Following completion of my fourth assignment for this course, I have made some notes about how I feel the outcome matches the course assessment criteria
Demonstration of technical and visual skills – Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
In this assignment, my visual skills were predominantly applied in observing the subject photograph. Informed by the secondary research, that talked about the duality of viewing when looking at Gursky large-scale photographs (a reading done at close up and another one from a distance), I spent considerable time looking as close as possible to the original photograph, making notes, but also looked at the image from a distance in situ and in print to come up with additional observations and the final interpretation of the same.
Quality of outcome – Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
The decision on how to structure and write the essay was influenced by many sample articles that I read in connection with the critical commentary of photographs, including the ones previously referenced in my research notes for this part of the course, but also the other chapters included in the book Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs by Sophie Howarth. I also looked at the book How to write about contemporary art by Gilda Williams. This was fundamental in shaping the way I approached my write-up (from the visual experience viewpoint) and provided many practical tips to improve clarity of presentation, which I hope are evident in the final essay.
Demonstration of creativity – Imagination, experimentation, invention.
I first approached this assignment thinking that I was going to do a survey of the various views about Gursky’s work and Rhine II, and that my essay was going to focus on a summary of this. However, I decided halfway through to change my perspective and re-focus the essay on a visual response after extensive scrutiny of the photograph. This was a new experience for me, as I normally have limited contact with an individual art piece and move along without exhausting my reactions. I believe that Gursky’s pieces, with their level of detail, were particularly suitable for this, but I will try to apply the way of looking at art that I developed for this assignment to future explorations.
As previously mentioned, an important part of my research was visual inspection of the photograph, but I also undertook extensive secondary research in order to shape my viewing and help me draw conclusions. This secondary research included scholarly articles on Gursky, notes and interviews from the Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue and exhibition guide, online videos on Gursky’s work, a documentary in connection with the making of Hamm, Bergwerk Ost, a video interview between Gursky and film director Jan Schmidt-Garre and the chapter dedicated to discuss Gurky in Michael Fried’s book Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. I tried to keep notes in most of these sources, but many themes were repeated and in the end I decided to focus on the ones that I considered more relevant for the assignment.
Following my primary (visual) research of Rhine II and some additional background reading and audiovisual research, as highlighted in my previous entries, I have the following interpretative comments on Rhein II:
Rhein II is a very flat picture. The lines, almost without exceptions (see my notes here), are all perfectly horizontal and run parallel to each other. The perspective used compresses the view and eradicates depth. The tones, predominantly shades of green and grey, are not particularly vibrant, which add to the sense of flatness. If one closes the eyes slightly, or were to look at this picture from far away, without knowing anything about it, it would be possible to confuse it with a microscopic cross-section of a solid object, showing the different layers that compose it, from the surface to deep down.
And in a way, this is what finally comes to my mind when I add up my visual experience of Rhein II. It is, as a whole, a progressively disturbing combination of layers:
It stars with a clear, if bland, sky. It is grey and soothing. Nothing in the sky is not supposed to be there. There is nothing to excite us, but also nothing to be alarmed about.
It then progresses to a narrow strip of manicured, clean grass, in what is nearly a vibrant tone of green, followed by almost spotless sand banks, with some intermittent rocks that are almost indistinguishable and non distracting.
It then moves to choppy waters, almost sea-like. They are like a premonition that something bad could happen, that a storm may be coming. But they also form a stable, repeatable pattern which somehow mitigates our anxiety.
Then, the first shock comes: a narrow band of black rocks, almost by stealth, clashes decisively with the water. Like a defense barrier that is too thin to be of any use, the rocks quickly disappear from our vision and then chaos begins: the wider strip of grass that follows is irregular, unkempt. It is full of debris and intersecting, winding walker-made paths (that Gursky did not care to remove, providing indexical evidence of humanity, of the reality of the river) that add to the sense of instability, of disorder. The grass in this area is also grainier, not as crisp as the narrow strip in the upper bank, and of a progressively darker hue, which sometimes looses a bit of definition.
The descent is briefly interrupted by a straight paved path, in dark, dull grey. But this is also quite thin, offering almost no resistance. The grass below continues to grow darker, with blotches of black in various places, but not as unkempt as the grass immediately above.
