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Gursky’s photographs are a disquieting but valid way of looking at the modern world. It is often claimed that his work offers a critique of capitalism and the gigantism of the modern global world — vast, faceless spaces for production or consumption, the industrial scale soullessness of modern farming and mass tourism — but his photographs can equally be seen as non-judgmental. “I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life,” he has said, but whether the entries in that encyclopedia are good or bad is not his concern.

A photograph such as Paris, Montparnasse (1993) is four metres long and shows the city’s largest post-war housing block — a front-on cliff of apartment windows, innumerable identical spaces each differentiated by their curtains or blinds. The building resembles one of those ant farms of childhood though with hardly an inhabitant to be seen. Here is a structure that perfectly exemplifies Le Corbusier’s “machine for living”, a vast Mondrian grid into which human lives — absent and present — have been inserted.

Gursky’s interest though is also formal and technical. The viewpoint is impossible: he could not get far enough back to photograph the endless horizontal swathe in one go so he took multiple images from two different points and digitally combined them. The magnification he achieved turns the real into a near abstract, a panorama with a rhythm of its own, and does away with the idea that, at heart, photography is all about single-point perspective. His aim, he says, is to merge foreground and background into a single entity: “I call this the democratic view.” Without a clear focal point, every inch of the image is as important — or unimportant — as every other, “which completely dispenses with hierarchy”. This is not a subject in a setting but the setting as the subject.

What is perhaps most potent about Gursky’s photographs is that they fight the eye’s natural instinct to home in: he homes out. Nor does the knowledge that he has digitally altered images put the photographs into the realm of invention: his post-production additions, subtractions and flattenings are designed to increase each image’s sense of instinctive reality, not to give them artificiality.

His are not comfortable images: they show that we design buildings intended to function rather than enhance, that we are largely blind to the patterns that are intrinsic to both the natural and man-made world, and that even en masse — lining the side of a mountain road up which the Tour de France cyclists will climb or pulsating in our thousands at a May Day rave in Dortmund — we are just flecks. In this image-saturated world Gursky gives a fresh twist to the old saw: in the age of the photograph, where we perceive everything through pixels, man is just another pixel too.
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