About a week before I was invited to write this essay, I had a conversation with artist Sara Cwynar in which she asked, “What can Gursky do today to surprise us?” This text is not a direct answer to her question. But it is my attempt to articulate the value of Gursky’s landscape photographs. It was published as “The Order of Things” in Andreas Gursky (Hayward Gallery/Steidl, 2018).
Andreas Gursky’s 2002 photograph Greeley depicts a cattle feedlot in northeastern Colorado from an aerial vantage point. The large, flat expanse of brownish earth, seen at an oblique angle, has been subdivided into a grid by roads and white-painted wood fencing. Inside each pen one finds dozens of cattle, doing what cattle do: standing in groups, lounging in the sun and near brackish pools of water; feeding at troughs. In the distance, a copse of trees marks one boundary of the property, and beyond it are a few buildings, some foothills, and blue sky. The level of detail is such that in the foreground one can see the red and white identification tags affixed to the cows’ ears; the depth of focus is such that toward the background the cows’ bodies remain sharply delineated, despite being hundreds of meters from Gursky’s lens. The view encompasses thousands of animals, illustrating the industrial expansiveness of this unnamed grazing operation.
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.
Consider Untitled XIII, a 2002 photograph of a garbage dump located in Chimalhuacán, on the eastern outskirts of Mexico City. At roughly nine by seven feet, the photograph is similar in scale to Greeley and imparts a corresponding sense of endlessness. It, too, is viewed from an elevated perspective. Here, though, the flatness of the land is bracketed by an impassive gray sky that suggests this detritus exists at the end of the world: there is garbage, then there is nothing. From a distance, the image verges on pure abstraction: a field of color covers the top third of the composition and rests upon a seemingly pointillist compendium of tiny marks of color. Only upon closer inspection do viewers see the plastic bags that drift in the wind and sporadically interrupt the gray expanse. Look closer still, and we can make out the international origin points of this great tidal field. The first that caught my eye was a box for a Daewoo microwave—a South Korean company that, aptly enough, declared bankruptcy three years before Gursky made the photograph. Coke, Pepsi, and other bottled beverages abound, as do rubber tires and dilapidated pieces of furniture.
Gursky has described Untitled XIII as a picture of “world-garbage,” which makes it more surprising when, scanning upward, close to the horizon line, one can make out the tiny figures that populate this scene. A narrow band of provisional shelters hint that these people’s presence is ongoing, that they return to the site repeatedly to seek something discarded here. Chimalhuacán is a shantytown built on the dried bed of what was once Lake Texcoco. Poor people seeking a cheap place to build a home began squatting the area in the 1970s. By the time Gursky took the photograph, roughly 1.2 million people lived there—defying the lack of paved streets or other utilities and services. Their presence despite hardship, both in the shantytown and on the grounds of its garbage dump, stand in for broader cycles of use, adaptive reuse, and renewal. They testify to the massive demographic pressure that will one day reorder the site Gursky has photographed. The dump is at the edge of a city whose metropolitan area has more than twenty million people. Inevitably, as such megacities expand, places like the one Gursky has photographed become valuable land—and are then prime sites for redevelopment. Not only is each visible item in Gursky’s photograph part of the greater whole of the landfill; the landfill is itself part of the city, a greater entity still and one that remains active despite the pictures impression of terminal use, of stasis.
Alexander von Humboldt’s epiphany about the entanglement of all life, indeed all earthly phenomena, occurred as he stood some twenty thousand feed above sea level. Gursky, in a 2009 interview, discusses the importance of an elevated vantage point. Though speaking of a photograph taken in Pyongyang, North Korea, his words apply to many of his landscape pictures, too: “I asked for a high position and they gave me a place which wasn’t high enough. And so I asked for an even more elevated position, because if you are in a very high location you can read the choreography much better.” Such heights offer the macroscopic sweep that complements the microscopic detailing in many of Gursky’s pictures.
Tour de France I
His 2007 photograph of the Tour de France depicts competitors, and the networks of support they require, climbing a steep, switchback mountain road. The artist’s elevated vantage point certainly reveals the movement in the scene: a large pack of riders in the lower quarter of the composition, ascending toward a hard-right turn; cars, vans, and motorcycles leading and following the bicyclists; fans pushing into the road from their curtsied perches. Televised broadcasts depict race leaders, spectators whizzing by in the background, the spectacle of crashes—a procession of fragments. Gursky ties those fragments together and anchors them in the landscape itself—and, as with Greeley, to the broader forces of history and geology. As with many of Gursky’s landscape pictures, the setting dominates and frames the human activity that plays out before his lens.