In an interview, Gursky has mentioned that Rhine is one of its favourite photographs. He goes on to say that for him “…it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life, and the way things are and about the fullness and the emptiness” (1). In looking at the various layers of the image, I can see where he is coming from. As in the cycle of life, one starts almost on a blank, without knowledge or prejudices, like the sky in the top layer of the photograph. As one picks up experiences and our minds begin to be shaped, we move along and begin to interact with the world with the carefree confidence that youth gives us. We can still afford to make mistakes. Life is fuller but also without consequence, still too ideal, like the narrow grass strip just below the horizon. However, as we grow older and our responsibilities start to pile up: debt, children, material ownership, we begin to feel the anxiety of modern life. This is usually brewing in our underbelly, and at first we believe that we can weather it; like the choppy, but not quite stormy waters of the Rhine in Gursky’s photograph. But for some of us, the anxiety will grow out of control, and after an initial shock – the narrow strip of black rocks hitting the water – we will wonder aimesly for a solution to our problems. Without help, our lives could quickly descent into chaos, like the lower layers of grass in the photograph. There may be some respite, a moment of temporary calm and order (the strip of path at the bottom), but this may be just temporary and the descent could continue, as hinted by the last, narrow and progressively darker strip of grass at the bottom of the frame.
If you read the photograph this way, from top to bottom, then it ends in an enigma. The strip at the end is too narrow for us to have an unambiguous message. There are signs that this strip of grass is actually slightly more organised than the one immediately above, but space dedicated to these visual clues is insufficient. Does this make reference to our ability to recover, to regain our feet? Or is it offering false hopes? We cannot tell because the image ends, but it is significant that in this way of reading it, the end happens closest to the viewer, in the foreground of the picture, as if this was a matter for our own reflection rather than for the photograph to elucidate for us.
There are many elements from the original view that Gursky left in Rhine II, but the most prominent one is the staircase cutting the upper grass band diagonally, on a third from the left. It is significant that this staircase ends neatly, flatly were the grass touches the horizon. In my interpretation, this staircase represents a desire to return to more innocent, carefree times. A desire to go back to our childhood, where all our anxiety and problems irrelevant, unknown. We know this is impossible, but we all dream and hope for it, as a way of soothing our pain. In that respect, and because our eyes always return to the staircase, Rhein II ends up providing comfort and relief without giving any hope.
(1) Ben Lewis. Gursky World. [Online Video]. 27 September 2002. Available from: https://vimeo.com/17692722. [Accessed: 15 April 2018]. From minute 22:45
The following notes are made after reading the article “Andreas Gursky and the Contemporary Sublime” by Alix Ohlin (1).
Ohlin’s analysis of Gursky’s work derives from ideas included in Edmund Burke’s eighteen century essay on the sublime, APhilosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime (link). According to Burke, as quoted by Ohlin, “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime. That is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (2). In Ohlin’s view, one traditional source of the sublime is the grandeur of nature, which could be experienced directly or, in a mitigated way, through artistic representation. The “terror” that grand natural phenomena causes, and which derives in the feeling of the sublime, comes primarily from our inability to control or understand them. In that respect, it seems natural that the ultimate source of terror is the divine, “in relation to which human beings are inconsequential” (2).
There is a direct visual connection between this human inconsequence and the work of Gursky, where in many cases images are printed very large and people are portrayed so small in connection with the frame or the main subject, that we could almost overlook them (see for instance Klausen Pass (3)), but Ohlin makes the case that in today’s world, religion as a source of the divine has been substituted by “globalisation”. Ohlin goes on to describe, quoting Frederic Jameson, the main characteristics of this phenomenon, including many often repeated ailments of contemporary society: the international division of labour, computers and automation, the new dynamics in international banking, the flight of production to Third World areas (4). Many of these subjects have become acutely in focus after the financial crisis of 2008, several years after Ohlin wrote her article, and may have resulted in political decisions that will undoubtedly have deep repercussions in our future. Other similarly relevant themes have arisen since the article was written, such as how our privacy has been turned into data that is used to manipulate our actions. If one reads between the lines, the globalization that Ohlin refers to can probably be generalised as any brutal change beyond our comprehension. Our inability to make any sense of this change, let alone to adapt to it, is what fosters that terror that connects “globalisation” to the divine mentioned originally in Burke’s treatise.
