At 35 by 31 cm, this is the largest hard-cover photographic book I have reviewed. I prefer small, lighter books (the lug factor). Thankfully the London Library didn’t have a copy, but the ILL came through as always. This book, printed in Germany, marks a mid-career retrospective show of the great German still photographer. The show, ANDREAS GURSKY, ran for 2 months in the spring of 2001, and was organized by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of the still photography department at the MoMA in New York City. The book, another in-house publication to bolster and caress the career of one more over-hyped still photographer who gives the curators exactly what they want -- more soft banality, rich in unnecessary details.
The page numbers are big enough to read. The top half of the pages, 9–41, titled Gursky’s World, written by Peter are broken into 3 columns of sans serif text at least one point size too small. Pages 42 & 43 are filled with notes using a point size smaller yet. Among pages 9–41 are scattered small photographs by other still photographers, including a Pictorialist’s small, fuzzy, b&w image as contrast to the sharpness of Gursky’s huge facsimiles to show the still community how far they have traveled in a century. In all there are 133 illustrations in color and 18 as duotones. The cover photograph is a disappointment. A detail of a rave shows too many men posing and strutting, and only a handful of women dancing. The detail is a bit grainy and generally depressing. But Gursky is a documentary still photographer who shoots his stage. Most of his subject matter has been taken in an earlier time -- 1800s and early 1900s, by AL Coburn, A Adams, WH Jackson, C Watkins, HF Talbot, S Bale, to name a few. Gursky is a repeat modern offender; Galassi his bodyguard.
The first sentence of the Foreword by Glen Lowry, the powerful Director of the MoMA, “The striking and adventurous [still] photography of Andreas Gursky has been widely recognized as one of the most original and impressive contributions to recent art.” If by adventurous, Lowry means new viewpoints or subject matter, he is mistaken. Anyone who has ingested a dozen photo books revealing the history of [still] photography would quickly realize Gursky has only taken images, such as elevated viewpoints, which were done decades before he was even born. He is re-snapping the world in his own image -- its land, people, buildings, urban or rural spaces, in color and b&w. If by adventurous, Lowry means the use of digital manipulations on a computer, that only dates Gursky’s imagery. With so many other still photographers doing the same, this hardly places Gursky along the leading edge of doctoring a photo. His tradition is repeating the traditions, which is why his images were displayed at the MoMA and elsewhere. Gursky’s images are not a threat to the common still photographic tradition. His subjects are hardly original, certainly not abstract or painterly. Gursky follows the genres and style established long ago. Their bigness is their only attraction. But up close, they become blurry. He is right on the edge of printing technology. Lowry also mentions Gursky’s work as an ongoing experiment, as is true of all photography, I suppose. The camera keeps evolving, but the style of still photography does not, at least not at the MoMA in New York City. The MoMA has 5 still photographs by Gursky in its collection, but none of my anti-still photographs, which is exactly the way it should be. The book is the retrospective, holding many more tiny reproductions of Gursky’s work than the smaller number of large images nailed on walls at the MoMA.
Peter Galassi shovels the bullshit right from the get go. “Gursky’s art has arisen from a restless, risky process of experiment, in which devil-may-care daring and naive curiosity mingle with sophisticated calculation and alert scrutiny of other art.” That sentence would perfectly describe my methodology and art, yet Peter applies it to Gursky’s still photographs. Gursky’s images of buildings, views of their outside and inside, with or without people, depend heavily on the creative imagination of architects and designers, none of whom are mentioned, who provided Gursky with his subjects. They are the artists, Gursky the button-pushing recorder.
Galassi reminds us of photograph’s past which included the biting question -- Is it art? He maintains the question is a cultural matter which lingers on, even to this day, even about Gursky’s very still photographs. Digging up the brief history of Pictorialism from around 1900, Galassi tells us what everyone knows; the curators at MoMA follow “the medium’s now firmly established identity as a purveyor of crisp visual documents.” That is their cultural opinion on how a still photograph should look. Pictorialism, Galassi tells us, with its soft style, lacks a credible package of information, which we all seem to hunger for. If Peter had walked through Central Park once a week, he might have realized how unclear the natural world is, that everything is moving, where crisp amounts information are immediately replaced by a fresh component of crispness, a flowing interrelated sequence of events, and that as soon a modern culture drops dead, as it did in sections of Detroit, nature quickly and surely reclaims, in the softest way possible, the scraps people leave behind after their abandonment of our constructed ephemeral world. By having only one opinion or idea on the purpose of photography, Galassi lived a fragmented life, like the pictures themselves, choosing to reveal only one side of the capabilities of the medium. Photography uses a camera and light to produce an image. We are the ones that tell the camera what an image must look like. Fortunately, all of our opinions (likes and dislikes) are fleeting.
