2003), Beelitz (2007), ‘Kamiokande’ (2007)…… They nearly differ from those other ‘abstract’ paintings: those of Op-art, especially those of Vasarély, which equally exert a hypnotic power. They embody the same eye of the Medusa that gazes upon us from within an image where we do not regain the perspectival prolongation of our own gaze. In such ‘optic-kinetic’ art, every documentary content is completely banned from the image, to the extent that they threaten to become mere two-dimensional design. And that goes also for images of Gursky that are at first sight far less abstract, but in which Gursky is more interested in the often brutal abstract composition, than in the material that has to be contained by it.
There is little doubt, then: only seemingly do macroscopic and microscopic extension of the eye and the combination of various shots in one panoptic image amount to a view on reality that would be more encompassing in the spatial or historical sense. In fact, Gursky does not penetrate into the kernel of things, nor does he provide a ‘global’ view of them. In the end, we are left with a (rather rudimentary) abstract macrostructure, wherein meaningless micro-elements are subordinated. The sharpness and the massive amount of information that is offered to the thousand eyes of Argus, contrasts fiercely with the poor content – if not the absolute emptiness – of the images that are conjured up with all that digital vehemence.
And that sheds a new light on the all-seeing eye of Gursky: it turns out to be a fetishist** eye to the thousandth power. The stubborn obsession with which Gursky wants to fill his panoramas with a profusion of details, only betrays how much he is unable to see the invisible that goes hidden behind all that visual profusion. The accumulation of details is a substitute for the invisible whole that remains inaccessible to Gursky’ camera. And the homogenisation of details on the micro level, just like the compelling brutality of a mostly merely symmetric composition on the macro level, are only a substitute for the more subtle structure that would be revealed to an understanding eye. We cannot but be reminded of the way in which, in erotic imagery, an equally fetishist eye wants to discern in all sharpness the tiniest details of what goes hidden behind the labia, with all the more greed since the eye has neutralised the organ that was supposed to – blindly -penetrate the cavity (see: ‘The eye’s seizure of power”). Also a comparison with Spencer Tunick imposes itself. With this artist, the transgressive moment of streaking of flashing is neutralised through the serial multiplication of the nude and its reduction to a mere part of the colour palette.
New York Stock Exchange, 1991
Dubai World III, 2008
Big size not only warrants the monopoly of perception, but also – on a more fundamental level – the monopoly of production. Not every artist can command the necessary equipment – let alone the required logistics, helicopters included – to produce photos that are reproducible on such a scale, let alone the equipment to print them out effectively.
The ‘reality’ that Gursky wants to show through his ‘construction’, is not the ‘deeper reality’ that goes hidden behind the visible appearance, rather a reality that is, if possible, still more superficial that the visible appearance itself: so mercilessly visible that there no longer anything to see at all. Not even a document: sheer visibility – ‘op art’ in a cynical lecture of the term. Only a contentually ‘constructed’ reality – a collage like those of Heartfield, preferably a bit more subtle – would suffice to make the invisible visible, to construct a real ‘global’ – total – panorama of the ‘globalised’ world as it really is. But that is an undertaking that demands far more insight, and above all another kind of technical skill than the mere finding of subjects that lend themselves for the printing out of a profusion of details over scores of square meters.
No contentual motivation, hence. Which raises the question what could well have been the motor for the making of these images.
The answer is already partly contained in the analysis above. Initially, Gursky is discerning himself from the Bechers. Next, he wants to discern himself from photographers like Dan Graham and Jeff Wall who conquered the museums and galleries in the wake of the New Colorists. Nearer home, it mattered to discern himself not only from Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth (the trio was often called Struffsky, see Jerry Saltz*), but also from Demand. And so on. The mechanism is well known: in matters of marketing it is known as ‘positioning’. Gursky himself refers to the rather profane motive in his interview with Veit Gorner: ‘Being confused with other photographers has ceased to be an issue for me since l stopped working thematically.’ Whereby he all to easily overlooks the fact that also his stopping with working thematically is no more than a new form of positioning (see equally below).
