This is Photography: The Alien Vision of Andreas Gursky
Marshall McLuhan tells us that technology is an extension of the body. But could it be the other way around? Look at Andreas Gursky’s photographs. How is it precisely these images see? This is not a vantage point anyone could enjoy. And we’re not just referring to the spatial perspective, a perspective that is strange enough, an impossible perspective, a perspective that could only come from somewhere else—from a UFO, perhaps. We’re referring to how these images see, how they gather up the world. What kind of seeing is this?
Everything is in equal focus. There is no center, no place that is distinguished from any other place. There is no hierarchy. Which is to say, there are no categories, there is no knowing, not even a concept. Nothing is an example of anything else such as, say, a concert or mountain or swimming pool. Gursky’s images are stupid. The human and the natural are splayed along a common plane, as if these eyes—or at least this seeing—could not distinguish between human flesh and a rock. When this seeing takes up a concert or a mountain or a soccer field or a swimming pool, it can’t distinguish between people, trees, lines in the terrain. Everything that enters the visual is just another mark, an inflection of space, a modulation of light. Even a shelf of Prada shoes is stripped of its cultural or iconic or referential currency. When the title utters, “Prada,” it’s not a declaration or dead pan commentary but an almost child-like babble: Prada.
These images do not come from human eyes, from eyes enmeshed in the world. There are no referents; these are not records or monuments (even if the images are monumental). They are not expressive of anything; they do not proffer commentary on the contemporary or the dehumanization of life. Nothing has been captured; no experience has been recorded. These images are so thoroughly stupid that the human, like all other categories, never coheres, never assumes categorical distinction. No, these are not human eyes that see.
Nor are they divine. After all, God is omniscient; He certainly knows the difference between a human and a rock. It’s not even the view from Olympus for while Zeus may not be omniscient, he certainly dabbles in human affairs enough to know what’s what. This seeing comes from an impossible place; these eyes are neither human nor divine. They are alien eyes.
This is not an extension of our eyes but a fundamentally different way of viewing. This is an invitation to the strange. This is what makes Gursky’s photographs so foreboding: when we look at them, we are not witnessing an extension of our own eyes. Nor are we looking at anything per se; these images do not proffer objects. When we look at a Gursky photograph we are not seeing things but seeing seeing, a kind of looking. Or rather, we see a seeing and hence see as this seeing does. To view Gursky’s images is to see as an alien; to view Gurksy’s images is to become alien.
Gursky’s images are not really photographs in that they are not images taken by someone, somewhere. Gursky does not capture what he sees. On the other hand, maybe these are the only photographs in that they see as the camera sees—indifferently, stupidly, everything in focus. Gursky offers us camera-vision, utterly indifferent, without categorical distinctions other than the modulation of the visible. Gursky rids his art of the human, takes himself out of the picture, as it were, and lets the camera do the seeing, photographs without photography, without a photographer. This is why his images share such an affiliation with surveillance photos, photos without a photographer, without consideration, an anonymous visual sweep. (One may object that these images have been created—modified—by computer software and that, therefore, they are not camera-views. But that is to assume that the camera begins and ends with the lens. Photoshop does not come after the image; it is the camera still working.) As one views Gursky’s images, then, one sees as a camera; one becomes a camera. Technology is no longer an extension of the body; the body becomes an extension of the technology.
Is alien-vision the same as camera-vision? Clearly not: while the camera is stupid, the alien may enjoy a different kind of thinking, an unrecognizable thinking, an organization of time and space and knowledge that eludes our perception, like the “certain Chinese encyclopedia” that Borges stumbles on. That is, whereas the camera doesn’t categorize at all, the alien enjoys impossible categorizations. And yet the alien and the camera share a non-human mode of seeing. To see as a camera sees, just as to see as an alien sees, is no longer to see as a human: it is to become something else.