Andreas Gursky's investigation of contemporary culture through large-scale, highly-detailed images has shaped his reputation as one of the most influential and popular contemporary photographers. Tapping into the zeitgeist of globalization, he travels the world documenting locales including Hong Kong, Cairo, New York, Tokyo, Stockholm, Chicago, Athens, Singapore, Paris, and Los Angeles. His incisive vision incorporates a panoramic view of urban sprawl, in which people appear enshrouded in beautifully packaged vitrines, anonymous and subsumed into the uniform fabric of global capitalism.
The documentary impulse behind Gursky's work derives from a prominent German lineage that includes August Sander, who chronicled occupational typologies in the early twentieth century, and Bernd and Hilla Becher, who systematically recorded architectural relics in an industrial age. Gursky appears to take a taxonomic approach to late-capitalistic society, recording its systems of material production and consumption, financial exchange, networks of travel, infrastructure and avenues of entertainment. His pictures may be described as modern-day versions of classical history painting; certainly they intend to compete with oil painting through their monumental scale, bright colors and dramatic lighting.
Gursky digitally manipulates his images, combining different views of his subject, deleting extraneous details, and enhancing colors to achieve his desired aesthetic results. He reorders the world according to his own visual schema, teasing a Modernist and Minimalist inflected geometry out of his works. He ambitiously pushes the medium of photography by appropriating the formalist language of movements in painting and sculpture.
Avenue of the Americas of 2001 captures a nocturnal view of an illuminated high-rise office building on the titular avenue in New York. Adopting a parallel viewpoint that renders a planar image and cropping it such that the recognizable coordinates of the building disappear to leave a uniform, self-contained grid that appears to continue beyond the borders of the frame, Gursky executes an image that verges on the cusp of abstraction. Compromising depth and assuming a rhythmic pattern between the illuminated and darkened windows, Gursky bows to a Post-Cubist Minimalist grid. In doing so, he creates an "abstract-realist" image that no longer reflects the specificity of location, but is symbolic of the edifices that characterize skyscrapers in industrialized and rapidly industrializing world.
Gursky's photography reveals a paradoxical and dual commitment to objective observation and to an anesthetization of empirical reality. In this dialectic, the artist provocatively undermines photography's claims for "truth", but like history painting, he "constructs" his idealized vision of contemporary society with a painter's eye for composition. Gursky's ambitious oeuvre bridges grand master paintings and traditional photography.