Gursky’s lofty position also creates unique visual effects. Because the terrain rises to the level of Gursky’s lens, the artist is simultaneously looking down upon the activity in the foreground and looking across toward what is nearer the peak. At the bottom of the composition, the wide strip of road reveals names and phrases that have been painted on it: NATALIE, FÈDRIGO, PAY THE CHICK BACK. At the top, however, we cannot see the road itself; we can only pick out its contours by noticing the line of people ostensibly standing along its edges. Both top and bottom are flattened onto the two-dimensional plane of the print; both sections exhaustively catalogue the scene’s details. Yet the disconnect between the two creates a strange folding of space—and a productive friction between eye and mind.
The black ribbons of the course’s surface cut through the desert sand like the slashes in a Franz Kline painting or the photographs of tar that Aaron Siskind made late in his life.
That friction is the result of Gursky pushing representation to the edge of abstraction. As with the picture of Chimalhuancán, the artist’s busy Tour de France landscape fills nearly all, but not all, of the frame; a sliver of blue sky reveals context and orients the viewer. There are contextual clues such as this in many of his landscape pictures. This distinguishes his work from, for example, American photographer Frederick Sommer’s 1940s-ear pictures of scrubby Arizona hills and valleys, which create different disorientations: one senses depth but cannot tell whether the land sweeps upward or downward from the camera. Take three Gursky landscapes in chronological order, though—Salerno I (1990), Rimini (2003), and Bahrain I (2005), for example—and one can see how the environments become more difficult to read. The discontinuity between vertical and horizontal planes make the later images like textiles hanging on a thin rod. Bahrain I depicts the Bahrain International Circuit, a race track completed in 2004 in the small island nation in the Persian Gulf. The black ribbons of the course’s surface cut through the desert sand like the slashes in a Franz Kline painting or, perhaps more appositely, the photographs of tar that Aaron Siskind made late in his life. When Gursky revisits the desert subject two years later, he zooms in to present the blacktop as no more than three horizontal black bands set against tan. But lest we believe he is no longer thinking of the complex interweaving of humans and their environment, he centers Bahrain II (2007) on two bright-red Vodafone advertisements.
Gursky’s intricately constructed pictures necessarily suggest a relationship to painting, and the effects he creates are often found in representational painters’ liberal approaches to rendering a given scene. Space is compressed, fractured, folded in upon itself. At the same time, Gursky’s drive toward the pictorial flatness described above recapitulates a story of twentieth-century painting told by modernist critics like Clement Greenberg. Perhaps Gursky’s 1997 photograph Untitled VI, which depicts a painting by Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall of a museum, can now be understood as foreshadowing this direction.
The greatest painterly liberty Gursky has taken to date is with Ocean, a six-picture series completed in 2010 that the critic André Rottmann has compared to Morris Louis’s Color Field abstractions. The series adopts what is perhaps the highest vantage point Gursky has ever sought. One night, while flying over the Indian Ocean from Dubai to Melbourne, he saw the cartographic representation of his flight path not as a map, but as a picture. The easternmost portion of Africa edged into the frame from its left-hand edge; part of Australia inched in from the right; in between was an inky, dark expanse left uncharged by the interactive map’s programmers. To recreate this view as a photograph, paradoxically enough, Gursky had to give up his position behind a camera. No helicopter or plane could take him high enough. Instead, the artist composited satellite photographs of various coasts, then painstakingly constructed the ocean surface between them. In doing this work he departed from the strictures not o only of photography, but also of cartography, pushing land masses around to find the optimal composition.
Perhaps, after two decades of reading the choreography that plays out across the Earth’s surface, Gursky wished to state plainly that much about our world, and our relationship to it, remains inaccessible to him—and, by extension, to us.
What results are pictures, like Ocean II, in which the accumulation of crisply rendered details does not correspond to an accumulation of facts. The icy finger jutting downward into the frame may be Antarctica, but its relationship to the other elements in the composition will not help us ascertain that fact. The parts relate to a whole, but, like his many photographs created through digital manipulation, not one that is directly transcribed from the world. What, then is revealed by foregrounding the fissure between reality and image? What greater truth does this fiction impart? Perhaps the central placement of large, watery expanses serves as a clue. Their dusky surfaces seem placid, but beneath them, of course, are teeming depths. Perhaps, after two decades of reading the choreography that plays out across the Earth’s surface, Gursky wished to state plainly that much about our world, and our relationship to it, remains inaccessible to him—and, by extension, to us. That does not mean he won’t attempt to make sense of it—Gursky’s compulsion, on the evidence of the work he has made in the last twenty-five years, is to relate the parts to the whole. But for all his efforts at descriptive specificity, mysteries remain.
Near the end of her biography, Andrea Wulf writes, “Alexander von Humboldt was not known for a single fact or a discovery but for his worldview.” Something similar can be suggested of Gursky and his ecology pictures. The epiphany he had about the power of digital-imaging technology to render scenes in hallucinatory detail has yielded a body of photographs that, at its best, changes how we look at what surrounds us. That change often takes the form of a necessary acknowledgment: that we are entwined with everything, and everyone, else.