Andreas Gursky had trained in commercial photography at the Folkwangschule in Essen, Germany, before being accepted to study under the tutelage of photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher at Düsseldorf’s famed Kunstakademie in 1981. The couple preached a “typological” method, exemplified by their own dispassionate photographs of industrial architecture. They shunned photography as a means for snapping fleeting emotions—epitomized by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson—and instead impressed upon their students a doctrine that operated with a patient anthropological consistency, where deliberate inhibition of the camera’s use dictated what was a permissible subject and how to shoot it. Gursky’s classmate Thomas Ruff, for example, made a series of identically framed portraits (1984–1989), while recent graduate Thomas Struth had produced straight-down-the-middle-of-the-street-scapes in the late 1970s. And though Gursky also produced such governed series—Pförtnerbilder (1981–1985) concentrated on guards in corporate lobbies—the so-called Becher School photographers each wandered away from the strict formula of their masters, albeit indelibly inspired by their teaching. For Gursky, it was the lyrical work of American photographers, particularly Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, and the large backlit transparencies of Canadian Jeff Wall that proved to be the greatest influences.1 Gursky’s mature practice assimilates the powerful presence of Wall’s art and the Americans’ love of vernacular culture with the Bechers’ gaze of blank wonder.
Though their subjects are surprisingly varied—cattle ranch, discount store, glacier, trade fair, golf driving range, electronics factory, port, museum, or humble gray carpet, for example—Gursky’s photographs all share a deliciously panoramic point of view that can induce the vertiginous clarity of an IMAX movie experience. Populated with adoring stadium-rock fans, frantic stock-market traders, or apres-ski diners, his encyclopedic crowd scenes depict homo sapiens at work and at play in compositions in which Canaletto’s paintings meet the Where’s Waldo? children’s books.
The success of Gursky and his Kunstakademie colleagues heralded technical as well as aesthetic inno-vations, not least in the digital “stitching” of negatives and the sheer size of the photographic prints that this allowed. The artist’s career took off in 1989, the year the Berlin wall fell. Buoyed by the effervescent economy of the Cologne art market and the patronage of, at first, chiefly American collectors, he was able to sustain the production of unprecedentedly expensive photographs.2 With international acclaim came global travel, and as the 1990s unfolded, the locations and events that he recorded often literally reached Olympian proportions (with the Winter Games in Albertville, 1992).
The title of Klitschko, in the Walker Art Center’s collection, acknowledges Wladimir Klitschko, a Ukrainian boxer whose triumphant bout against Axel Schulz in Cologne, which earned him the European Heavyweight crown in 1999, is at the core of the photograph. Though the crowd is concentrated on the ring, the composition also apprehends the vast lighting rigs, scoreboards, and speakers that are suspended above this sporting stage. With the audience illuminated, and the postfight interview relayed onto a giant screen alongside a media broadcast—Gursky grafted in these screenshots digitally—the artist has directed this spectacle as if it were a piece of avant-garde, self-reflexive “theater in the round.”
Gursky admitted in 1992: “I am in such a tough spot with Jeff Wall. I have made pictures that you would readily take for a Jeff Wall. But these I won’t show. I know that I admire him; he is a great model for me. I am trying to get along with that in the most honest way possible and to let the influence run its course.” Quoted in Peter Galassi, ed., Andreas Gursky, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), 43. ↩
The prints eventually reached the physical limits of the paper roll, at approximately six feet in the smallest dimension. ↩