There is no doubt that in his choice of subjects (stock exchanges, vast office buildings, outsourced manufacturing facilities, port yards, online store distribution warehouses) Gursky is providing us with direct references to globalisation, and consequently to what could be considered sublime in the modern world, but Ohlin goes further by highlighting that by manipulating his photographs, Gursky is actually “…seeking less to document the phenomenon [of globalisation] than to invoke the sublime in it” (4). This conclusion is again tied back to Burke’s ideas, and in particular to what he considered to be key attributes of the sublime. This included the perception of infinity, in natural phenomena, but also in man-made structures that due to their dimensions and perspective give the perception of being boundless, something that Burke termed “the artificial infinity” (4). In many ways, Ohlin argues, Gursky’s manipulation of structures in his pictures, often combining several photographs to create spaces that are immense, much larger and all-encompassing than in real life, does create artificial infinity in Burke’s sense. Another important attribute of the sublime mentioned by Burke, and referenced by Ohlin, is vastness. This is a key attribute of Gursky’s most recent work, which tends to cover entire gallery walls and provide the viewer with overwhelming amounts of visual information, that can be appreciated both as a whole (from a distance) and in detail (from close).
What is perhaps the most interesting and possibly also the most controversial aspect of Gursky’s work is his manipulations. In addition to whatever aesthetic considerations one could make in connection with his quest for the sublime, Ohlin tries to tie her views on globalisation, namely that is a phenomenon that occurs largely unseen, difficult to grasp, “…sprawling, diffuse…” (5), with Gursky’s justification for his manipulation. This is something that has also been identified by others (see my comments on Gerald Schröder article on Rhein IIhere), and is basically the idea that Gursky’s alterations are a way of showing the “invisible” elements of globalisation; that in order to show the real impact of these changes that are beyond most people’s grasp, “…the image must be altered”(6). To make this point, Ohlin quotes Gursky in the context of him visiting industrial companies, scouting for locations to photograph:
“Most of them had a socio-romantic air I hadn’t expected. I was looking for visual proof of what I thought would be antiseptic industrial zones. If these companies had been systematically documented one would feeling one was back in the days of the Industrial Revolution. After this experience I realized that photography is no longer credible, and therefore found it that much easier to legitimize digital picture processing.” (7)
The problem with this is that if we argue that our globalisation is equivalent to Burke’s divinity; then one could conclude that like any other mortal layman confronted with a power which is so complex, elusive and beyond his control; Gursky is equally unqualified as anybody else to know what the true reality of globalisation is and consequently, the danger is that his manipulated worlds end up being nothing but a caricature of reality, based on Gursky’s prejudices about what he expected. Which then only leaves us with an aestheticized response to his work.
The following notes are made after reading an abridged version of the essay The “Authentic image of the Rhine”: A photographic icon by Andreas Gursky, by Gerald Schröder, as printed in the Hayward Gallery catalogue for their Andreas Gursky 2018 exhibition (1). As the title suggests, Schröder’s essay primarily covers Gursky’s Rhein II photograph (2). Here are some of my observations:
Schröder mentions that at first glance, the picture looks entirely plausible and it is only when looking closely, perhaps over a prolonged period of time, that one realises that something is not congruent with reality. Schröder makes specific reference to the straightness of lines, with the horizon placed right in the middle. This is a similar comment to the one made by Hilla Becher in the documentary “Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up” when referring to this picture (3)(see my discussion on that documentary here). Schröder goes on to talk about the digital signature of the final image, which he feels is evident when one looks closely, but he does not delve much on the details of what Gursky left there in the image, details that evidence the analoge origins of the photograph and that I believe have significance in the analysis (see my entry on the visual research on the image here).
From this analysis Schröder builds a theory around his view that the photograph makes allegorical reference to its origins (it is understood that Gursky constructed his image primarily from scanned film photographs(4), with the sky being reflected in the river’s water representing how an analogic photograph reflects reality (by capturing the reflected light on a sensitized surface), and the narrow strip of grassy land in the middle of the two representing the cutting of the light by the camera shutter. At the same time, the linear nature of the composition, and the regular and seemingly homogeneous nature of some of the details, in the grass and the facets of the water, make reference to characteristics of digital photography (such as linear sensor readout and pixelation). The significance of this is that Gursky seems to be intentionally alluding “…to the characteristics of the medium he works with” (5).
In manipulating the photograph, Gursky is creating an artificial construction that Schröder compares to the process of creating a painting. Rhein II has itself been compared by various critics to modernist paintings, and in particular to the work “Concord, 1949” by Barnett Newman (5), something that even Gursky acknowledges himself, as quoted in the essay (6). Schröder does not agree that the comparison is entirely adequate from an aesthetic perspective, pointing out that there is no domination by any single strip of colour in Newman’s paining and therefore the effect is not the same as in Gursky’s photograph. Somehow I came to a similar conclusion when looking at the two pieces, but my concern was more from the differences in lighting / illumination of the strips, with a clear gradation in the Gursky that I believe confers a particular meaning to Rhein II (see my comments in that respect here and here). Schröder does see similarity between Newman and Gursky’s works, but primarily in the fact that both artists seem to emphasise in their output “…the intrinsic features of the medium they are using” (7).
