This is Andreas Gursky’s mammoth Atlanta (1996). It’s in the collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The museum is exhibiting it now in “Looking Out and Looking In: A Selection of Contemporary Photography,” a hang of pictures the museum has acquired in the last 30 years. (Did you know that the Albright-Knox has a longer history of exhibiting photography than just about any other American art museum? In 1910 the Albright presented a show organized by Alfred Stieglitz called the “International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography.” Then 65 years later, it presented what is still the most important survey exhibition of 19th-century American photography: “Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West: 1860-1885,” a show which significantly brought back Carleton Watkins from the forgotten. That show had a pretty cool poster, available via the International Center of Photography. But I digress.)
Atlanta is about six feet tall and eight-and-a-half-feet wide. It shows the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (1965-67), a hotel that was designed by architect John Portman. The Atlanta Hyatt is credited with re-popularizing ridiculously massive interior hotel courtyards. More on that in a minute. It is also the building that motivated I.M. Pei’s design for the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. The less we dwell on that, the better.
Atlanta was Gursky’s first photograph of a hotel atrium. His second was of another Portman design: The San Francisco Hyatt Regency, a picture owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum (at right, below). For reasons that will become clear in a minute, it is fitting that Gursky would start his hotel atriums with Portman’s Atlanta Grand Hyatt before moving on to Portman’s San Francisco Hyatt Regency. After those two, Gursky went on to photograph the atria of a Taipei Sheraton (1999), the Shanghai Grand Hyatt (a 2000 picture on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, the hometown museum of SOM architect Adrian Smith, who designed the building), and, at MoMA, a 1997 picture of Portman’s Marriott Marquis in New York’s Times Square.
None of these are small hotels: The Atlanta Hyatt has 1,260 rooms. The San Francisco hotel has 802. The biggest hotel of the Gursky group is the Marriott Marquis in New York, which has 1,949 rooms. In Shanghai, Gursky’s Grand Hyatt offers a mere 555 rooms, but it occupies the top 36 tours of an 88-story building, making its 33-story atrium one of the highest atriums in the world.
Seemingly everyone who talks about Gursky’s pictures of hotel atriums starts with how the size of Gursky’s pictures matches the size of the hotels. Shanghai is nearly ten feet tall. But that’s really nothing new: Since at least the early 1860s photographers have wanted to make the biggest pictures they possibly could. In 1861, Carleton Watkins even designed a new camera, a camera that would allow him to take pictures that were bigger than the pictures his competitors could take. As soon as Watkins’s camera was made, he went to Yosemite and made some of the most famous, influential photographs in American history. Size matters. (The Amon Carter Museum has noticed: Next month it will launch “Big Pictures,” which will explore this idea. Were the show mine, I’d start with one of those 1861 Watkinses of Yosemite, but as the Amon Carter doesn’t have one, it probably won’t. Its earliest Watkinses are thes 1865-66 views of El Capitan, North Dome and from Glacier Point.)
Size matters in hotels too. Massive hotels have drawn out-sized attention and, as a result, customers since at least the nineteenth century. For example, in 1875 a San Francisco banker named William Ralston built the most sensational hotel of his day. He called it the Palace Hotel. The Palace had 800 rooms, making it the largest hotel in the West. According to a 1939 book on the hotel titled “Bonanza Inn,” the Palace was packed full of every opulent everything Ralston could think of, including redwood-paneled hydraulic elevators and pneumatic dispatch tubes that shot letters and packages directly from receiving areas to guest rooms. In “Mike High Fever,” Dennis Drabelle quotes the San Francisco Chronicle joking that the over-the-top Palace kept 25,000 bellboys waiting in the basement: “When a bell is rung by some impatient lodger… a bellboy… is put in a pneumatic tube and whisked right to the room designated by the bell-dial.” The hotel’s expense — at least $7 million — helped drive Ralston and his Bank of California to bust. Five weeks before the Palace opened, a devastated Ralston swam out to into the bay and drowned.
The Palace Hotel’s signature architectural feature was a huge, central, glassed-in internal courtyard, an atrium. The original purpose of the atrium was to allow well-heeled guests to pull up in their carriages, but soon after opening the hotel turned it into a place for leisure. For Ralston as for Portman’s Hyatts and Marriott Marquis, the dominant design flourish drove attention: The atrium helped make the Palace famous around the world: It was written up all over Europe and no less an authority than Andrew Carnegie said that no other hotel building in the world was its equal.
Sometime in the late 1870s, Carleton Watkins walked over to the Palace to take a picture. On one hand, it’s a slightly surprising subject: When Ralston’s Bank of California crashed, Watkins went bankrupt. Like many San Franciscans he probably viewed the Palace as a symbol of an era gone borrasca. However, the Palace had a pretty fabulous atrium and as we all know by now, photographers can’t resist atriums. It’s a rare-for-Watkins circular-format picture, and it’s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I think Andreas Gursky would like it.