Andreas Gursky - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Andreas Gursky
Andreas Gursky was born in Leipzig, East Germany on January 15, 1955. An only child, he later moved with his family to the West German city of Essen followed by Düsseldorf in 1957. Both his grandfather and father were successful commercial photographers and although he at first "denied anything to do with photography," he changed his mind in high school. He dabbled in a few commercial shoots before moving in a more artistic direction.
Early Training and Work
In 1978 Gursky began to study photojournalism at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, while working as a taxi driver. After graduating in 1980, he was encouraged by friend and future star photographer Thomas Struth to join him at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1981, where he began to study under the seminal photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers were the founders of what would become known as the Düsseldorf School, and were celebrated for their black and white typographic photographs of industrial archetypes. Their students, who included Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Gursky, were highly influenced by their teachers' interest in architecture and a detached presentation style. Although each would expand into using color in their work, together they went on to form a group of notable contemporary photographers.
Gursky was considered a master student by 1985, and before graduating in 1987 was already showing signs of his signature foray into "aggregate space," a term used in social sciences to describe a whole made up of its individual parts. Although he went on to become famous for photographing voluminous landscapes and public spaces, his first published photograph of his oven indicated this eye for finding the smaller elements of a composition - seen as geometry, linearity, strata, color block, and form beyond its literal imagery.
As his career progressed he began drawing inspiration from artists including the American Abstract Expressionist painters and photographers. These included Steven Shore, who photographed banal scenes with a bold depiction of color; and John Davies, who shot the urban and rural environment. But his most notable influence was the Canadian Jeff Wall who presents scenes of natural beauty, urban decay, and postmodern and industrial featurelessness through large-scale, cibachrome transparencies within fluorescent lightboxes.
Gursky began to make his own massive color prints (eventually measuring up to six feet tall and ten feet long) in 1988, at the time when photography was beginning to be taken seriously in the fine art world - partly due to increasing the size of prints, thus drawing parallels to painting. His signature style beckoned comparison with abstraction, because although he photographed place and space in honest literality, his genius knack for recognizing composition within the frame of a lens, produced works akin to paintings. A Prada store interior became a Rothko-like plane of key lime green and baby pink color blocks bisected by the splashes of colored shoes hanging in a horizontal box. A view of a black, cloudy sky became a gloomy watercolor of gradient gray splotches. A bikini shop wall morphed into a monotone beige minimalist piece, accentuated by a row of hanging swimmers that resembled drips of color.
Since the late 1980s Gursky has been "concerned with the human species," (as he put it) exploring the inner workings of contemporary society, specifically globalism and consumerism. He tends to read a photograph "not for what's really going on there, I read it more for what is going on in our world generally." Traveling internationally, his work consists of a wide range of subjects from landscapes to racetracks, public spaces such as stores, and sites of industry and trade. He has evolved a unique aerial perspective, often requiring cranes and helicopters to capture a high yet straightforward vantage point. Although many of his images appear to be abstract, upon close examination he is turning a critical yet detached eye toward the subject. Looking to "learn from the visual world, to learn how everything sticks together," his matter-of-fact confrontation sidesteps any personal political view; thus, allowing the viewer to form their own opinion. Gursky's practice, dense with conceptual and visual qualities derives from observation and research, creating a unique blend of fiction and reality whether the scene is built, heavily altered, or captured in its originally observed state.
In the late 1990s critic Jerry Saltz gave Gursky and former classmates Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth the nickname of "Struffsky," implying that the three German photographers were interchangeable because they were part of the 'Düsseldorf School', were classmates at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and worked with a similar aesthetic. Although they do make images in a similarly disengaged observatory style, they select and use their subjects differently. Gursky focuses on globalism; while Struth creates portraits, landscapes, and interiors that he has an abstract or personal relationship with; and Ruff focuses on different ways to use the medium of photography itself through portraits and 3D imagery.
Gursky still lives with his wife and family in Düsseldorf, where he shares a studio with fellow photographers Laurenz Berges, Axel Hütte, and Thomas Ruff in an electrical station that was renovated by renowned architects Herzog & de Meuron. Since 2010 he has been a Professor at his former university Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
Although he continues to make expansive prints exploring aspects of postmodern society, in the early 2000s Gursky began to experiment with smaller prints and reprints of previous work to offer the viewer different experiences. While Gursky aims to be physically removed and politically neutral in most of his work, he exhibited a very rare self-portrait named Untitled XVI (2008) in his exhibition Works 80-08, depicting himself crouching before a wall, "more or less in my studio, thinking about doing a work."
Interestingly, electronic music has been important to Gursky for over 22 years - as an interest, influence, and subject matter. He has photographed raves, festivals, and clubs and plays it while installing exhibitions. In 2016, he synthesized his images with music by inviting acclaimed DJ, producer, and friend Richie Hawtin (aka Platikman) to create a soundscape to accompany his exhibition Not Abstract II. In an interview with Gursky and Hawtin, Gursky explains the music, "is neither merely accompanying the images nor is it a typical Richie Hawtin sound. It is much rather a soundscape... and permeates the images in the most peculiar way... it feels as if something is breathing, something is buzzing." He also feels that the integration of sound invites people to spend more time looking at and contemplating his photographs.
The Legacy of Andreas Gursky
In the words of former MoMA curator Peter Galassi, Gursky's work has "the service of a polished, signature style .. [which] made his work one of the most distinctive and challenging contributions to contemporary art." Gursky helped shape new ideas of photographic 'objectivity,' because although his style had roots in straight documentation, it was undeniably brought into the cutting edge arena via the advanced technical possibilities which arose from digital art. He also helped elevate the value of contemporary photography within the art world.
Not only did Gursky blast open the door toward utilizing a massive scale to present imagery to the world, his eye for capturing the painterly aspects of an existing, everyday scene has influenced the world of contemporary photography in an enormous way, paving the way for many of today's artists working in the medium. Through artists such as Cristoffer Joergensen and Richard Caldicott who borrow from abstract practices; photographers like Paulo Catrica, Xiaovi Chen, and Vic Muniz, known for capturing large-scale public spaces; architecture explorers like Allison V. Smith; or those working with environmental and urban landscape like Hanah Collins, Mitch Dobrowner, Gregory Crewdson, Victoria Sambrunaris, and LM Chabot, we can see touches of Gursky's original impetus weaving its course through photographic art history.