© Andreas Gursky/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Andreas Gursky’s Amazon captures a rare moment of calm in a warehouse of the giant online retailer, devoid of the workers who typically occupy the space. The image is in crisp focus, filled with row after row of miscellaneous goods in no discernable order. In this timely work, Gursky adeptly illustrates a mass distribution system built from algorithms, its patterns so complicated as to appear odd or even random. The enormous operation inspires an archaeological approach. The artist uncovers a stratum of the contemporary cultural landscape through the documentation of an excessive amount of artifacts. What is exposed is the extreme individualization that results from consumerism, which, here, ominously approaches chaos. The company’s motto, “work hard, have fun, make history,” is seen on the columns in the background, reading more as a command than a suggestion. The viewer is left to ponder whether this mandate is directed at the workers, the consumers, or both.
Andreas Gursky is perhaps the best-known member of a loose association of German artists under the tutelage of the conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Gursky’s photos feature scenes involving enormous amounts of information. Subtly enhancing and adjusting the structure of the overwhelming visual settings, Gursky allows viewers to assimilate and consume more than we are usually able with our eyes alone. His images are symbols of both contemporary life and the classical need for order.
Gursky began digitally manipulating his prints as new photographic technologies were invented. Some technologies, including a framing system to hold large, face-mounted photographs attached to Plexiglass, Gursky even helped develop. Contained in such a frame, 99 Cent, 1999, is one of Gursky’s most iconic works and a clear example of his alteration of images for a totalizing effect. Modifications like the arrangement of the store’s product aisles and the addition of a mirrored roof flatten the image and emphasize an imposed formalist structure. The viewer must accept the (unknown) inauthentic qualities of the scene within a seemingly objective recording of our world.
F1 Boxenstopp, 2007, features four monumental images. Brilliant colors and compositional arrangement codify the flurry of organized but frantic activity of a Formula One pit row. The pit crews, placed underneath a long row of spectators, give the photographs a serene, tranquil balance despite the intense, frenzied event. The result is a typical Gursky effect, a detached aesthetic view of a spectacle that manages to retain its visual stability.