An interesting observation is made by Schröder, which sheds light on Gursky’s intentions when creating Rhein II. He quotes one of Gursky’s interviews, conducted by letters, in which he discusses Rhein I (8), his first attempt at this photograph, and in which provides context for his famous “authentic image of the Rhine” declaration:
“I have never been interested in people, but instead exclusively in the human species and its environment. Something similar is going on in the Rhine picture. I wasn’t interested in a unique or picturesque section of the Rhine, but rather in the most contemporary manifestation of the Rhine. Paradoxically, the authentic image of the Rhine cannot be found on location at the river itself. One requires a fictive construction to get close to a visualisation of a modern watercourse” (9) .
It becomes clear from the above, and Schröder points it out, that what Gursky is looking for is a generic image of a river, rather than an authentic representation of the Rhine in the classical sense (ie an analogic photographic reproduction of what is there). This image, which comes from his “visualisation” is not necessarily drawn from reality, but it does come primarily from the artist “immediate visual experience”, which takes precedence over “[q]uestions of social relevance and contextual strategy”, as Gursky himself expressed in a further section of the same interview quoted by Schröder. In that respect, Schröder comments that at first the removal of certain elements from the picture, such as a coal-fired power plant that should have been on the top right hand side, seems to be incongruous with the intention of showing a modern industrial river; but he believes that, because Gursky “visual experience” was focused in other elements of the scene (the sky and its reflection int the river, in his view), it was natural to see the power plant, as well as other elements not included in that vision, being removed.
Rugoff, R., 2018. Andreas Gursky. Steidl/Hayward Gallery Publishing. Pp 59-66
The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. 2018. Concord | Barnett Newman | 68.178 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/68.178/. [Accessed 20 April 2018].
The following observations are made after reading the short exhibition guide handed out by the Hayward Gallery, London in connection with their retrospective exhibition of Andreas Gursky, held between 25th January and 22 April 2018. (1)
According to the guide, from the mid-1980s Gursky’s prints increased considerably in scale, “reaching the limits of printing capacities” (2) allowing both the view from afar but also the exploration of intricate detail. The possibility of looking at the detail enable us to look at the “texture” of the print (just like in the case of a painting one could look at the brush strokes). The texture that we see in Gursky’s images are not always linked to additional clarity and is often possible to see, for instance, areas of the image which are not in perfect focus or where the grain of the film (or noise of the digital processing) become apparent. For somebody as meticulous as Gursky, who often takes over a year to produce an image (3) and is constantly reworking them (4), such “defects” are not there by mistake or casually, but should be interpreted as integral parts of the message from the artist.
In Salerno I (5), taken in 1990. Gursky makes use of an elevated, frontal and retracted point of view, and a telephoto lens to achieve a flatness and compression that would come to characterise most of his later work. Gursky calls this perspective “democratic”, and goes on to assert that he is creating worlds “…without hierarchy, in which all the pictorial elements are as important as each other” (6). This not only has a purely aesthetic effect, but also calls upon a different way of looking at Gursky’s pictures: as every item is equally in focus then one needs to assume that the artists wants us, or at least offers the possibility, to look at everything and all. And one could draw different conclusions from both readings (details and whole), which may come together or repel each other in the end. This way of seeing, however, is only possible in a gallery, where the scale of the prints allow for it.
The guide makes two points about Gursky that I feel are interconnected. The first is that Gursky’s father used to run a commercial photography studio and he grew up with “the aesthetic standards of advertising photography”, which were “burned into [his] way of seeing” at an early age (7). The second is that “Photography, for Gursky, is not just a way to document the world, but rather a way to represent his ideas about it” (8). As somebody who has been in close contact with commercial / advertorial photography since early age, one has to assume that Gursky is conscious of the interaction between the connoted message inserted in the digital manipulation, and the denoted message from the (seemingly) analogic representation of Gursky’s subjects, and how the assumed objectivity of the latter has an impact on the effectiveness of the former (see my notes on Roland Barthes essay The Photographic Messagehere). This goes a long way in explaining Gursky’s ambivalence with the subject of perceived realism. On the one hand, he puts a lot of emphasis on his end pictures depicting something that is believable, that can exist; while on the other hand, he provides clear visual clues of implausibility in many of his images (see my commentary about this here).
(1) Hayward Gallery, 2018. Andreas Gursky 25 January – 22 April 2018. Exhibition Guide. London: Southbank Centre.