How little Gursky is driven by contentual concerns is evident from the fact that all his photos, from ‘Klausenpass’ (1984) onwards, are conceived according to the same pattern: an overall geometrical-abstract pattern on the macro level, and a huge amount of similar details on the micro level. It is not difficult to see how this formula came about. It is dictated by the development of the photographical technique: next to the increasing resolution of the digital image and all the methods to ban unsharpness from or layers and corners of the image, also and in the first place the development of digital printing technique. Gursky seems rather to be mesmerised through the proliferation of pixels than through the massification of globalisation. Through nestling himself in that technologically advanced niche, Gursky succeeded in establishing a clearly recognisable identity that cannot easily be imitated – a brand. A pity for him that he will have to comply to it for the rest of his life – just imagine what would become of him would he suddenly proceed to make portraits in the size of a postcard…
Nothing reveals better how we are dealing here with an image production that is not propelled by an inner, contentual, but rather by the desire to conquer a clearly recognisable position on the art market, on instigation of a purely external, formal factor: the possibilities created by the most recent technological development. The only personal merit of Gursky is that he has a good nose for subjects that lend themselves for the realisation of this technological potential. Or: how technology determines content, not otherwise than the broom of Goethe’s apprentice sorcerer…
The same goes for the size of Gursky’ images. Although Peter Galassi* confirms that ”they earn their size by completing an aesthetic that inhabits every aspect of the work’, we already pointed to the fact that the effect can also be achieved with a more modest size. The increase in scale must serve another purpose. We cannot but be reminded of the way in which American artists knew to conquer their position on the international art scene: a drawing of Klee is simply eclipsed by the square meters of James Rosenquist and consorts. Next to positioning, there is also something like the conquest of a monopoly trough an increase in scale – globalisation so to speak.
Big size not only warrants the monopoly of perception, but also – on a more fundamental level – the monopoly of production. Not every artist can command the necessary equipment – let alone the required logistics, helicopters included – to produce photos that are reproducible on such a scale, let alone the equipment to print them out effectively. Gradually, the attention is shifting from the quality of the photo to the quality of the print. No doubt, it is true that ‘the proof of the photo is in the printing’. But the same goes for the old adage: ‘If you can’t make ‘em good, make ‘em big’.
There is some irony in the fact that, of all things photography – the first medium that is reproducible ad libitum, and that should therefore be cheap – is nowadays skyrocketing at the art market. And that is all the more remarkable, since precisely the digital image can be reproduced on countless screens all over the world – the communist abundance inherent in the industrial mode of production as opposed to generalised capitalistic scarcity. The case of Gursky shows how the capitalistic market can defend itself successfully against such completed socialism. In matters of photography: through increasing the size of the print. The bigger the print, the heavier the required (productive as well as reproductive) technology, the more exclusive – scarce – the product in question. The smaller also the number of competitors that can command such technology. Also here, Gursky is rather an embodiment of the era of the re(in)stauration of capitalism, that an extraterrestrial contemplator of it.
Large format also suggests, finally, that we are dealing with something very important: why else cover an entire wall with one single picture? That is no doubt the reason why many authors are searching a deeper meaning behind Gursky’s decorative wall-decoration that is no more than a demonstration of technical skill. That is also why so many authors are talking about ‘monumentality’ and of ‘epic scale’ – overlooking the fact that there is a difference between literal size and intrinsic format: not all large images are monumental, and not all monumental works are large.
How little size is understood intrinsically by Gursky, appears from the fact that he had his earlier photo adapted to the new standards for his show in the ‘Haus der Kunst’. It is only waiting for the erection of a giant hall in the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi to house a collection of Gurskys, with prints updated to the newest standards of size – the counterpart of the Rubens Hall in the Louvre so to speak. Emirates: for, the giant sums paid for these giant prints can only be paid by renown museums and big enterprises, who also have the required space to exhibit them. Gursky is not for the book-shelf or the wall of the modest living room, even not for the already more prestigious loft, rather for the representative enterprise that, next to its prestigious building also want to show off with some prestigious art.