Galassi tells us the medium has a talent for clear description. Does he mean a mechanical camera has a talent? Because still photography, once Pictorialism was buried, adapted one style of clarity to represent modernism, which left only subject matter and viewpoint as differences to define still photographers from each other. If you tell someone you are a photographer, the first thing they ask, What is your subject matter? They know what style your pictures already have, the same as Gursky’s. A simple example is the industrial architectural snapshots by the two Bechers. They photograph similar objects against plain grey skies, then display them in a grid. Peter describes their images as “impersonal objectivity”. Is that possible for an artist? The Bechers persisted, and once they were shown in 1972 in the Sonnabend’s New York gallery, and received a positive nod in an article by the American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre in Artforum, their careers were launched. Cultural opinions control what we are allowed to know and see as art.
So how does a favorable article by Andre end up being published in Artforum magazine? Did he stumble over the photos of the Bechers at the Sonnabend Gallery and decide to write an article on speculation that it might be published in the international magazine Artforum? Did Artforum pay him for the article and how much? Did the directors of the Sonnabend pay Andre to write a favorable article since they would make more money from the resulting sales. Did the gallery pay Artforum directly to publish the article on the Bechers, or indirectly by taking out a full page ad on the show? Did Andre try to get his favorable article published in ArtNews or any other magazines? Did Artforum turn down less favorable articles by other artists that didn’t think much of Becher’s boring grids? Galassi doesn’t go into details on how the Becher’s ending up with a show at the Sonnabend Gallery and how the article by Andre ended up in Artforum. Was it all chance, or should we follow the money?
Galassi mentions all the fine details captured in a still photograph by Gursky. Details which even Gursky might not see until the image is studied up close, edge to edge. Since most art on a museum’s wall is viewed for about 10 seconds in our hurried lives, all the fine details in his snapshots are unnecessary and completely disregarded during our quick look. A blade of wind-blown dry grass in a corner won’t register with a viewer, nor should it. Still photography may allow a photographer to capture all this rich detail, but too much detail is tiresome and overpowering to the average viewer. It is a “strength and talent ” which is mostly wasted. That is why portraits, especially from the chest up, are often set against a plain background. We can then concentrate on shapes of the head, eyes and lips, curvature of hair and the ears, etc.
We control the camera. I make it do what I want it to, not the other way round. Just because every camera comes with an automatic focus, doesn’t mean every photo has to be in focus or it should be discarded. The concept of out-of-focus doesn’t apply to my imagery; nor does high contrast as some bozo judge on LensCulture declared. My anti-still images are not to be compared to the everyday standards of a still snapshot, especially one by the detail-hungry Gursky. Their intent is entirely different. Unlike Gursky, I have no need to alter my images in Photoshop. They are splendid just as I created them. Only a few have been cropped.
Galassi runs us through the early years of Gursky’s development at art school, his teachers, such as the Bechers; his choice of cameras, and use of color. The plates, from pages 47 to 186, are revealing -- the first plate, titled Klausenpass (1984) shows a steep, elevated green meadow, populated by several tiny people walking about. Along the top, below a pale blue sky, the elongated, bare grey, sphinx-like, rocky, treeless mountain runs forward across the upper third of his still picture ending with its peak projecting toward us. Drifts of remaining snow provide abstract shapes. A mountain stream continues past the base of the photograph. The composition and color of this still photograph are nothing special. It is a weak, washed out image to introduce us to the plates. An image perfectly endorsed by the conservative Galassi and his MoMA.
A review of the plates shows several patterns -- landscapes with teeny-tiny people or without people, one landscape with chickens searching a field for food (insects), interiors of buildings with masses of unrecognizable people at a rave, or highly organized people at desks in a factory or financial institution, again most of them unrecognizable. A couple of still photographs of paintings on walls in museums, one a large Pollock. Is Gursky envious of the natural gestures and style of an artist who actually changed the way we think of painting? Gursky shows us plain empty interiors of buildings. Industrial landscapes with large mechanical objects, with or without small people. Shoes on shelves. Several untitled images, each of one color with gradations (a grey rug), some with texture. A snap of grey clouds, like the Equivalents of Stieglitz, and no better. No close-up portraits of people, plants or animals. Many of his snaps are from an old-fashioned, elevated viewpoint. On page 63 is a still b & w photograph of the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, this certainly a striking and adventurous photograph, according to Glen Lowry. Thousands of still photographs are taken of the Maid by tourists every single year. Its nice to know the well-trained artistic eye of Gursky sees what every tourist sees. But I’m sure his composition and lighting elevated the Maid to the holy status of ART. Give the boy a medal. Gursky is all over the place as far as subject matter goes. He even includes a b&w glacier snaking downhill to the sea. What a cliche? The best you can say is that he photographs the modern world through 360 degrees, which dozens of other still photographers have done before him and will continue to do after he has died. His images are clear, detailed, and big. He has the right credentials -- studied under well-know teachers, and hung out with other photographers such as Thomas Struth and T Ruff who also became famous for no apparent reason. Other than that, he doesn’t have much going for his so-called art. Too erratic and much of it meaningless in my opinion. Is Galassi’s opinion on art infinitely more valuable than mine? Of course. Should we question authority? Of course.