(2) Idem, “Scale” section.
(3) See the documentary Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik, which tracks the work of Gursky in conceiving and printing Hamm, Bergwerk Ost over a one-year period.
(4) Rhine II (link), for instance, has been remastered from its original 1999 version, which in itself is a reinterpretation of a (very similar) 1996 image, Rhine I (link)
The following notes come from watching the online video “Gursky Work” presented by Ben Lewis and originally shown in channel 4 in September 2002 (1)
On photography and objectivity:
Lewis: “What do the Dusseldorf photographers have in common?”
Gursky: [untranslated speech]…”above all, they have a very neutral approach to their subjects. Their pictures are always totally objective”
Lewis: “And why is it art to be objective?”
Gursky: “Precisely because it is not art. That is the whole point” (2)
Gursky seems to struggle with the idea of straight, neutral like photography (which he calls “objective”) being considered art. This is something that he seems to repeat, somehow, in a later interview with Jan Schmidt-Garre (3) (see my notes on this here). I do not necessarily agree with his point of view, because a lot of artistic decisions are taken in order to come up with these straight, seemingly objective photographs. When making the comment in the video, I have the impression that Gusrky is somewhat distancing himself from the “Dusseldorf School”, something that is also subtlety implied throughout in his interview with Jan Schmidt-Garre (3), but in any case, it is clear by his recent output that Gursky has now moved well away from that objectivity that he mentions and instead produces images that show a “reality” that is a mixture of the original subject and his imagination. The danger – if one could say that, for his pictures are not to be enjoyed or exhibited as photojournalism – is that by embedding the analogic image of a subject with his own vision, Gursky is riding the latter in the public’s acceptability of the former as an objective depiction of what something truly is (as exposed by Roland Barthes in his essay The Photographic Message. See my notes here). Perhaps it is to neutralise this effect that Gursky often retorts to hyperbolic compositions (4), to give clues that something is not quite right in his images.
On the Rhine (not clear if he was referring to either Rhine I or Rhine II): “To take a picture like that, a lot has to be right…the light, the direction of the wind, an even the water level of the river”…”The Rhine is my favourite picture because it says a lot using the most minimal means. For me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life, and the way things are and about the fullness and the emptiness” (5). Just like I mentioned in my notes for the Jan Schmidt-Garre interview (link to my notes)(3) or his movie about the making of Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (link to the image (6)) – my notes here (7) – although Gursky’s images may look timeless and repeatable (something that he asserts, as discussed here), they are still taken at a precise moment when the reality best fits what Gursky has in his mind, something that Ben Lewis points out in this video (see for example, when he mentions that “Gursky is not simply waiting for any odd fleeting moment of the banal. He wants a moment when banality means something” (8)). Looking at the way Gursky works, though, his “decisive moment” of photography is likely to be fragmented into several, a different one for each element of the final image, which is then combined digitally (into what he calls “aggregate state”, as discussed here) . It is this fragmentation that leads to the timelessness feeling in some of Gursky’s photographs.
(1) Ben Lewis. Gursky World. [Online Video]. 27 September 2002. Available from: https://vimeo.com/17692722. [Accessed: 15 April 2018].
(2) Idem, minute 16:22
(3) Andreas Gursky in “Andreas Gursky in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre”, a video interview part of the DVD: Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik.
The following is a summary of my observations after looking at an interview of Andreas Gursky by Jan Schmidt-Garrre (1)
On photography and art:“I’m a photographer and I confess to that, but there’s a big difference to taking pictures at an event. On the other hand, I see myself as an artist because some of the materials I user have nothing to do with photography” (2). I found it a bit disappointing that he makes this distinction. I believe one should be capable of being an artist and just use photography as a medium. I agree with his implication that there are differences between just producing photographs, perhaps as a record or as snapshots and to use photography as the final output of an artistic process, but clearly the distinction, if there is any, between an artist and a photographer (and I am looking at Keith Arnatt when I say this) is the thought process that goes into every piece produced, not just the fact that we may use different media.
On his education / training:“It was also the case at the academy, even though it was the same for others we did less with photography and more with people from other classes…I think that everything that happened there and the effect it had on me make up my identity it’s why I’m open to different influences and why I rely on them” (3) Here Gursky makes an important point about looking for other things, to be open to other influences, and not just focus on photography. To broaden one’s horizons is important in order to activate the creative process because it enable us to be more attuned to what is going on around us, and be inspired by what we read, listen to and feel, and not just by what we see.
