When the world’s cities became the stars of the show

Andreas GurskyThe City has always been source of fascination for artists. The growth of cities in the 20th Century was paralleled by their growing depiction in art. Whereas early paintings from the likes of Edward Hopper and the photogravure prints of Alfred Stieglitz would invariably focus on individuals  within the context of the city, as the century wore on the cities themselves became the focus. Film was the natural medium for the new starring role of the City. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was seminal in its depiction of the eponymous city and throughout the 20th Century camera lenses continued to fall in love with the likes of Paris (Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville), New York (Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets) and a future Los Angeles (Blade Runner from Ridley Scott).

May Day VPhotographers too have fallen under the spell of the urban experience. One of the most important of these in recent years is the German born photographer and artist Andreas Gursky, one of whose pictures became the most expensive  of all time when it sold for $4.3m at Christie’s New York in November 2011.

Gursky is very much a man of our times in the way he documents the world and its people and places. His work frequently  depicts  large, anonymous, man-made spaces such as high-rise buildings, offices, stock exchanges, shop interiors. Invariably the human elements of the picture are either missing completely or subsumed  into the colours and textures of their surroundings. The images are sharply in focus, highly stylised and digitally manipulated to remove them of all extraneous elements. The result is photography that evokes the textures, patterns and colours of our surroundings but without a strong human element.

The splashes of colours and shapes that characterise Gursky’s images create a multitude of patterns and clusters that evoke nothing more than an abstract painting. The actual subject of the painting is subsumed by the wider structures of the environment.

Whereas  Gursky’s work recognises the relationship between people and their surroundings, he has admitted he is not interested in the individual. Nowhere is this more apparent than in May Day V. He’s been knocked recently by critics, notably because he is seen as ‘out of touch in the post 9/11 world’ according to one. But the world didn’t change completely on that day and the submersion and alienation of the individual in the modern world is an understandably persistent theme in American art in general and that of Gursky in particular.

Incubator by Boris Bochkarev

Incubator by Boris Bochkarev

In a 2001 retrospective, New York’s Museum of Modern Art called the artist’s work, “a sophisticated art of unembellished observation. It is thanks to the artfulness of Gursky’s fictions that we recognize his world as our own.” This approach to the world’s cities and the urban environment is now evident in the work of other photographers around the world including the likes of Boris Bochkarev whose depiction of tower blocks in Moscow applies similar principles of texture and light to evoke an idea of what the city stands for and what is happening within.