Research notes – Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky (b 1955) is a German photographer famous for his large format photographs.

Gursky has made several shots of crowds, but being influenced by the documentary work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Dusseldorf School of Photography, his work tends to be impersonal and distant, more akin to a record shot than an artistic creation.

In his photographic series of stock / mercantile exchanges (link), Gursky shots the (hundreds of) traders in action from a high vantage point. The lens used is likely to have been a wide angle, as the subjects are shown relatively small with relation to the frame and the pictures cover a significant portion of the ground. There is no specific individual subject and no particular sense of timing, lending the pictures a “snapshot” nature, and in some cases a “cropped” look. If we take a closer look, however, it is clear that Gursky has put a lot of thinking into the technical preparations for his shots. The Kuwait Stock Exchange II picture (2008)(link), for instance, shows a large number of white dressed traders which are “stopped”, optically, by a dark wall at the top, containing the picture. The subtle horizontal lines in said wall are also perfectly aligned to the  edge of the frame.

By not focusing on anybody, Gursky’s pictures of crowds tend to “collectivise” the actors and consequently, end up being more pictures of activities rather than people. The feeling of chaos stilted by the presence of so many different  people in the frame, all doing separate things, is subdued by the sense of overall purpose that one gets from the activity depicted (ie trading). The fact that there is no sense of timing in the pictures does not detract from its impact. As a matter of fact, there is no need for it, as individual actions are rendered completely irrelevant by the chosen angle of view and the photographer is not seeking for a decisive moment.

Similar in concept, but this time applied to objects rather than people, is the 99 Cent diptychon (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99_Cent_II_Diptychon), in which Gursky photographs supermarket aisles from above, resulting in layers of colour. These photographs show again a significant control of technique, with all the horizontal lines from the aisles perfectly aligned, altough the photographs have been digitally altered so it is not known how much of the technical aspects of it have been corrected in post-processing. Like the exchange series, the pictures of these supermarket aisles are cold and impersonal.

His Pyongyan V shot (link), however, is slightly different from the “exchange” series. In here, Gursky is again showing thousands of small subjects (cheerleaders in a stadium in North Korea), but you get a sense of timing and syncronization with this shot (all the girls are holding their pompoms high in the air, hands fully extended, all at the same time, while the crowd in the stands hold placards depicting a field of flowers. You get the impression that this picture would have been completely different just seconds latter, but just like in the “exchange” series (and perhaps more clearly in this case) one get the impression that individual actions matter less than the collective result.

A slightly different approach was taken by Gursky in his photograph of the Bundestag (1998)(link), which was shot through a window and includes the effect of reflections on the crowds (of MPs, presumably) creating a degree of abstraction which is a departure from the clean lines of his “exchanges” series, where there are unobstructed views of the subjects. The picture has also been heavily manipulated digitally, so it is not possible to distinguish from true reflections or post-processing distortions. Gursky employs digital manipulations quite extensively but in many of his pictures the effect is not really noticeable, creating in the spectator the doubt as to whether what they are seeing is real or not.

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