Andreas Gursky, Photographer of Globalism, at MOMA

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Andreas Gursky is the photographer of globalization. Traipsing around the globe with scads of stainless-steel luggage, he searches out and shoots the world's most colossal and up-to-date subjects. His choices are both iconic and unusual for contemporary photography: huge office buildings and hotel atriums, bustling stock markets, sprawling industrial and retail complexes, swarming adolescent raves.

Printed as large as 16 feet long and 7 feet high, Gursky's images of slick, brimming abundance picture the world as megamoguls Barry Diller and Bill Gates might wish to see it: an ocean of seamless consumerism, ubiquitous brand-name packaging, monstrous and hieratic architecture, with natural landscapes thrown in as grandiose, heroic tectonics?vast panoramas imposing and pompous enough to have emerged fully formed from the fevered, passionate meetings of the New York chapter of the Ayn Rand Society.

Gursky's photographs are massively mysterious, vividly colored vistas that manipulate and even brazenly fabricate the ersatz look of our age's seemingly overwhelming, pedestrian commercial image-world. Like postcard views of the globe's wonders blown up to thousands of times their original size, Gursky's prints capture the effects of cumulative force and mammoth detachment while uncovering, in precisely rendered, critical detail, certain repeating, regimented structures and the amazing, unexpectedly contemplative depths of their gigantic subjects.

Gursky was born in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1955, and migrated in 1957 with his family to Dusseldorf, one of West Germany's leading industrial centers. Largely destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII, Dusseldorf, like many other German cities, offers today a largely modern-built environment, complete with miles and miles of project-like, concrete and glass Neubauden, or new buildings. Gursky trained as a photographer from youth (his father and mother were both commercial photographers), and?after a brief period studying and working in the fields of photojournalism and commercial photography?fell in with what is arguably the most significant flowering of avant-garde art Germany has seen since the end of the war.

This incipient movement, based primarily around Dusseldorf's Kunstakademie, included figures like Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter and the highly influential photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Practitioners of a brand of systematic, impersonal photography, the Bechers virtually developed a cottage industry in famous shutterbugs, churning out Germany's best-known generation of art photographers. Among Gursky's fellow students in the Bechers' class were art stars Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth. What John Berger wrote about the Parisian Gustave Courbet, "The region in which a painter passes his childhood and adolescence often plays an important part in the constitution of his vision," goes double for Andreas Gursky and the hothouse milieu of Dusseldorf in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s.

The mission assigned to Gursky and his fellow students in their old-style apprenticeship to the Bechers was deceptively simple: adopt a uniform style of picturemaking, minimize human experience and the photographer's point of view, create a large catalog of pictures of the same subject, move on to another subject after a few years. All of the early work of the Bechers' students conformed to this seemingly deadening, methodical, proto-minimalist formula. Incredibly, Gursky experienced what for all intents and purposes was his greatest artistic epiphany within the severely proscribed strictures of the Bechers' rigid photographic regimen.

In 1984, while vacationing in the Swiss Alps, Gursky took a picture of a majestically large rock formation and its surrounding valley at a friend's urging. Six months later, while enlarging the negative, Gursky was shocked to find the landscape he had shot peopled by a dozen tiny figures of hikers that he, unlike his camera, had failed to register at the time. Rediscovering, in the words of Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, "one of the oldest, simplest, and most rewarding pleasures of photography?the patient delectation of details too small, too incidental, or too overwhelming in their inexhaustible specificity to have been noticed," Gursky found, however fortuitously, his highly original calling.

A decade and a half of dwarfing, massively scaled photographs later, Gursky has recently received at MOMA his first ever major U.S. retrospective. Adhering, like the Bechers, mostly to an unvarying pictorial type?large terrains populated by tiny figures captured from a God-like perspective?Gursky's 45 photographs at MOMA chart the consistent subjects the artist has virtually colonized through his meticulously controlled, wide-angled practice.

Gursky grew once modest photographs of precise, isolated phenomena into novelistic, Cinemascope-scaled panoramas of knowing, Olympian conceit, stretching the boundaries, size and ambition of contemporary photography to match that of painting and its rich history. Early photographs that depicted people, like Neujahrsschwimmer (New Year's Day Swimmers), got down multitudes with entire cities as their backdrops. Pictures that depicted individuals, such as Gursky's photograph of a speck of a cable car swinging among the crags and mist of the Italian Dolomites, framed its human passengers as lonely, insignificant nothings, both evoking and repelling references to the fantastic landscapes and Romantic ideology of painters like Caspar David Friedrich.

Gursky repeated his use of a nearly omniscient, elevated perspective, and inaugurated with his pictures of the working floor of a Siemen's plant in Karlsruhe and the Tokyo Stock Exchange a new, apparently limitless content: the world financial market. Captured in the guise of entertainment culture in Hong Kong racetracks and Dutch soccer stadiums; as politics in pictures of the Brazilian General Assembly building and Germany's Bundestag; as finance capital in portraits of the Chicago Board of Trade and an Asian bank; and as sheer, if digitally manipulated, merchandising hype in his millimetrically composed shots of a 40-foot-long Nike display and an infinitely receding 99-cent store, Gursky's photographs get down something we voyeuristically know all too well: the sparklingly colored, crowded look of gargantuan, moneyed success.

Digitally altered pictures of the high and low ends of international architecture only bring home the point more forcefully. Gursky's photograph of the interior of Atlanta's Peachtree Plaza Hotel looks like a full color, strikingly realistic version of an M.C. Escher print. His subtler, but equally vast picture of a gridded apartment building in Paris approaches the Platonic ideal of the Mother of All International Style Monstrosities. Often creating outright rather than distilling his images from those available in the world, Andreas Gursky proves by means of an up-to-date technological logic and his close embrace of the grandest sort of content a Robert Frank quote from a far more innocent age: "You can photograph anything now." Even a shifting, elusive, world economic order.

"Andreas Gursky," through May 15 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 708-9480.

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