Up to its size, this photography is determined by the endeavour to gain a technological monopoly position. On all these levels, Gursky is not more than an exponent of the very system that he is supposed to depict. If Gursky’s art is an image of our era at all, than not so much through what it presents, than through what it is.
A last factor that determines the choice for large formats is not typical for Gursky alone. To conquer its place in the museum, especially after 1945, artistic photography had to surmount two handicaps: not only was it supposed to be black-and-white according to the then standards, it could only be printed on rather modest formats. It thereby was eclipsed by the paintings in the museum, especially by the large formats that seem to have become obligatory ever since the advent New Expressionism and Pop Art. Through the development of digital photography, both obstacles could be removed successfully: ever since the ‘New Colorists’, colour became accepted in artistic photography, and photos could be printed on ever larger formats digitally. Already the Bechers could gain a place in the galleries by combining their still modest photo into larger serial wholes. But it is Jeff Wall who resolutely opted for large formats that could compete with paintings in museums and galleries.
Library (Bibliothek), 1999
F1 Boxenstopp, 2007
The truth is that photography – just like painting – has to earn its status as art neither through adopting size and colour (and the commodity character) of painting, nor through emulating the texture and composition of painting like the pictorialists old style, but through unfolding itself into completed mimesis: through the creation of images that do not borrow their power from the appearance of the real world, but from a self-created and self-contained world: the world of art.
A second way to inscribe oneself in the development of modern art, finally, is typical for Gursky indeed: the increasingly abstract character of his work. Photography uses to be dismissed as inartistic because of its ‘documentary’ character (see ‘Scruton’). In the seventies, Bernd and Hilla Becher – documentary photographers par excellence – could gain their place in the art world in that the serial character of their photography allowed a minimalist or conceptual reading. Gursky further severed the tie with the documentary aspect through proceeding to the ‘construction’ of reality. The repetitiveness in the details lends itself for a minimalist lecture, like that of Galasi in his introduction to the show in the Museum of Modern Art*. Galassi also discovers similarities with the ‘conceptual’ painting of Richter. And that is only the counterpart to Gursky’s increasing endeavours to join the ruling artistic discourse. In the wake of Thomas Struth(1994) he photographs a giant Jackson Pollock in 1997. And, in his ‘Mann ohne Eigenschaften’ ( ), we get to see the page of a book on which sentences from Musil’s book are put together. One thing and another has is bearings on the market:. “99 cent II, Diptychon” was auctioned at Sotheby’s not in the section ‘photography’, but in the section ‘art’. In the catalogue to this auction, Gursky is now inscribed in the American tradition: ‘Jackson Pollock’s all-over technique, Sol Lewitt’s repetitive grids, Donald Judd’s stacks of items as well as Andy Warhol’s thematic interest in consumer goods’. And that sheds a new light on Gursky’s ‘logical development’ towards abstraction. Authors like Schlüter can easily describe the mass performance in Pyongyang as a ‘minimalist arrangement of lines’. ‘Gursky* has moved away so far from the documentary, that we could also call him a pixel-painter (Schlüter). Remarkable though, how a photographer has to conquer the museum through emulating painting at the apogee of its anti-photographic fervour….
Once the presence of photographers in the temple of art taken for granted, the comparison with painters from the period before painting began to distance itself from photography, is no longer shunned. Gursky is compared with Courbet (Lucie Davis*) Turner, Caspar David Friedrich (Bell*), Poussin, Caravaggio (Monika Sprüth) and even Pieter Brueghel (Pierre Sterckx). Also the methods of Gursky – his ‘condensation of reality’ through recombination of separate shots – is put on a par with the proceeding of the painter who composes his image from countless separate observations.
