Photography: The bigger picture

Andreas Gursky's photographs are monumental, detailed documents of a post-industrial world populated by teeming, insignificant humans. Look and wonder, says Robin Muir
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orth of Cologne and deeper into Germany's

industrial heartland, the city of Dusseldorf

sprawls along the banks of the Rhine. It is the embodiment of Germany's post-war economic miracle, emerging from the rubble of the Allied bombardments of Westphalia and the Ruhr as a leading commercial entity, home to the country's most active stock exchange and, as a manufacturing centre, regarded as the country's fashion capital. It's also home to the Staatliche Kunstakademie which, for the time being, is the most influential art institute in western Europe.

Forty-four-year-old photographer Andreas Gursky has been marked for life by the city and more particularly the Rhine, to which he has returned time and again. His ew Year Swimmers 1988, a panoramic view of the city cut through by the river, its banks teeming with onlookers and passers-by, is nothing less than a contemporary Canaletto. He revisited it several years later for Rhine 1996, a digitally enhanced landscape devoid of human presence, a simple swathe of water, two riverbanks and the sky.

The city's pioneering art school has been the springboard for a generation of German artists who have won international acclaim. Of the six contributors to "Young German Artists 2" at the Saatchi Gallery in 1997, five trained at the Kunstakademie - and still live and work from the city. They included Thomas Schutte, whose amorphous aluminium giants showed in London earlier this year. His tutor, Gerhard Richter, professor of painting, is currently showing recent works at the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in London, while Bernd and Hilla Becher, a professional duo from the department of photography, are publishing a retrospective of their magisterial documents of industrial architecture: the water tanks, gasometers and cooling towers that punctuate the industrial landscape of Germany and beyond.

Apart from Gursky, the Bechers have nurtured the careers of many of the leading names in contemporary photography, among them Thomas Struth, Jorg Sasse, Candida Hofer and the portraitist Thomas Ruff. But they do not form a "School of Dusseldorf", more a loose-knit association with a shared heritage, but they are ineluctably united by their peculiar and individual reactions to the surface of the world. "They seem to share and to convey," the critic Greg Hilty has said of the new German artists, "through very different bodies of work, a sense of perpetual wonderment that the world has turned out as it has."

But of all of the Becher's pupils it is Andreas Gursky, winner of last year's Citibank Photography Prize, whose reputation has soared the highest, with shows around the world, from Athens to Zurich. He acknowledges that there is a "Becher circle", "which sometimes causes headaches. The more success we have had, however, the more we have learnt to deal with such things more calmly - thank God! It would be a sorry state of affairs if my artistic development were to depend on the results of my colleagues' work."

An exhibition of Gursky's monumental pictures reaches the Serpentine Gallery early next year from the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf (whose carpets, incidentally, feature in one of Gursky's photographs). Though he claims to photograph little more than he prints up, he is fond of a maxim attributed to the American documentarist Gary Winogrand - "I take photographs to see how things look when they've been photographed." And there is much you can see of his work: the Tate Gallery owns some and Charles Saatchi, too; there are at least three monographs in circulation, hardbacked reverential studies, as well as several flimsy-covered, museum-sponsored catalogues. This is an artist whose time it appears has come, as any one would attest who was held up in the bottleneck of admirers lingering over his floor-to-ceiling pictures at the show of shortlisted Citibank entries in March at the Photographers Gallery, London. And perhaps it is worth mentioning that of those five shortlisted candidates, three were German - though it was no doubt gratifying for other educational institutions to discover that two of them did not attend the Kunstakademie.

It is easy to see why crowds cluster near Gursky's pictures. They are, on the surface, undemanding landscapes, and, as each panorama is governed by its own formal logic, each stands alone. He enjoys the vastness of the environment seen from a distance, on most occasions a vantage point that allows the viewer to sweep down and wonder at the insignificance of the human figures caught below. Such a grand vision makes perfect fin- de-siecle iconography, explorative surgery to relieve our pre-millennial anxieties.

