Size—as any visitor to the Museum of Modern Art’s terrific Andreas Gursky exhibition will tell you—matters. The monumental scale of Gursky’s photographs turns the often all too passive act of art viewing into an intensely physical experience. Confronted with high-gloss color images that loom nearly seven feet high and stretch up to 16 feet long, we respond to their imposing, even intimidating, size before we comprehend their content. Photography, once thought of as an intimate, privileged window on the world, has become a very public movie screen over the past two decades, and Gursky is its IMAX.
When it comes to working large, Gursky is far from alone. Recent shows by Hiroshi Sugimoto, Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Demand, Vik Muniz, and Charlie White (the last three still running) featured photos that had to be measured in feet, not inches. Thomas Ruff has turned uninflected portraits and scrambled porn into heroic iconography, Mariko Mori fills walls with her hallucinogenic sci-fi panoramas, and Chuck Close has nearly matched the colossal scale of his painted heads with equally confrontational photos. The much reproduced Inez van Lamsweerde image included in the Whitney’s devilishly diverting “BitStreams” roundup—the massive Me Kissing Vinoodh (Passionately), from which the photographer’s collaborator-lover has been digitally disappeared—ups the Gursky ante by coming in at a billboard-sized nine by 16 feet.
Although big photography isn’t entirely new (Richard Avedon, who has been making outsize prints since 1962, first showed his life-size group portrait of the Chicago Seven in 1970), its ubiquity and prominence is. Grand scale has always been about ambition—about the urge to dominate and to inspire awe. But for some time now many artists’ impulse to supersize it has been mostly a matter of keeping up with or besting the competition. Laurie Simmons, whose wonderful early pictures could fit comfortably into the average desk drawer, admits that she and her contemporaries Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, and Barbara Kruger started to make bigger and bigger pieces in the ’80s in order “to compete with the guys.” Like other artists who used photography and showed their work in art galleries, Simmons and crew “wanted to hang next to painting,” and eventually they all did. But their largest photos seem rather modest. Advances in technology and materials have made giant prints not just possible but available to more artists. But when virtually everyone is striving for new levels of drop-dead monumentality, size loses its power to wow and becomes almost beside the point.
Van Lamsweerde’s piece is a perfect example of scale for scale’s sake. While the image—a freakishly eroded figure isolated in profile against a brick wall—is undeniably arresting, its size is utterly gratuitous. The same photo is reproduced in the “BitStreams” pamphlet at four and a half by eight inches, and it loses nothing but its pretension to grandeur. Gursky, on the other hand, is all but meaningless in reproduction. As packed with specific content as his photos are, they are not mere information (which is all the printed page can easily convey), they’re objects whose deliberately calibrated impact isn’t dependent on boffo subject matter. In fact, some of the most spectacular pieces in the Gursky show are of decidedly unspectacular subjects: a rough patch of dirt road in the sun, a ceiling full of gridded light fixtures in Brasilia, and an expanse of gray industrial carpeting in the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle. In his savvy, lucid catalog essay, Peter Galassi, the exhibition’s curator, describes this last image as “a picture of radical emptiness,” and its combination of meticulous realism and lost-in-space abstraction comes as a relief in a show dense with detail and incident. But Gursky can fill a huge photo edge to edge with people and things—from frantic rave parties and stock market trading floors to busy harbors, racetracks, and ski slopes—and still achieve what Galassi calls a “hypnotic stillness.” Along with an unerring sense of composition, this eerie stasis (which is partly the result of Gursky’s detached, often omniscient vantage point) gives even the most amorphous mass a shape and imposes order on subjects that would otherwise sprawl out of control.
MOMA’s show also includes several early (mid-’80s) Gursky photos in much smaller formats. Though their subject matter—Alpine landscapes, leisure sports—isn’t appreciably different from the later, larger images, they have little of the rigor or exactitude of that work. But it’s really their scale that renders them negligible at MOMA. Maybe they’d look better bigger, but because they weren’t conceived on a grand scale, I suspect they’d simply fall apart. Gursky’s enormous photos may be mock magnificent (they simultaneously inflate and deflate global self-satisfaction), but they’ve earned their size; they don’t just take up space, they command it.
Because so many large photos seemdriven by market forces rather than aesthetic imperatives, few achieve this intelligent fusion of style and content. Not many artists are working with the sort of aggressive monumentality of scale that Gursky commands, but plenty of them are pushing into the wall-grabbing territory formerly reserved only for paintings. For too many photographers, however, bigger is not better; a weak image doesn’t suddenly look important when it’s blown up to the size of a store window (most egregious case in point: Micha Klein). Sure, genuine artists have all this in perspective. Look, for instance, at the current shows by Jeff Wall, whose peculiarly resonant narrative fragments are at Marian Goodman, and Annette Lemieux, who hangs diaphanous photomurals (including one of the artist walking on water that’s 16 feet wide) at McKee. But with pointless gigantism rampant elsewhere, smaller photos—even those that were once considered large-scale—are looking better than ever.
It’s hardly a matter of small is beautiful. There are just as many bad little pictures as there are mammoth monsters. But there’s something to be said for restraint. Bill Jacobson’s recent color photos—New York streetscapes dissolving into impressionist reveries—measured a sensible 30 by 36 inches, large enough to engross but not overwhelm the viewer. The pictures in Justine Kurland’s new show (at Gorney Bravin + Lee, 534 West 26th Street, through April 14) are just as neatly contained at 30 by 40 inches, and their relatively compact size is itself a wonder. Kurland photographs young girls—imaginary runaways who’ve lit out for a quasi-Edenic territory all their own—in wide-open landscapes, from broad green lawns and misty fields to seaside cliffs and desert wilderness. Because each of her narratives is grounded in a location that evokes flight and freedom, Kurland’s scope is expansive. She often appears to be spying on her subjects from a safe distance, and in some pictures, we can see for miles beyond the scattered figures in the foreground. The temptation to go very big with these photos must have been hard to resist, but Kurland’s decision to scale them down is smart. She allows viewers ample space to enter her world, drawing us in with suggestive, if enigmatic, detail while keeping us at the same respectful remove she herself maintains. She isn’t mounting a spectacle, she’s spinning a fragile, intimate tale—one that requires the sort of quietly observant participation you can’t engage in from across the room. If Gursky makes us stand back and gape, Kurland invites us to come closer and, like her feisty girls, escape.