Best to approach Gursky’s photos with a painterly eye

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

The invention of photography was supposed to bring about the death of painting.

What actually happened, however, was that photography became a parasite, feeding off painting. It is enriched by it, bolstered and buoyed by its conventions — such as the use of landscape or portrait formats, cropping, choice of subject and any number of other things. In his self-titled show, currently running at The National Museum of Art, Osaka, Andreas Gursky makes photography almost seem like it is jealous of painting.

In “Untitled VI” (1997), a conventionally high modernist title derived from painting’s provenance, Gursky photographs Jackson Pollock’s epically huge drip painting “Number 31″ in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Apparently conceived as a “portrait” — a conception that flips around the horizontal landscape-type orientation of the actual painting — the photographed painting also seems small, with photography bigger. It looks like painting envy.

The exhibition catalog calls Gursky a “painter working in photography,” but early on in his career, that characterization was less distinct. His works were small-scale pieces of mildly dreamy, lower- to middle-class lifestyles featuring simple subjects such as a kid’s football game or a gas stove with its flames glowing blue. They looked local and at-home. That approach was subsequently abandoned with a revelation discovered accidentally in the throngs of the miniscule people captured in his image “Klausen Pass” (1984).

Half a year after he snapped that shot, Gursky noticed the people moving up and down the mountain like ants and his work shifted its focus to reveal the oscillations between micro and macroscopic views of the world with fusions of representation and abstraction. His photographs got big, too, along with the subject matters. Instead of local community ubiquity, Gursky switched to roving, international, money-fueled subjects that he usually first encountered in newspaper and magazines. He then would jet off to the sites themselves to create his work. Such subjects are usually related to the world of large-scale business, consumerism and the wealthy, with his work covering such things as the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Formula One races, the fashion brand Prada, Madonna concerts, vast trash heaps and what we can assume to be the exploitation of the poor, such as in “Nha Trang” (2004) where basket weavers weave into a distance of perspectival oblivion.

Gursky has acquired part of his reputation for “painting” because he no longer does “straight photography,” in which it is understood there is a direct correlation between the photographed image and something in the real world — like your passport photograph. He began using digital technology in 1992 and this allowed him to pursue composition in a much more manipulative way, rather than being confined to the hindrances of the camera’s lens and what it can take in, or the point of view of the person behind it.

Instead he began to “stitch” individual frames together, creating a montage of often geometric and repetitive images within a single scene. Impossible “photographs” became possible. For example, “Rhine II” (1999), one of his most well-known photographs, pictures the famous river with all the buildings along its bank digitally removed. “Bahrain 1″ (2005) is an even more visually confusing connection of asphalt roads coursing through desert sands, all in perfect focus, regardless of distance. Human presence is minimized, the architectural subjects and massive geographies emphasized. It sometimes seems like an adult version of “Where’s Waldo,” but without knowing what or who you are supposed to look for.

Recently Gursky has been creating photographs from satellite imagery of entire continents as seen from space, such as “Antarctica” (2010), which, as a number of critics have commented, is like seeing the world from an alien point of view — a universalizing step up from seeing humanity as ants climbing a hill. But is this really anything better than Google Earth? Again, it is the painterly interpretation that seems necessary. Seen from on high, Antarctica can look like a giant abstract expressionist daub of white paint on an almost blackground.

Gursky’s most recent work includes the “Bangkok Series,” which he began in 2011, that is said to recall mid-20th century color field painting with the bands or strips of light reflecting off the surface of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. Those bands are of course suggestive of American geometric abstraction as in the work of Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. But there is yet another intriguing painterly concern: The river is polluted and so it is the oils on the surface (a metaphor for painting?) that creates the colorful reflections.

In Gursky’s photography, everything appears, from the beginning, to have been conceived as “borrowed,” perhaps in the way that one “takes” a photograph of what is already there. Subsequent re-presentation is an ostensible abstraction.

“Andreas Gursky” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs till May 11; ¥1,500; Open 10 a.m-5 pm.m, (Fri until 7 p.m. Closed Mon, with the exceptions of April 28 and May 5); www.nmao.go.jp/en/exhibition/index.html

At the request of the exhibition promoter, the photos of Gursky’s artworks have been removed from this page. You can view them at the exhibition website.