On following instincts / going against the grain: [on working serially like the Bechers, who were his mentors during his studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf] “…I guess I followed those rules for two, maybe two-and-a-half years then I saw that it would lead me to a dead-end in the long run. That’s when I did my first landscapes in medium format, which Bernd [Becher] rejected. He thought the subject was interesting. However, when I showed him the pictures, he said, “They are nice, but not really in focus. If you’d done them with the plate camera, they would’ve been better.” But at that time I noticed that the plate camera made you very immobile. You had to decide where to set up the camera. Then I thought about spontaneous access to subjects. Being able to just stop when you’re in the car and produce a picture within seconds was a better guarantee of success . It also became clear to me that I had to throw these strict instructions from the teacher overboard” (4). This is an important point in Gursky’s career, when he decides to break with what he was thought and follow his instinct into doing something that is different and gives different results. This does not mean that we instantly reject all we have learnt formally, but that we are able to mix that with our own experiences to make the work our own unique output. Gursky himself returned to the formal work with plate cameras in subsequent occasions, but since the early 90s he has been combining this with medium format, including digital, and his images are the product of computer-generated combinations and manipulations. In a way, he has found his own process , which includes remnants of what he learnt at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, by following his own path, and his own instincts.
On Paris, Montparnasse: (about creating this image by combining pictures from two different points of view) “You show the structure but you show it in a way that the human eye can’t see. You can see someone walking by the building. With the addition of the prints you reach the same result. For example, if you as a writer were to walk by the building, you could describe the entire building. Your focus is always where you can see into the building. Only afterwards do I thing about the moment I was there. By using digital processing [to combine the pictures], I can balance it out again” (5) The end result of this image is not the same as walking along and describing the building, because a walker, as Gursky mentions, could only focus on what he sees and with this picture more than that is shown instantaneously (you can even see the interior of individual flats in some cases), but I understand his analogy was more from the perspective of a continuous survey, something that would require displacement in order to gather the visual evidence required. And this picture is essentially about that displacement, because the flat, straight on perspective could only be achieved in that way.
On manipulation and reality: “The crucial thing isn’t that it’s captured perfectly when the photo’s taken. It’s crucial that you can imagine that something like that can exist. This is still very important to me that you don’t later say that picture is hard to believe or that it has nothing to do with reality. So the last version… – Is important to me. Simply because in my opinion life tells the most interesting stories. The imagination doesn’t” (6) There are two things to observe about this, and one is that some of Gursky’s output before and after the time of this interview (around 2010) does contain images that are indeed hard to believe. The first one that pops in the mind is Bahrain I (link) (7), which depicts a contorting spaghetti of tarmac that is clearly improbable. The second assertion, that life tells more interesting stories than the imagination, is perhaps debatable but even himself seems to be questioning that at this point, as some of his most recent output seems to be wondering into surreal territory – see for instance Lehmbruck I (link)(8)(9). On further reflection, I believe Gursky’s comments, are more to do with the connection between the artwork and the viewer. It is true that in Gursky’s output it is hard to see the “seams” where images come together, and this is perhaps what is more important to him, that there is no textural evidence (as in digital artefacts) of the manipulation, rather than if the image is implausible or not. If there is no evidence of the manipulation there is always a chance that the viewer may interpret what he sees as “objective” and the viewer would find it easier to digest the connoted message when it is confused with the analogous direct representation of reality that the pure photographic image produces.
On the qualities of his current picture output:“I maintain, with regards to my own work, that my pictures depict an aggregate state of the world and can, in principle, be completely replicated at any time.” (10) This comment is perhaps relevant in the context of the way Gursky puts together his pictures, by combining pieces taken at different times and sometimes, at different locations (in Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (11), for instance, some of the people appearing at the bottom of this image were photographed at a different location with a different camera and were not miners. They were then digitally added to the final composite image (12)), but it is not strictly true that his photographs (or photographs in general) are in principle devoid of any timing considerations. In making one of his most famous images, Rhein II (13), which also happens to be an image which is static and stripped of action, Gursky mentions that the way the wind blew had an impact on how this picture looked like. There is both an element of timing and also of chance in many of his images, something that he himself acknowledges, as it is impossible to see what you are getting until you look at the negative or the digital image in detail after taking the image (14).
