That the fences extend beyond the edges of the photograph on three sides suggests an operating scale beyond what is comprehensible, or perhaps even imaginable. Something similar can be said of the artist’s process and ambitions: by digitally composing multiple exposures to create the image we see on the wall, Gursky attempts to bring into the realm of perception subjects that, in their magnitude and complexity, might otherwise elude us. His method for doing this is not only technical, however, but also formal. For the better part of two decades, the artist has been interested in “aggregate states,” a term borrowed from the social sciences that refers to a whole that is made up of small units.
In this sense, an aggregate state is also, for the viewer, a condition of awareness: an ability to toggle seamlessly between element and ensemble. Not either/or, but both/and.
For Gursky, a composition should not draw the viewer’s eyes to one area and then another, but rather present an undifferentiated field in which every component has equal importance to every other. Gursky has been remarkably consistent on this point. Here he is speaking with an interviewer recently: “My manipulation of the image seeks to adjust the proportions and scale of the tiny pixels in the back and the objects of the foreground. Figurative speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other.” In 1998, he said something similar: “You never notice arbitrary details in my work. On a formal level, countless interrelated micro and macrostructures are woven together, determined by an overall organizational principle.” In this sense, an aggregate state is also, for the viewer, a condition of awareness: an ability to toggle seamlessly between element and ensemble. Not either/or, but both/and.
Perhaps the feedlot appealed to Gursky as a photographic subjecct because the grid laid upon the land is itself a version of his undifferentiated compositional technique, and because each holding pen, each unit in the grid, is like a pixel in Gursky’s digital image—another grid that registers no hierarchy. But the history of Greeley suggests another duality, another both/and, as the place has been at different times emblematic of two strains of thinking about the relationship between space and society.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, physical boundaries in America were determined by the Land Ordinance of 1785. An initiative led by Thomas Jefferson, the survey threw an orthogonal grid westward across the country’s vast, lightly populated spaces with no concern for topography. The Land Ordinance is in large measure why, when we fly over the middle part of the United States today, the landscape beneath us is a patchwork-quilt of square and rectangular plots whose boundaries follow cardinal directions. When settlers had crossed the Great Plains and entered what is presently Colorado, it quickly became apparent that such Cartesian thinking was unsuitable for apportioning these lands. As the landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson noted, the location of water became the principle that guided these settlers, superseding the governmental decree of 36-square-mile townships. Greeley was important in this regard.
“It was water in one form or another that determined the size and location of a viable unit, whatever Washington supposed; it was topography that made land profitable or worthless. In the [1870s] a number of ‘colonies,’ of which Greeley was the largest and most successful, established themselves in eastern Colorado. The location which each of them chose was in a valley with a river, where irrigation could be practiced. The communities adapted themselves to the terrain…. They were defining their holdings in terms of physical characteristics, that is to say; and where those characteristics ceased, there they fixed their line of demarcation. Instead of all spaces being potentially equal, they fell into classifications based on natural features and natural boundaries.”
During its early history, Greeley became known for its heavy use of irrigation—its growth followed paths outlined by the availability of water. Gursky’s picture, with its hills in the background, suggests that the area under his gaze is a riverine valley. His photograph of the immense feedlot also reveals, therefore, another story: the substantial advances of agricultural technology. Not only do modern grazing techniques mean that some industrial feedlots house more than one hundred thousand head of cattle, but also that once more the human preference for easy, logical design can shape our use of the land. We are no longer as beholden to the natural distribution of resources as we were when Greeley was founded, in the spring of 1870.
Given Gursky’s claim that “I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment,” it seems useful to think of his photographs, especially those of landscapes, as ecology pictures.
Another way to think of Gursky’s formal and rhetorical emphasis on the relationship between part and whole has roots in his native country. In 1866, a few years before the founding of Greeley, the German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology in his book General Morphology of Organisms. The word gave expression to a concept first promulgated two generations earlier by Haeckel’s childhood hero, Alexander von Humboldt, the polymathic naturalist and writer of worldwide renown. In the summer of 1802, while standing atop Chimborazo in today’s Ecuador, then believed to be the world’s tallest mountain, Humboldt looked at the landscape unfolding beneath him and saw the world anew. It was not, as had been believed, composed of discrete phenomena, but rather was one great living organism in which everything was connected. According to his most recent biographer, Andrea Wulf, “Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.”
Today we imagine our environment with a mental framework constructed in early nineteenth-century Germany. Given Gursky’s claim that “I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment,” it seems useful to think of his photographs, especially those of landscapes, as ecology pictures. His artistic methodology and his choice of subject matter emphasize things interwoven: foreground and background, of course, and the many photographs he composites into one image—but also human exploits and natural environments; far-flung locations, linked by the tentacles of global trade; and the cycles of production and consumption, use and disuse.