Last year, Andreas Gursky‘s photograph of a stretch of the Rhine river went on sale Christie’s in New York. It’s not even, I think it’s fair to say, the prettiest stretch of the Rhine. You might even call it featureless, but it does at least show the basic features of a river – water, two banks, and some sky. The sky, water, and footpath are more or less the same shade of grey, though they deepen in tone, and grow progressively narrower, from top to bottom. It has a striking symmetry, and a simplicity of structure: parallel strips of colour all the way across the image, extending into offscreen space. All is not what it seems, though: the photograph has been digitally tweaked to remove a factory building and some passersby: nothing ruins a minimalist composition like the presence of an old man walking his Shih Tzu. It’s a strong, austere image, a c-print framed on plexiglass, and quite enormous at 81 x 140 inches, but you might wonder why it sold at auction for $4.3 million (beating the previous record set by Cindy Sherman‘s Untitled #97, especially since a digital photograph is endlessly reproducible. It must look great on somebody’s wall.
I’m more familiar with Gursky’s dizzyingly detailed studies like Chicago Board of Trade (above, 1999), where the minutiae of something as potentially abstracted as a financial system are shrunk into a morass of concrete but febrile activity. It is at once systemic and messily chaotic. Rhein II has a wholly different vibe. Is it a homage to, or a parody of romantic landscape painting, or just an assertion of the singular abilities of photography to “store” a fragment of a place for our future, vicarious pleasure?