[Discussing a project he was working on at the time of the interview, likely to have been V&R (15)]: “Fashion shows are short, generally around seven or eight minutes. With a film, you can really show moving pictures well. Because I’m working with photos in two dimensions, I’m compositing different moments in one photograph.” (16). This is an interesting quality of Gursky’s photos, in which he “compresses” various images into one, resulting in a multiplication of elements to create an enhanced version of reality. The trick with Gursky’s treatment is that in some cases his “enhanced” images look plausible (but in others, no, as we have mentioned above). For instance, one could conclude that in V&R the image was taken at the end of the show, when all the models go out together for one final round in the catwalk. Another image which is like that is his F1 Boxenstopp I (17), which seems like a regular pit stop image at first but in reality is the result of a combination of images where Gursky has added a greater number of mechanics than what you normally get.
(1) Andreas Gursky in “Andreas Gursky in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre”, a video interview part of the DVD: Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik.
(9) Later in “Andreas Gursky in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre”, Gursky gives a hint that this could happen when he talks about the next stage in his artistic development and mentions that “…I’ve only now reached a point where I could imagine myself really dating to take that last step and give myself over to complete artificiality or fantasy” (minute 36:12)
(10) Andreas Gursky in “Andreas Gursky in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre”, minute 38:17
(14) See his commentary on the manipulation on Rhein II (from minute 2:09) and also on seeing a person at the bottom of a draft image of Hamm Bergwerk Ost (minute 33:52), both of which can be seen in Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik. In the interview Gursky also acknowledges that even the most static of images, like the Bernd and Hilla Becher’s, are actually hard to repeat in reality (minute 18:20)
The following is a summary of my observations after looking at the documentary “Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up”, directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre (1), in which some of his photographs are discussed and we also look at this creative process, in the context of making Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (2), a picture of changing rooms in a coal mine in Hamm, Germany. The mine ceased its operations within two years of the picture being taken.
On Rhein II – In conversation with her old tutor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Hilla Becher, Gursky mentions that there was not a lot of “cleaning” done in the picture. A power plant was removed from the upper right hand side of the image, but the upper left and the bottom part are essentially unchanged (3). Becher mentions that the image, although very abstract, works for her because “…the Rhein is moving through the landscape like slime or dough. I think it has a quality that the Rhine actually possesses” (4)
This photograph was from a place Gursky knows very well, his jogging route. He took some initial pictures but he did not like what he saw in the negatives. They were different from the vision he had “the impression that led me to take the photo was absolutely unrecognisable” (5). The wind was blowing eastwards and this made the water very smooth, when in fact he wanted the water to be choppy. Although it is not mentioned, one presumes that Gursky returned to the place several times until the wind was blowing in the correct direction for the texture he wanted in the water.
On inspiration: When he was scouting the changing rooms where Hamm, Bergwerk Ost was taken, Gursky was asked to explain what was his particular interest in mining. He responded that “As often happens when I get an idea for a photo, I saw a picture of a changing room like this somewhere and it fascinated me because it is about people and about spatiality and those are the themes of my work”(6). I find that this answer summarises perfectly the inception of the creative process, when we find something (in this case a picture, but could actually be anything else, including a sound, a sentence from a book or a something that we touch) that connects with what interests us (people and spatiality in the case of Gursky, at least at that stage). The combination of these two ingredients seem to be essential to me, but it often happens that we look for our inspiration in artefacts that are too close to our previous work, or that we are not really clear in what interests us. Then the creative process suffers and becomes stale.
Comparison with other artists and other forms of art: When discussing Gursky’s image Prada II (7). Art historian Werner Spies mentions (8) the painting The Monk by the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich (9). Although mentioned in reference to Prada II, I actually see the connection between this painting and Rhein II, not only visually in terms of the layers and the choppiness of the water, but also because both pictures have an aura of melancholy, even despair (see my notes on visually observing Rhein II here). Spies goes on to say that Friedrich painting “…has a sense of “being in the picture”, almost drowning in it” (10).
On his creative process: At some point in the movie, Gursky mentions that his pictures are “…actually always interpretation of places. I work with real, authentic material, but I’m very free in my composition”…”Recolection is a good way of putting it. One sees a place the way one may describe it verbally. In literature, it is actually always accepted when certain facts and details are simply exaggerated or even added. Literature can be perceived as authentic, even if it doesn’t match the facts down to the finest details. With photography, people immediately make the complaint “It’s not the way it really is”. In that sense, what I do is not classic photography.”(11). I find the comparison that Gursky makes with literature quite interesting, in the sense that he is not looking for a record of the place, but rather to realise his recollection or even ideal vision of the place, of what it would look like. Like in literature, you can write an engaging story about a place you have never visited, and a select few that may be familiar with the location will inevitably complain that the description is not accurate. But for the majority that were never there, it really does not matter and they would still be transported to an idealised place, mesmerised by the quality of the prose. Gursky’s pictures have that literary quality to them because you know they are the work of fiction but you cannot see the seams. You can never be sure how much of what you are seeing is real, but in reality you do not care because like in a good novel, the experience and the ingenuity of the story is what really matters.
