Art review: Andreas Gefeller’s career is looking up

Mar 09, 2009

By David Schonauer

Sometimes photographers are so busy looking out at the world that they forgot to look up, or down. Andreas Gefeller isn’t particular interested in what is overhead, but he’s totally tuned into what’s underfoot.

Above, for instance, you will see his picture of a room used by students in the renowned Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany, where Bernd and Hilla Becher once taught the likes of Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff.

Gefeller, who lives in Germany, created the image by painstakingly shooting every square inch of the floor using a Canon EOS 5 with a 35mm lens, which he suspends at a height of about five feet with a boom-like apparatus that extends in front of him. (He fires the shutter by remote control.) He then stitches the scans together in Photoshop.

I thought I’d show you the image of the student room because 1) I think it’s interesting that the floor of a room used by art students appears to be a piece of art itself; and 2) the image is a fairly straight-forward example of Gefeller’s process. It makes it easy to understand how he does what he does.

But you also need to know that this room is only a small portion of the Kunstakademie space that Gefeller photographed. Below is the entire area, as recorded and assembled by Gefeller. The full scene required months of shooting and the assembly of thousands of individual exposures. Seeing the image at the size I can provide here doesn’t really convey the perspective disorientation of Gefeller’s large digital prints, or the precision of detail he is able to achieve.

Last Friday I visited the Hasted Hunt Gallery in Chelsea to look at a new exhibition of Gefeller’s work. (The show, which runs through April 25, is the second for Gefeller at this gallery.) The photographer himself was there—not an accident—and he gave me a brief walk-through. By the end of our tour, there were about 10 other gallery visitors walking behind us, raptly listening to him and his ideas about what is real and what is not, and whether there is even a difference in the digital age.   

Gefeller, who was visiting New York for a few days before returning to his native Germany, looks like a young and earnest art student, though he is in his late 30s. He started this series, which he calls “Supervisions,” in 2002, and his first show at Hasted Hunt consisted mostly of the complex floor-plan images he constructs. For the new work, Gefeller has moved outside, onto beaches, into orchards, and under water in swimming pools.

All the images, old and new, play a merry game with the viewer’s sense of reality. While the images of office suites (like the one above) seem to be taken from a god-like perspective, they show only what Gefeller can capture from his own eye-level.

“How do you show the cross-sections of walls separating offices?” I asked him.

“Well, I don’t, really,” Gefeller explained. “I will shoot the entire floor surface of an office, then shoot the floor of the hallway outside the office. When I put the two areas together in Photoshop, the visual space between the hallway and the office, or between offices, appears as a wall.”

Similarly, one of Gefeller’s new images, taken in a park, at first seems to show trees as seen from above. But Gefeller was actually shooting from under the leafless trees, not above them. What we are seeing is the shadow of the trees recorded by his camera as he walked back and forth through the park. Because he is also shooting very small areas of space from relatively close distances, the final constructed image has detail that couldn’t be captured in a single photo made from higher up.

If you look closely at the picture, you can also see that Gefeller has captured the passage of time, which is pretty hard to do in a single image. (Still photographs are usually meant to freeze moments, after all.) It took Gefeller several hours to photograph the entire area of the park, and during that time the sun moved across the sky. The shadows Gefeller captured at the end of the day splay out differently than the ones he photographed at the beginning.

“What I really like to do with my work is to make people think about whether the images are truth or fiction,” Gefeller told me. On one hand, the images are essentially documentary—Gefeller doesn’t alter what he actually records with his camera. In fact, the viewer is exposed to a level of reality missing from traditional photographs. (Because Gefeller is shooting very small areas from relatively close distances, the final constructed image has detail that couldn’t be captured in a single photo made from higher up.)

On the other hand, the image is entirely constructed, a version of reality the Gefeller imagined and created.