Galassi explains how Gursky, in the mid-1980s, tried to cultivate the fine art sensibility. Unlike Jeff Wall who calls himself a [still] photographer; Gursky and a few of his buddies, opted for the category of artist. Galassi reflects that some of Gursky’s photos resemble paintings, but “if [his] only goal were to establish parity of status between photography and painting—his art would be empty indeed” I might add, when has photography not copied painting? To emulate painting seems to be the mortal sin of a photographer, according to Galassi. Why? What is wrong with a style other than the clear, rich details found in a large still ordinary photograph. Why is only one style of photography acceptable to Galassi? I create my pure abstract images to find out what a real abstract photograph looks like. A sense of abstraction fills the archives of still photography, rarely the pure thing. Naturally, since I use gestures in my methodology, my art resembles that of some abstract paintings, as some of my titles indicate ie Homage to Rothko and Homage to Motherwell. The purpose of my abstractions is to complete the medium, which is quite empty without the balance of pure abstraction to make it whole. A one-dimensional person like Galassi wants to control photography, for our benefit, or his, in all ways possible. Why is a mature man working at the MoMA afraid of photographs the expand how we think a lens-based photograph might look?
Keeping on the abstract theme, “Gursky’s drive toward abstraction and his open emulation of painting and sculpture have risked comparison with the anxious envies of Pictorialism. But Gursky has not treated painting and photography as enemies, the latter jealously regarding the former. He has treated them as friends, and so has drawn from the encounter an unpredictable and inventive course of experiment. By appealing directly to the court of painting and sculpture, however, such an interpretation overlooks much of the verve of the picture, which is after all a photograph.” Galassi, a very minor god, has spoken.
Back in 300 BCE (Before Common Era), Ptolemaic Kings who ruled Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, created a Museum for Intellectual Inheritance. Its library was not limited to one doctrine or philosophy. It encompassed the whole range of global intellectual inquiry. Galassi and the MoMA, are not so broad in their intellectual pursuits. They prefer a restricted sense for photography. Although many websites of museums claim they are interested in the entire history of photography, we all know this isn’t true. They won’t let the art in. Still photographers only need apply.
Big photographs caught on because dealers of these still photographic giants could sell the damn things for a big wad of money. One morning decades ago, I overheard an art critic mention on the radio that Jeff Wall’s snapshots sold for $200,000. Also, labs to print and frame the big images came into existence. Painters don’t have to worry about outside help. They worked with their hands; not code. Large sizes were possible, even in the 1700s. It took the slow invention of modern technology to allow photographers to finally emulate painters in one more arena -- size.
When a still photographer takes pictures of buildings, there are aways repetitive patters inherent in its construction. We like to look at shapes and textures repeated over and over. The branches of a bare tree, a forest, ripples on water, a flock of birds. Repeats are the cheapest and most efficient way we build things, from the Roman Colosseum to the World Trade Center, to a home for a family of five in Nebraska. All these objects and building are designed by people totally unaware of Gursky who comes along years later, takes a still photograph of them, and is hailed as a great artist. He documents the way the world, based on thousands of decisions, is planned, built, and organized. He has absolutely nothing to do with the process. Gursky is a mere recorder of his generation in imagery with a pleasant composition. His computer manipulations are meaningless, as are those by Jeff Wall.
Rhine 2, on page 177, is another altered still photograph by Gursky which sold for $4.3 million at auction, but is not his best. Three grey and 3 green horizontal stripes, with nothing to indicate size, make it hard to explore his outdoor scene of the river. Its emptiness makes me long for at least one flying bird. Perplexing is the dark line running along the nearest bank. Like a drop shadow, it elevates the river’s water making it seem as if it’s above the green bank. Upon close inspection it is one of his most obviously altered (fake) still photographs. Has Gursky ever hung the long photo in a vertical position, like a striped painting by Barnett Newman? Would Galassi shit his pants if Gursky decided to have a little fun with the public and turn the Rhine 90 degrees. What I especially don’t like about Rhine 2 is the shape of the water. I think Gursky overused the clone tool making the waves too similar across the entire flow of the river, bank to bank, edge to edge. Rivers don’t run and look like that, although maybe polluted German rivers do. The camera doesn’t lie; Gursky does.
Tom Reaume trart.ca [email protected]
If any of my readers would like a USB stick with 129 of my best digital anti-still photographs on it, please ask me through an email. I will mail the stick to you at no charge. You can keep my images on the stick, or have a few printed for your home or office. Eventually, they might be worth something. TR
25 April 20