Andreas Gursky’s photographic vision is extraordinarily precise. Every image—whether of a Rhine landscape, rave dance floor, or factory interior —unfolds to reveal an intrinsic organizing principle. Teasing an eccentric geometry out of each of his subjects, Gursky reorders the world according to his own visual logic, accumulating myriad tiny details to offer a sense of harmonic coherence. There is a documentary impulse behind Gursky’s work, one inherited from his German forebears—August Sander, the early 20th-century encyclopedic chronicler of occupational typologies, and his own professors, Bernd and Hilla Becher, who systematically record architectural relics of the industrial age. Gursky’s subject matter is late-capitalist society and the systems of exchange that organize it, and his practice is equally totalizing and taxonomic. His pictures may be described as modern-day versions of classical history painting in that they reproduce the collective mythologies that fuel contemporary culture: travel and leisure (sporting events, clubs, airports, hotel interiors, art galleries), finance (stock exchanges, sites of commerce), material production (factories, production lines), and information (libraries, book pages, data). Large in scale and brilliantly lit, Gursky’s color photographs emulate the physicality of oil on canvas.
Despite the traditions he invokes both formally and conceptually, Gursky has no pretense to objectivity. He digitally manipulates his images—combining discrete views of the same subject, deleting extraneous details, enhancing colors—to create a kind of “assisted realism.” The traders on the floor of the Singapore stock exchange, in Gursky’s version, all wear the same shade of red, yellow, or blue jacket. And his epic view of the Stockholm public library, a perfect hemisphere of color-coded books, omits the actual floor, which, in reality, includes an escalator that would have marred the symmetrical beauty of the image. According to art historian Norman Bryson, the critical paradox of Gursky’s photography lies in its dual commitment to objectively observing the social strata at work in the world and to aestheticizing empirical reality, an impulse that almost sabotages the science of his project. In this dialectic, the artist provocatively undermines photography’s claims for “truth,” offering, instead, as Bryson suggests, an inquiry into the subjective dimensions of all representations of the social.