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Is this photo worth $4.3 million?

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In this new biweekly column, art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface of newsworthy art.

What it is: This photograph, The Rhine II (1999) by German artist Andreas Gursky, recently sold at auction for $4.3 million US, a record payout for a photo-based artwork. Sceptics snorted, but clearly $4.3 mill is what the market will bear. (And when it comes to money, the art world is no more arbitrary than the "real world." You might have noticed that the value of stocks, commodities and houses has been a little volatile lately.)

What it's about: Gursky, born in Leipzig in 1955, learned the techniques of commercial photography from his father and later explored the straight-up social commitment of documentary photography. Finally, he attended art school in Dusseldorf, using the camera as part of a rigorous Conceptualist examination of perception and representation.

All three strands come together in Gursky's work in the 1990s. Disciplined, dispassionate but unbelievably zeitgeisty images of the huge, complex systems that underpin our world -- stock exchange floors, nocturnal skyscrapers, endless supermarket aisles -- these photographs somehow combine mind-blowing detail with panoramic scale.

This technical brilliance is exactly what you don't see when Gursky's images are reproduced, say, in a newspaper. As pictured below, The Rhine II looks a little like a random snapshot of a scrubby, cheerless bit of ground. But seen "in person," this 2.5 by 3-metre image would be the size of a Baroque history painting.

Maintaining clarity, precision and photographic immediacy at that scale requires meticulous handling of colour and form. Gursky digitally erased people, dogs, bikes and buildings on the far river shore to pare down this image to horizontal bands of grass, path, water and sky. The resulting image is subtle and simple to the point of abstraction, so that many critics view it as a kind of extension of German landscape painting. (Gursky's work also manages to retain its aura of preciousness in the age of mechanical reproduction: The photograph that sold at auction is from an edition of six, giving it the sexy scarcity of an oil painting.)

Why It Matters: People have been wrangling about the status of photography as art for over 100 years. These days, detractors often discount photo-based art because digital images have become so ubiquitous. In fact, you could argue that as our culture becomes inundated by Facebook photos and iPhone snaps and Internet ads, it needs astonishing photo-based work more than ever, just to make us stop and think about how it all works.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2011 G8

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