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Andreas Gursky in Melbourne « Previous | |Next »
November 24, 2008

There is an exhibition of the work of Andreas Gursky at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. I hoping to see it when I'm in Melbourne next weekend. This style of art photography has its roots in Bernd and Hilla Becher's style of documentary photography that gained a place in the art world through the serial character of their photography allowing a minimalist or conceptual reading. I want to judge how far this colourist, digital photography has moved towards emulating late 20th century American modernist painting.

GurskyAAirport.jpg Andreas Gursky, Schiphol, 1994, Chromogenic print.

At one level we have a straightforward style of photography that works within the austere aesthetics of modernism---technically impeccable architectural photography without the documentary status of the "given". This de-romanticized" vision that gestures to a postmodern version of the sublime. His work of large-format color photographs depicts vast panoramic scenes: entire cityscapes, endless horizons, multi-floored office buildings, huge factory corridors and crowded public spaces usually taken from a distance that have the appearance of a bird's eye perspective.

However, all is not as it appears as Stefan Beyst points out. Gursky's representation of reality is frequently constructed from the combination of distinct shots in one image, and then digitally manipulated within a rigid geometric nature. This gives up the traditional Renaissance perspective that wanted to overlook the world from one single vantage point--the God's eye view.

GurskyAKamiokande.jpg Andre Gursky, Kamiokande, 2007

As Beyst says Gursky does not penetrate into the essence of things behind the appearances, nor does he provide a 'global' or God's eye view of them. Rather, like an old fashioned modernist, we have a basic abstract geometric macrostructure, within which the micro-elements are subordinated. There is lots of detail, for sure, and it is often highly repetitive. But content appears to be downplayed in terms of mattering as content; only downplayed though since if Gursky's images were really abstract -they would be just coloured squares or circles. The detail matters.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 6:36 PM | | Comments (8)


Gursky? A modernist, now there's a thought.

yeah I changed my mind from the earlier post, which veered to the postmodern sublime interpretation. The photos seem to have a lot to do with Sol Lewitt's repetitive grids and Donald Judd's stacks of items.

It will be interesting to see the work at the NGV, as I've only been working from images on the internet and I do not have much sense of his visual history, apart from distancing himself from the Bechers through the use of colour.

these prints are huge and are based on digital work from many negatives in the computer. Why bother with prints? Why not just have digital screens on the walls of the art gallery? Or digital walls?

the art market is the reason. Gursky's '99 cent II Diptychon' (1999) has recently been auctioned at Sotheby's for $3,346,456 - the highest price paid for a photograph so far.

An interview with Andreas Gursky that offers some support for a modernist interpretation of his work----the more recent works have become more strictly formal in that an arbitrary situation is dominated by a structure. Gursky agrees:

The shift in emphasis you mention could also be seen as a logical progression from the seemingly naive landscapes of the Eighties to today's drier and more abstract pictures. I believe that there's also a certain form of abstraction in my early landscapes: for example, I often show human figures from behind and thus the landscape is observed «through» a second lens. I don't name the activities of the human figures specifically and hence do not question what they do in general.

Landscape photography is naive from a high modernist standpoint--eg., the dismissal of Eliott Porter by the art galleries that embraced photography as art in the 1970s.

the Stefan Beyst you linked to is an interesting one.

Yeah check out Beyst's review of Roger Scruton's essay 'Photography and Representation'
in his "The Aesthetic Understanding', Essays in the Philosophy of Art and Culture'. In that essay Scruton argues that, in the words of Beyst

Photography is 'causal' because there is a point-to-point relation between the subject and the photograph, whereas, in a painting, there is also the interpretation of the painter: 'thought, intention or mental act' (p.104). Or, to phrase it more simply: a photo is an 'exact copy' (p. 106), a 'simulacrum' (p. 166) of the subject, the painting is an 'interpretation' of it. Again, to approach it from the photograph or the painting themselves: ''If a painting represents a subject, it does not follow that the subject exists, nor, if it does exist, that the paintings represents the subject as it is' (p 103). ' If a photograph is a photograph of a subject, it follows that the subject exists, and if x is a photograph of a man, there is a particular man of whom x is the photograph' (p. 103)

So painting is an interpretation of what is whilst photography is not. Photography is a mirror of reality because of the presumed 'mechanical' character of the process of photography.

This kind of epistemological stuff is repeated ad naseum in art history and aesthetics, as if Kant had never existed. As Beyst points out, though there are logical differences between different kinds of images (eg., a copy and constructed) there is no justification whatsoever to phrase the distinction in terms of 'a difference between photography and painting'.

True, Scruton here is talking about ideal photography here (in relation to ideal painting) which he then contrasts with real photography. On the latter he says that:

'The history of the art of photography is the history of successive attempts to break the causal chain by which the photographer is imprisoned, to impose a human intention between subject and appearance, so that the subject can be both defined by that intention and seen in terms of it

So, according to Scruton, the photograph then becomes 'representational', just like a painting ----we are no longer dealing here with 'photography', but with 'painting'.

This is logical contortion that leads to a dead end. Why not just talk about pictures or images, a visual culture, and all pictures or images being a representation of what is, has been, or could be. Or ‘pictorial representations’ to distinguish images from words. Make the logical shift to modes of signification’ and sign systems.

This is the classic modernist meme--- instead of seeing a picture as the things it depicts, we see the picture (a painting) as a painted surface. As Clement Greenberg said in a modernist art institution we see a picture “as a picture” first.

That is how we viewers make an aesthetic judgment---we see art (painting) in terms of an internal critique of the medium of painting as a depiction of what is. In doing so we are not naive--as Gursky puts it.