In Gursky's pictures we are left awestruck and isolated in the face of natural phenomena or trapped, like the office workers of Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, 1994, in the monolithic steel-and-glass structures of our own creation. His most celebrated photographs reveal the dealing floors of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to be little more than compartmentalised battery farms, and the headquarters of overpeopled conglomerates as seething ant colonies. The notion of the masses in thrall to the vagaries of capitalism and industry is after all nothing new to the German psyche. It intrigued its Expressionist auteurs and contributed to the azis' expansionist Lebensraum policy. Gursky's impossibly detailed Chicago, Board of Trade, 1997 is a contemporary rendering of the an older mise-en-scene: the swarms of anguished, gesticulating children from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. "I am never interested," says Gursky, "in the individual, but in the human species and its environment."

Gursky's horizons are broad. He has ranged the world - Times Square, ew York, Brasilia, the Grand Hyatt Park Hotel, Hong Kong, the iagara Falls, Cairo, Atlanta and the Paris car fair - to reveal to us that life is different everywhere but yet the same in the end, at least in drudge and relentless mundanity. He reveals our isolation by concentrating on vignettes of life lived at its most banal or, as Hilty has put it, those moments of "sublime tedium". A famous image shows cars stacked up at a cross-Channel terminal, their drivers awaiting instructions to embark; another a crowded restaurant in St Moritz with its homogenised fittings and potentially identical shrink-wrapped food. He enjoys a critique of our foolish consumerism, "the fetishism", he calls it, "of our material world". Untitled V 1997 is a display of nearly 200 training shoes, while Prada I 1996 is a parade of exquisitely presented, beautifully lit footwear. Prada II, a year later, is an empty vitrine, still beautifully lit. Furthermore, at least for his earlier work, Gursky chooses to photograph locations which, if not familiar, are the sort of places that we feel we have been to before: cafes and restaurants, ski-resort queues, leisure centres, and building sites.

His work is vast in scale and in content and, as far as his panoramic landscapes are concerned, easily assimilable if you stand far back enough. The broad sweep of history has touched his work: it is reminiscent of Mathew Brady's eerily silent landscapes of Civil War America or the boundless, unpeopled vistas of the Crimea by Roger Fenton. They are as intense and considered as paintings. Gursky's range after all is much the same as the classical pre-occupations: architecture, landscape, still life and abstraction. "The history of art," Gursky has said, "seems to possess a generally valid formal vocabulary which we use again and again."

Though he appears to be moving towards abstraction and a collusion with new technologies, the art of photography still has him spellbound: "Despite the fact that I have 20 years' experience in photography, I still find developing negatives is like alchemy. Again and again the results can be extremely surprising." And in this context he is reminded of a comment by Gerhard Richter - "I see millions of pictures, photograph thousands and opt for a hundred which I paint ... "

Though the pictures of Andreas Gursky are fleeting moments of modern life, they are the antithesis of the "snapshot aesthetic". They are formally - and beautifully - composed, and as the century draws to a close, the climate chillier, the forecast unchanged, Gursky's works make photography a grander art for the millennium. "There is clearly a common language," he has said, "comprehensible to all human beings, which could be called the language of pictures."

In 1929 a book pivotal to the German "ew Vision" of photography was published in Berlin, setting down an agenda for the future of avant-garde photography, Es Kommt Der eue Fotograf! ("Here Comes the ew Photography"). Seventy years later out of Dusseldorf and from the rubble of history, here it comes again - the new German photography!

The photographs of Andreas Gursky can be seen until 18 October at the Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf and at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 21 January- 7 March 1999. The book `Andreas Gursky - Photographs 1994-98', is published in Britain by Art Data, price pounds 39.95.

Above (here shown vertically) Cairo, Diptych 1992 (1.29 x 1.54m) Right, top Times Square 1997 (1.86 x 2.5m) Right, below Engadin 1995 (1.86 x 2.91m) Previous page Paris, Montparnasse 1993 (2.06 x 4.06m)

Clockwise from top left Swimming Pool, Tenerife 1987 (1.07 x 1.31m); Siemens, Karlsruhe 1991 (1.75 x 2.05m); Hong Kong, Island 1994 (1.25 x 1.55m)

Above Untitled V (in collaboration with ina Pohl) (1.86 x 4.43m)

Right Union Rave 1995 (in collaboration with Stefan Hoderlein) (1.86 x 3.05m)