Last month I visited the Andreas Gursky exhibition at the newly opened Hayward Gallery in London. Gursky is a photographer I have followed for many years and I remember when his celebrated – and the most expensive photograph in the world – Rhein II(1999) hung alongside the elevators in the Tate Modern. One of the things that has always fascinated me about his work is his ability to question the world though photography.
Andreas Gursky is a German photographer whose parents owned a commercial studio. He didn’t start out wanting to be a photographer but ended up at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1980, studying with some of today’s now most well know photographers: Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candid Höfer and Axel Hütte. The Düsseldorf School, as they are known, were greatly influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher whose distinct photographic style is like an encyclopedia of the industrial era. For me their photography also asks questions about the world, showing us how similar and distinct things can be.
Andreas Gursky at the Hayward
The exhibition at the Hayward is engrossing and very well curated. While there is an element of chronological progression, the curators also invite comparison between Gursky’s images allowing themes to show themselves. Artists tend to return to ideas and subjects again and again, trying to find perhaps the answer, or the best way to phrase a question.
In his early works, such as Ratingen, Swimming Pool (1987) or Klausen Pass (1984) there is a focus on what Gursky decribes as ‘the figure in space’ and the ‘human and their surroundings’ [Interviewed by the Financial Times]. The people appear like a constellation, dotted about but not the focus of the image. There is something insignificant about the scale of the human in these images that seems to ask us the consider our place in the universe. The high detached viewpoint has a feel of the anthropological, almost like an alien observing us and I am reminded of characters from sci-fi series, like the Observers from Fringe.
The human in its environment
As his work developed Gursky refined his focus. Paris, Montparnasse (1993) shows us how we interact with our space. In each window we can see the minute details of people’s lives, speaking to our similarities and to our curiosity about others. Our lives appear like small cells in the block, neatly contained. The image is enormous. There is no way to take in all the details at once and you end up moving backwards and forwards to see the whole and the details.
This macro / micro element of Gursky’s photography is integral to his work. The size of the prints is as important as any other aspect of his creative process. By making the viewer move physically to engage with the images, he asks us to think about how we see the world. What do we actually seein our day-to-day lives? How do we process all the information? These might be specific places with specific people but they point to a more universal problem.
Consumerism in photography
A running theme in Gursky’s work is consumerism: how goods are produced, how they are distributed, the financial systems in the background. This is a question I always feel that I am fighting. There is so much about the way the world works that I don’t understand that these images while amazing and disturbing me, also seem to highlight how little I know, a veritable contemporary encounter with the sublime. Although these are very much images made by Gursky, triggered by things he has seen and felt about the world, I find the photographs to be open enough to allow me to make my own conclusion, based on my own concerns and cares about the world.
Not immediately obvious is the extent of the manipulation and construction of the image in Gursky’s work. No matter how much we know about digital manipulation, subjectivity and the cropping of the frame, we are hard-wired to see a photograph as a document of the world. I work with photographs every day and I will still glance and take the image I see as reality. The majority of Gursky’s photographs are composites, made up of many different photographs. They are carefully spliced together, colours changed and enhanced, elements repeated, perspective changed. Gursky has often spoken about how his images are ‘made’ not ‘taken’, highlighting the different relationships we have to photographs. A family snapshot might be ‘taken’ to commemorate a moment, a professional photograph is more often ‘made’ through the years of experience of the photographer.
Photography asking us questions
The image manipulation helps to make his photographs into a clearer reflection of the world through his eyes. They are closer to the purpose of art in my mind, asking us questions and provoking debate. To me they are very much about how life feels now: overwhelming in our impact on the world; our ignorance of the world despite our overload of information channels; and our complicated relationship with the truth and reality.
Andreas Gursky is on at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre until 22ndApril 2018. Open 11am to 7pm (closed on Tuesdays), I recommend booking and going on a weekday if you can manage it. This is a thought provoking exhibition by a photographer who has a genuine interest in the way humans are impacting the planet. To see all of the works I have mentioned and more, check out Gursky’s website.