Gursky’s mastery of his craft on display at special MCA exhibit

By Tom Mullaney

Andreas Gursky is one hot photographer. His work has been featured in Time, The New York Times, and all the right art publications. We’ve read that his photographs are large and in vivid color, yet the printed word inadequately prepares museum patrons for the experience they will have at the Museum of Contemporary Art (the exhibition runs through September 29).

Enter the vast space of the Bergman Gallery’s first room and only three photographs are in view. One is a seven by ten foot print of a hotel in Shanghai saturated in the most breathtaking yellow; another is nearly seven feet high and seventeen feet across of an all-night May Day rave at which you feel like a participant. The “miniature” of the lot is a five-and-a-half by ten-foot horizontal of a naked shoe display shelf at Prada.

Gursky seems to make a few distinctions about what will catch his eye. Other than commissions for Siemans and Prada, he is constantly on the prowl. On a visit to Chicago in 1999, he was fascinated by the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade and turned it into a stunning visual study of color, motion, and pandemonium. But this show also finds him at a Madonna concert, at Niagara Falls, Sao Paolo, Times Square, the Avenue of the Americas in New York City, Tokyo, Stockholm, and his native Germany.

As I walked through the galleries last weekend, I could see the combination of fascination and bewilderment on viewers’ faces. Their gaze seemed to be asking, “How does he do it?” We are not used to such monumental photography or at least none that is so masterful and provocative. Gursky definitely has something he wants us to hear, but it requires some knowledge of his background and to hear it.

He uses a large-format camera that produces an eight by ten-inch chromogenic negative, which allows him to keep objects at close range in sharp relief while losing little of the sharp detail of distant images. Only one laboratory in Germany can produce the size prints that Gursky demands. He does manipulate some prints digitally for effect, but that is more the exception than the rule.

Gursky’s work reflects the influence of his family and several of his teachers. Both his father and grandfather were commercial photographers in Dusseldorf, where he grew up, so his facility with photographic technique and its tricks date from an early age.

He studied with Otto Steiner at the Folkwang School in Essen where he was encouraged to supplement his documentary style with a personal creative vision. Steiner encouraged him always to carry around a camera so that he could capture what Cartier-Bresson has called “frozen moment.” Finally, in 1981, he began studies at the State Art Academy, which had become a nexus for such postwar avant-garde artists as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. His teachers there were the influential Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose stark black and white photographs exerted much influence on the conceptual and minimalist art movements.

Gursky’s early work was documentary in nature. It gave no hint that 20 years later, he would be known for his color-drenched mammoth prints. Though Gursky applies color the way a painter uses a paintbrush, he is not treating it as an end in itself but as a means to grab our attention and force us to confront an impersonal, increasingly atomistic planet. His nature studies, such as “Anglers” and “Engadine” in Germany, portray lovely forests or Alps with majestic trees and mountains filled with pygmy-sized humans in the foreground as an afterthought.

Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the organizer of the exhibition, has written, “There is no place for us in Gursky’s world…we are banished and consigned to contemplate it from without.” Gursky’s world of high-rise office buildings, raves, nature and mass sporting events all conspire to reduce humans to anonymous creatures at the margins rather than the center of the universe; voyeurs rather than change agents.

If any pair of subjects capture his imagination, they are hotels and financial institutions like trading exchanges and banks. The show features hotels in Shanghai, the Marriot Marquis in Times Square, trading floors in Tokyo and Chicago. In this, he is part of the documentary tradition of fellow photographers Thomas Ruh and Thomans Struth who feature large-scale print of museums and Eva Stoller who photographs libraries.

There is no other photographer producing work of such stunning complexity and intelligence. He is a master at capturing sharp detail and abstract beauty, an artist who has a variety of artistic styles at his command, a craftsman of superb control able to advance his vision.