99 Cent Store

Not too long ago I was shopping in a 99 cent store in West Berkeley and was surprised to see huge photograph (or reproduction of a photograph) depicting a 99 cent store hanging on the wall.

My first thought was well, the wall decoration must be a reproduction of one of Andreas Gursky’s famous photos of 99 cent stores. Then I realized that the 99 cent store depicted in the photo looked very similar to the one I was shopping in at the time. Was it possible that Gursky’s 99 Cent, the precursor to 99 Cent II Diptych (which is the most expensive photograph in the world) was shot here, in Berkeley, where I was purchasing a 99 cent bottle of chili sauce, a 99 cent flower pot, and a 99 cent tube of off-brand toothpaste? Here’s what it looks like:

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Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent, 1999 (click to see full-size, and trust me, it's much better that way)

Although I couldn’t figure out where Gursky took his photo, I realized it couldn’t have been the store we were in; the Berkeley 99 Cent Store is brand new –  it opened in 2008, 9 years after the photo was shot. I guess the store’s owner just has a post-modern sensibility.

Gursky makes these gigantic prints by using a large-format 4×5 camera, taking multiple shots at the same site and then digitally reconstructing the image later on. The result is a huge print with surprising detail – too much detail really, so much so that in the case of the brightly colored 99 cent store, it is a bit sickening. It also creates an alien-ness to his work – he takes photographs of the familiar but defamiliarizes his subject via the impossible point of view. You know for a fact that what his camera sees is not possible and yet it is. He was on the cusp of digital technology, and his work is impeccable – no matter how hard you look, you can’t find the seams between the different shots.

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Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon, 2001, (sold for $3.34 million, most in history for a photograph)

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