The assimilation with painting through size has a side effect that should not be underestimated: it threatens to curb the inherent development of the digital image. The singularity of the digital image is, after all, that it appears from the beginning as a lighting image on a screen, and has not first to be developed as a negative and printed on paper. That is what they have in common with diapositives, which are enlarged through projection an a screen. Such projection is no longer necessary with the digital image: its size depends on the size of the screen. To be sure, also digital photos (just like many diapositive) are printed on paper, after the example of negatives – that is precisely why there has been such a spectacular development of digital printing. But an increasing number of photographs no longer undergoes the transformation – or regression – to an image on a reflecting surface: they continue to lead a purely virtual existence on the screen. It is only waiting for a further development of screen technology: just think op museums with digital walls where images of whatever size would appear in all their lighting glory – a kind of digital cathedral – or of the more modest counterparts in the living room. But there is every reason to fear that the money that is earned with the making of giant prints and their presentation will curb such developments. For, that would entail that the digital image would be reduced to a mere file on a disc – and such a file can freely circulate in the mentioned world of abundance – so that there is nothing to be earned any longer (except by providing the largest screens, like in the former cinema’s).
PAINTING AND PHOTOGRAPHY
All the endeavours to inscribe Gursky’ photography in the history of painting – read: a special variant of image production – have as a consequence that the more obvious antecedents in the history of photography are lost from sight. Certainly, there is some reference to the ‘platonic’ scheme of the Bechers and Sander’s project to document the era of the Weimar Republik. Let us also mention the echoes of Steinert, Gursky’s first teacher. But above all Riefenstahl and her ‘Tirumph des Willens’. It is remarkable that the photos of the mass spectacle in Pyongyang, of all things in Hitler’s and Speer’s ‘Haus der (Deutschen) Kunst’, did not ring any bells. Just like with Gursky, the elements are already homogenised and caught in geometric patterns. For his photos in Pyongyang, Gursky needed only two shots: digital manipulation in that respect has become obsolete through the activity of the mass manipulators. And, not otherwise than Gursky today, also Leni Riefenstahl claimed to merely have a neutral stand to what she photographed.
But, above all, they obfuscate the fact that this photography, apart from size and colour, has very little to do with the real tradition of painting. Already more with the – grossly underestimated – ‘documentary’ sector of it. In her report of the opening of Gursky’s show in the de White Cube in Londen, Lillian Davies describes how a woman scrutinised ‘each switchback of Tour de France I, 2007 ‘with an illuminated magnifying glass’. That cannot but remind us of the way in which the Flemish primitives or the Dutch masters of the still life are often approached. That clearly demonstrates how Gursky’s work remains embedded in traditional photography (and dito painting): despite all its ‘construction’, it does not transcend the level of the documentary, except through becoming ‘super document’. And that reminds us of that other photographer that wants to pose as a painter: Joel-Peter Witkin. Just like the art of the latter, Gursky’s photography stands or falls with its documentary, ‘causal’ aspect. Just suppose that Gursky’ elements were really abstract – coloured squares or circles: his prints would have lost the very charms that seems to mesmerise his countless admirers. Therein, Gursky and Witkin, despite their conscious intentions, and despite the tenacity of the acolytes of the art market, are deeply anchored in the tradition of photography as uncompleted mimesis.
The truth is that photography – just like painting – has to earn its status as art neither through adopting size and colour (and the commodity character) of painting, nor through emulating the texture and composition of painting like the pictorialists old style, but through unfolding itself into completed mimesis: through the creation of images that do not borrow their power from the appearance of the real world, but from a self-created and self-contained world: the world of art. The irony of the case of Gursky lies in the fact that precisely the digital technique could enable such an emancipation of photography. Whereas photography could for a long time not compete with some crucial aspects of the hand made image, it will soon take the lead and be at the technical vanguard of image production.
No doubt, Gursky’s photography testifies to great technical mastery. Perhaps we could even call him the Michael Schumacher of contemporary photography. But art is still something more than sport: next to technical skill, there is also something like contentual skill. And, as far as content is concerned, we cannot possibly welcome Gursky as the newest incarnation of the World Spirit…
Stefan Beyst (°1945) is a Belgium based retired lecturer in the philosophy of art and modern art history.
ASX CHANNEL: Andreas Gursky
(Text © copyright Stefan Beyst. All Andreas Gursky images © copyright the photographer, gallery and/or publisher)