Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky: Fictions On the Basis of Facts

The pictures of the Düsseldorf photographer Andreas Gursky (born 1955) are unusual in every respect. Most striking is of course their large scale, unusual in photographs. Gursky ventures scales of format that we otherwise know only from advertising placards. His largest photographs range up to 2 x 5 metres. But he doesn’t advertise merchandise. His photographs advertise at most a precise look at the world.

Gursky collects his shots on travels round the whole world. Whether he photographs hundreds of basket weavers working in a gigantic hall in Vietnam, or captures images of big concerts with pop stars like Madonna, he succeeds at mass depictions such as have not hitherto been seen. Work, sport, politics – he shrinks from no subject. In North Korea he photographed staged mass demonstrations that made people part of propaganda actions. In New York and Berlin he is absorbed by the uniformity of anonymous masses of people at mass concerts or the Love Parade. Again and again he manages to create metaphors of globalisations. And last but not least, Gursky’s photographs are unusually successful, both with the public and on the art market. His pictures attract attention.

A matter of point of view

Detail of 'Nha Trang'
If one wishes to understand the work of a photographer, it is a good idea to study his point of view, in the literal sense. Gursky always takes an unusual point of view. Because he looks at scenes from a vantage point out of the ordinary, he is able to show us extraordinary views. He takes up a ‘privileged perspective’ “ (Thomas Weski), that is, a point of view that no one else could so easily take up. Gursky seeks the overview; he is never part of the event, but outside observer. He seeks his images from a distance. Therefore he climbs balconies and house roofs, photographs from lift trucks, cranes and in recent years ever more frequently from helicopters. No wonder he can show us more than we can see.

The overwhelming impression made by his pictures is bound up with their jarring depth of focus. Regardless how big the section of the world that he shows us, his pictures are sharp down to the last detail. The optics of the human eye is incapable of this pervasive sharpness of vision. Using cameras with high-resolution lenses creates a superhuman clarity.

Large-scale structures and richness of detail

'Salerno I'
But Gursky also has an unerring eye for large-scale structures. He especially seeks out places, interiors and exteriors, that contain their own criteria of order. The Hafen von Salerno (i.e., Harbour of Salerno) shows hundreds of cars of a car producer awaiting shipment, behind them coloured containers, and in the distance the apartment buildings of the harbour city. Taken from a mountain, the photograph gives the impression of being a classical landscape painting – the city on the sea – but is at the same time massed, condensed industrial present. Breath-taking modernity has taken the place of the idyll.

The large structures employed by Gursky give his photographs their footing. The details give them their life. A picture like Montparnasse, which shows a gigantic stretch of an apartment complex in the centre of Paris, was assembled from several photographs in such a way that it is possible to see a side view of the building which in reality cannot be seen, since the viewer could never have the required distance when actually standing before it. The photograph shows the building more clearly than we could see it. In its windows innumerable scenes are taking place that break and enliven the monotony of the uniform facades in an almost incredible way.

Metaphors of our time, condensed images

Gursky’s pictures may be taken as aesthetic compositions and as sociological studies. They are never merely beautiful: they are above all intelligent. They are metaphors of our times. Astonishing about Gursky’s gigantic photographs, which absolutely sum up the idea of enlargement, is that they always draw the viewer into them with a kind of suction. The viewer wants to see everything that can be seen there. The narrative detail is concealed in the structures. Survey of the whole and precision in details are decisive for Gursky’s style.

Gursky’s photographs are not documentary, although they work with reality, from which they live and which they condense. But they are also not subjective, as we know the subjective point of view from the history of photography. Gursky constructs pictures that are fictions on the basis of facts. Nevertheless, it is just the photographs of the 1990s, in which he increasingly works with digital post-processing, that unsettle the viewer. The viewer senses that there is something strange here, that here the montage has been so rigged as to enhance the effect of the picture.

He attempts to find out the picture’s tricks. He wants to see in the picture how it could have been brought about, how it has been manipulated. The question of the ‘how’ forces itself on the viewer in many of Gursky’s photographs. Clear is only that they are artificial pictures, that Gursky has begun to suspend the boundary that has hitherto separated photography and painting. Photography tends in his work to become digital painting. That he has repeatedly photographed the works of modern artists only hints at the pictorial sources from which he borrows for his kind of photography.

Reality is a construction

Detail of '99 Cent II'
Gursky has not been long detained by the ‘authentic photo’, which gives out that it shows us reality as it is. For him reality is the result of the construction of a picture. He reaches deep into the box of tricks offered by digital post-production on the computer. He condenses time and spatial events in his images. He shows us the world not as it is, but as he sees it. His view of the world is, however, very proficient. He has a flair for exemplary places and scenes that makes one think of the skill of Andy Warhol. When he photographs a dime store in America, where every piece of merchandise costs less than a dollar, he creates a telling metaphor for consumer society. That the photograph was recently sold for 2.2 million dollars is yet another irony of history and again a metaphor for the world of the art market.

Andreas Gursky, Thomas Weski: Andreas Gursky; Snoeck Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Cologne, 2007, ISBN 978-3-936859-50-8

Jan Thorn-Prikker,
former member of the Goethe-Institut's editorial team

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
March 2007

Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions