Gursky attended Kunstakademie Düsseldorf as a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Becher’s expansion of the photographic medium to include ideas and approaches from conceptual art had a lasting influence on his work. Even early works show Gursky stringently pursuing a project that he himself once referred to as an “encyclopaedia of life.” While photographs such as Klausen Pass (1984), Düsseldorf, Airport, Sunday Walkers (1985) and Niagara Falls (1989) resemble landscape images at first, these are landscapes charged with the fantasies of tourism and leisure culture, infused with the longings of people eager to escape their dull routines.
Gursky subsequently expanded his project to include a broad spectrum of global mass phenomena and their architectures, from pop concerts (Madonna I, 2001) and North Korean propaganda events (Pyongyang VI, 2017 (2007)) to factory buildings (Karlsruhe, Siemens, 1991), high-rise buildings (Paris, Montparnasse, 1993) and superstores (99 Cent, 1999), stock exchanges (Tokyo, Stock Exchange, 1990), industrial farms (Greeley, 2002) and solar panel fields (Les Mées, 2016). Depicting typical manifestations of late capitalist society, Gursky documents how new forms of economic organization are reflected in everyday life, and how people adjust to a world of increasingly high-tech, boundless communication.
This quasi-documentary perspective is also reflected on a formal level. The supersized photographs typical of Gursky, some of which have the dimensions of smaller cinema screens, merge a hyperreal view of the whole with an extraordinary abundance of detail. Their foreground and background have the same depth of field. It is physically impossible for the viewer to take in the entire image and its excess of meticulously-captured details all at once. They only ever see a part of the picture. The result is a dynamic that productively disrupts understanding of the image and ensures that these works elude total comprehension.
Gursky’s pronounced interest in abstract pictorial forms was already evident in his earliest photographic works. This tendency has become even stronger in recent years thanks to digital image-editing processes. Gursky employs digital techniques in a variety of ways: to remove or add pictorial elements, emphasize details, seamlessly assemble an image from smaller photographs or manipulate perspective. In general, these interventions seem to aim at overwhelming the viewer with detail, creating a particularly Gursky-esque version of the sublime. And yet the photographer also seems to pursue painterly impulses in pictures such as from the Ocean (2010) or Bangkok (2011) series. Although they remain true to the photographic medium, these works recall the visual vocabularies of Post-Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism. In this way, the photographer emphasizes an aspect that runs through his entire oeuvre: Each of his photographs also explores photography itself as a subject matter—its cultural codes, art-historical practices and various ways of creating meaning.