About Us

Contact Us





First Chapterss


Robert Cooper continues his series on his favourite artists.

Andreas Gursky 99 cent 1999 Cibachrome print, edition of 6 81 1/2 x 132 5/8 in.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Partial gift of Michael Ovitz

Andreas Gursky
The first thing that strikes me upon seeing photographs by Andreas Gursky is their size, with several prints as large as 6’x12’ feet, they are monumental. I find myself standing back viewing the photograph as though it were a large canvas and then moving close to scrutinise the small details which are ever present. ‘Paris, Montparnasse 1993’ shows a large block of flats that forms a huge rectangular expanse, which completely fills the picture frame and continues off the edges into the ether. A perfectly rectangular block that contains in its face row upon row of smaller squares and rectangles of different colours. There is a minimalist abstraction about this work and yet it comes from the man-made world of purposeful objects, not art. At closer inspection the work enters a new realm of existence. As the endless details become apparent, I become aware of the individual lives going on in such close proximity. Each one picked out and isolated for a second before blending back in to the whole once more. I feel the claustrophobia of such a small space and there is a sadness in the uniformity of lives arranged thoughtlessly next to each other, negating the idea of the individual and original, and reinforcing the sense of the common and banal. It’s prison like cells recalling ‘Big Brother’ (that’s the Orwellian version) like visions, that chill me.

This physical relationship with a photograph is a fairly recent development in the history of photography, with new technology providing the ability to produce prints this size that are relatively affordable. Traditionally most amateur photographers and artists would be using a small 35mm format which is affordable, convenient and versatile, but can only produce a relatively small print without losing the definition in the enlarging process. Gursky uses a large format camera which produces negatives for enlargement that are actually bigger than the photographs that Joe Public gets back from his local developers. From these Gursky can produce images the size of large paintings which can be viewed from a distance and close-up without losing their definition, thus facilitating this new physical dialogue with photography. This creates a relation to painting and invites new precedents despite the difference of medium. Gursky's work has often been compared to German romantic painting, more specifically Caspar David Friedrich. Within the landscape pieces one is reminded of Friedrich’s almost surreal colours and compositions that convey the infinite in nature, through placing man and woman within its large expansiveness, so that we too may feel the sublime in nature.

There is also the ruthless selectivity within Gursky’s work, one has the sense that every component in the image is there by design, there is no superfluous material; something a documentary photographer would be trying to achieve, but here for quite different effect. Yet it would seem at times impossible to have achieved this without some impossibly large orchestrated plan, and one is left to wonder the possibilities of those moments when perfect compositions and rare juxtapositions of humans and nature come together. Something we take for granted coming from the painter, but not in a photograph which is so readily assumed to tell us the truth; a mere recording of facts and events.

‘99 Cent’ is a far more colourful yet equally telling image of contemporary society. From a view point that a security camera might see, we look across large supermarket shop floor onto aisle upon saturated aisle overlapping horizontally into the distance. The photograph is a field of synthetic colour that fills ones vision and feels like it may blind the careless gazer. Once again there is a beautiful symmetry to the image, the isles and ceiling supports providing neatly dissecting white lines to the fields of colour, that for an instant recall the paintings of Monet’s water gardens. Looking closer the title meaning becomes apparent; every item is only 99 cents, Americas equivalent of the £1 shop, but (as usual) much bigger. Everything is mirrored in the glass-like ceiling above and one’s eye craves for a piece of unaffected space to rest upon - but there is no release. The sickening weight of today's consumer culture weighs heavily on the viewers eyes.
There are several levels to Gursky's work happening simultaneously, which I believe are responsible for its success. One often first sees the whole image as an interesting and beautifully composed scene, that provides a treat for the eye. The photograph as a monumental grand gesture, and yet only partly his own making: the sense of documentary; of recording; welcomely removing the ego from the equation. Yet there is an artist at work who is manipulating and creating; some of the images have been digitally manipulated, but in a very discreet fashion, and he has a very clear idea of what he wants to show us.

Upon deeper reflection and closer scrutiny of the photographs, other layers of meaning become apparent. They are not forced upon us nor are they insistent, but they are nonetheless evident, somehow relevant and inevitable. Gursky’s images seem unreal and yet true at the same time and this paradox between the familiar and hyper real makes Gursky’s work a treat and wonder to see.

Library, 1999. Cibachrome print, mounted to Plexiglas, Plexiglas: 79 x 142 inches; image: 61 3/4 x 126 13/16 inches. Edition 2/6. Purchased with funds contributed by the Photography Committee. 99.53

*Notes on Andreas Gursky
Andreas Gursky was born in January 1955 in Leipzig, West Germany, and soon after moved to Essen, the industrial heartland of the west. His father Willy Gursky was a commercial photographer, which provided an early education and influence on the young artist. He started his studies at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf in 1980 under the tuition of two renowned artists, Bernt and Hilla Becher. Their photographs of industrial post war Germany were rigourous studies of types grouped together into single classifications, which they called ‘typology’. Their goal was one of impersonal objectivity and proved to be inimical to Germany’s post war photographic establishment, but where as the establishment failed to invest their photography with artistic significance, the Becher's were embraced by the new minimal and conceptual artists, and their work began appearing in their exhibitions during the 70’s. This work had an obvious effect on the young Gursky. The Tate Modern has some of his work in their collection, they are on display in the main concourse areas between exhibition rooms.

See Robert Cooper on Balthus

More reviews

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article