During the 1990s, Andreas Gursky became one of the most prominent photographers in Germany. His large-format color photographs are distinguished by their precise composition, detailed depth of field, and overall structure that avoids any central vantage point. He is interested in how social and political culture structures people’s lives at leisure or at work, in the world of fashion, sport, business, or finance.
Gursky was born in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1955 to a third-generation family of photographers. He grew up in West Germany, where his parents had moved the year he was born. As soon as he could walk, he came into contact with photographers, as well as photographic techniques and their applica- tion to the advertising industry. This may have encouraged his decision to pursue his studies at the famed Folkwangschule in Essen, which at the time was the most renowned school of photography in Germany. The school was directed and greatly influenced by the founder of subjective photography, Otto Steinert, who trained photographers in an applied aesthetic that corresponded to his own; and the students worked primarily in small-format photography, in prints rich in contrasting black and white. Although Gursky began his studies the year of Steinert’s death in 1978, the aesthetic taught at the school was slow to move from the principles established by Steinert. During this time, Gursky dedicated himself to black-and-white photography reportage with a Leica 35 mm camera. Among the young instructors who had taken over teaching from Steinert, Gursky profited most from the sustained influence of Michael Schmidt, who familiarized him with his own opinions and with the latest developments in photography coming from America.
After four semesters at the Folkwangschule, Gursky followed the advice of his photographer friend Thomas Struth and applied to the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf. There he entered the photography class directed by Bernd Becher and his wife, Hilla. With this step, Gursky turned away from applied photography and to the study of photography as a free art form. In the class he met Candida Höfer, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Ruff, and Petra Wunderlich; Thomas Struth and Axel Hütte had just finished their studies. The Becheresque principles of style served as a model for this generation and even the following generation. The Bechers taught students to focus on only one theme, one point of view, and one perspective, as well as to decontextualize the subject by excluding as much as possible, any elements that defined time—all essential components of the Bechers’ work. The Bechers also influenced Gursky’s aesthetic, which in the 1980s focused on common cliches such as people strolling on a Sunday afternoon, playing soccer, or going on a packaged vacation. These themes allowed him, as observer, to maintain a constant distance, and thus his photographs preserved little of the reality of the scenes he shot, making them stand for the general state of things in the industrial world. The precise observation, the fixation on a singular idea of the image, and the patient execution belong not to a medium applied to the world for a functional purpose but to one that is an independent expression and an attitude toward life. Taking in the Bechers’ understanding of photography, Gursky put aside the 35 mm camera, which made possible quick-reaction shots and the capture of fleeting moments; from then on he worked with large- and medium-format cameras, no longer in black and white, but exclusively in color. In technique and composition, his photographs from the 1980s demonstrate the influence of American color photographers such as Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and, above all, Jeff Wall. A characteristic of his photography that crystallized over time is the distant, elevated position of the observer that faded out the defining condition of the frame and led to a floating perspective. Human beings formed by the structures of their world become unrecognizable and appear as part of a single mass that submits, whether in leisure or work, to the same occupation. Mountain climbers, swimmers, skiers, theater audiences, and party or rock-concert goers are as equally subservient as stockbrokers and industrial workers. ‘‘I observe human species under the open sky from the perspective of an extraterrestrial being. To make clear that my interest rests in the species and not the individual, I have abstracted people into tiny figurines’’ (Gespräch mit B. Bürgi Zurich, 1992, p. 10).
Though human actors still appear in earlier landscapes, which suggest a kind of narration—Sonntagsspaziergänger, Ratingen, 1984 (Walking on Sunday, Ratingen); Neujahrsschwimmer, 1988 (New Year’s Swimmer); Angler, Mühlheim, 1989 (Fisherman, Mühlheim)—in the evolution of his work, human beings appear at ever greater distances or seem mediated by traces of modern civilization. Even the titles emphasize the factual— Restaurant, St. Moritz, 1991; Börse, New York, 1991—to the point of denying additional information. Furthermore, everyday objects remain the focus of his camera but are presented as optical phenomena. Surfaces and colors seem to be thoroughly structured elements of the photographs’ composition that confuse or even completely destroy the spatial perspective, something that the floating viewpoint and the distance from that object serve to promote. It also seems to pull the floor from under the feet of the observer. Parallel to the development of his increasingly abstract style was the size of his prints, which from 1988 to 2000 went from .36 x .185 meters to the maximum size of a roll of photographic paper, 1.8 meters high and 5 meters long (Tote Hosen, 2000 [Nothing Doing]). In their presentation and reception, these unusual large formats are very similar to painting; as part of the everyday environment, they become the object of another image. This is not to say that Gursky’s work conforms to painting in its pictorial manner; the photographs exploit painterly characteristics by transforming given factual objects into objects of monumental size, by cutting photography from any recognizable reference of the object photographed, and also by suggesting in its content a kind of color-field painting, as well as a color scheme that is negated on the flat shiny surface of the photographic paper.
In 1992, Gursky began to use digital technology to in part create his imagery. His first efforts consisted of minor retouching, but soon he was using the computer to construct the image, allowing a further confusion of perspective and vantage point. Yet Gursky holds to creating the final print photographically, using a photo-editing program to transform, assemble, and touch up scanned negatives. He then creates a new negative, which creates the final enlarged print.
Unlike many photographers, Gursky does not work in series. Although certain staging arrangements that create themes of images appeal to him, each photograph is based on a single, precise idea that elicits an individual image. The scenes in the photos depict the self-evident character of everyday life as well as oddities closely observed, both of which Gursky turns into an abstract pattern. None of his images is temporary or spontaneous. Rather, his trained observing eye seeks out a theme that must form itself into a visual concept, something that often requires a long time to transform—in photographic terms—into a single manageable work and leads to the production of only a few images per year.
(from: Encyclopaedia of Twentieth Century Photography)
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