Paris, Montparnasse by Andreas Gursky

A monumental and monolithic work that reflects the form of the subject matter

6 mins

Discussing and critiquing photographs is not easy. Understanding them is complex. And writing about a single image is very hard indeed.

"an exquisitely executed but ‘deadpan’ photograph of a large, anonymous housing block"

The following is a mildly edited 500-word essay that was an assignment piece I wrote for a photography course (“Seeing Through Photographs”) run by MoMA last year. For this article, I’ve added some links to other critiques of this picture (that I didn’t read before writing mine) for comparison.ssignment

The brief was to “select a photograph or a series of photographs made by an artist you don’t know and explain why and how your choice of photograph(s) reflects the key ideas from the course module you selected”. The module I reference is ‘One Subject, Many Perspectives’.

A fine art snapshot

The photograph I chose to discuss in my assignment was ‘Paris, Montparnasse’ made by Andreas Gursky in 1993.

The image is a straightforward, rectilinear and ‘deadpan’ photograph of a large, anonymous housing block. It is an exquisitely executed colour image that demonstrates a high level of technical skill. It exists as a large format print (180 x 350cm) and communicates the enormity of the subject matter, but that makes no other comment on the subject.

The photograph is an exemplar of the ideas presented in the ‘One Subject, Many Perspectives’ module. The photographer here is presenting us with a monumental and monolithic piece of work that reflects the form of the subject matter. It is inherently fine art (as defined, for example, by the sheer scale of the print), but hijacks somewhat vernacular photography in that the subject is ordinary and that there is no narrative either given or implied. It is a fine art ‘snapshot’.

While not offering any narrative other than a visual statement of what ‘is’, this photograph provides us with a long-range view of the housing block. We can’t identify any details, but we can see the effects of human activity on the block. We can see blinds drawn at different heights; we can see colours and vague shapes in the windows. But we are removed. We are not part of what’s happening inside the block.

Our vantage point, given to us by the photographer, is designed to deliver us the subject matter ‘in its entirety’. We’re being asked to consider the question of the block as a whole. Gursky is showing us that this is modern housing. He’s telling us that this is how large numbers of working-class people are housed - and that to see the enormity of this fact, you have to stand a long way back.

The human condition

The way that this photograph was created, stitching together many images taken with a large-format camera via digital manipulation, and the way that it’s presented - as a vast wall-sized print - immediately isolates this relatively vernacular image to the lofty heights of fine art. Because Gursky has invested a lot in the making of the image, we’re invited to invest in the process of interpreting it and understanding the human condition he’s presenting us.

This picture is typical of his work in that deadpan subject-matter is presented from a viewpoint that removes the viewer from any involvement in it. Also, Gursky provides no ‘body of work’ narrative - each of his images is designed to stand on its own with little need for any explanation. Whether intentionally or not, Gursky doesn’t take the risk of narratively grouping his work such that an individual image might negatively impact the whole. This ‘anti-narrative’ is not undermined by the commonalities that exist in his work - the large scale, the viewpoints, the use of colour, the deadpan subject matter.

The perspective Gursky offers us is a function of his methods. A function of the technology he uses and how he chooses to present his work. And of course how he applies these to his chosen subject matter.

Last updated on: 25 Feb 2017 09:50 AM

Andreas Gursky Photography Critique