(1) Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik.
The version of Rhein II in display at the Hayward Gallery is not the original piece from 1999 (of which 6 copies were made), but a remastered version completed by Gursky in 2015. The Tate Gallery is in possession of one of the original pieces. If the picture on their website is accurate (I was not able to see Tate’s copy, which I understand is not currently in display), then the remastered version that I inspected has a significantly less detailed, more subdued and completely grey sky, when compared with the 1999 original series. That is not to say that the sky does not have any clouds in the 2015 remaster, but these are so subtle that they are only visible if you pay enough attention, or look at the image from an extremely acute angle, almost flat to the picture, from either side. From there, the long white cloud strips, around two-thirds into the sky from the top, are clearly revealed like if one were looking at holographic rather than photographic paper.
The picture occupies most of the wall surface in one of the Hayward’s top floor rooms, where the ceiling is not particularly high up, and this contributes to enhance the scale of the print, which is about 4 x 2 meters framed. There is a line on the floor limiting how close you can get, and this is about a meter in front of the glass surface, which was (unfortunately) quite reflective. This limits one’s ability to really look as close as possible, and it is a shame, because there is a lot to be said about the surface of the print. Fortunately for me, the Hayward allowed photographs to be taken for this show, and I was able to notice a couple of interesting points by examining the magnified photographs that I took with an 90mm equivalent telephoto lens.
I started my examination by looking as close as I could, starting from the sky. In addition to the comments already made above, I was looking for signs of the digital manipulation and could not find anything. There is nothing that would hint that there was a large factory looming above the horizon. The faint, narrow clouds are somewhat irregular, with no signs of repetition, as one would expect from something that may have been cloned from other parts of the image. Gursky must have sampled the sky from another photograph, perhaps taken the same day from another part of the river. I could not see any extraneous objects in the sky. No birds or airplanes. The sky, when viewed frontally, looks like an ethereal light grey mass with almost no shape, very light but also very bland.
The sky is cut, almost surgically, by a narrow and perfectly formed layer of grass, in luscious light green. The top line of the strip, the horizon touching the sky, is as straight as one could possibly imagine, so straight and smooth to arise the first suspicions that something is not right about this image, something that has been noted by some commentators of this image (see for instance my notes here). The strip is faintly divided in half by what looks like the profile of a path, which runs parallel to the horizon throughout most of the picture’s length, but that gradually slopes up, converging towards the top by the right hand side of the frame (see image 2 below). This part of the image is very smooth, with essentially no remarkable features or extraneous objects, except for a staircase, that bisects the strip from the middle upwards, at about 1/3 from the left. The staircase is pin sharp and slanted to the right, ending flat to the horizon, just touching the sky (see image 3).
Below the green strip there is a very narrow and slightly irregular strip of sand, which tone is almost indistinguishable from the water below it. Towards the middle of the picture, and slightly to the left, this strip of sand invades the green grass on top, but is a harmonious intrusion, almost imperceptible. Towards the right hand side of the frame sand and grass are separated by a small strip of darkened earth or rocks. The strip of sand, earth and rocks between the grass and the water is slightly messy, but not sufficiently so as to be visually unpleasant.
The next strip further down is water, the river proper. It is again delineated by clear, parallel boundaries. The water is choppy but not stormy, as if the picture was taken on a breezy day (Gursky provides an explanation of why the water looks choppy. See my notes here). The roughness of the surface is uniform, pattern like, and the water is of a light, clear tone, in parts looking almost as bright as the sky. Other than the slight waves created by the wind, the water is featureless and free from any extraneous objects. There are no ducks, birds fishing, boats or debris of any kind.
The water meets the next strip of land at a very narrow but perfectly delineated strip of pitch black rocks. The visual impact of this convergence between water and rock is striking, in great part due to the large difference in tonality between water and rocks, but also because there is a small hint of a white halo, similar to what you get from over-sharpening a digital image, on top of the black rocks. That is not supposed to be there, particularly in an analogue photograph (which in essence is the raw material for this image) and provides the first clue that the image may have been slightly overprinted.
It is in this strip of rock where the first sign of imperfections in the image are visible. In addition to the aforementioned halo effect, there is a rusted pipe that comes out of the land in front the rocks (see image 4 below), about 1/4 from the left of the frame, slightly to the left of an imaginary line coming straight down from the staircase in the upper grass strip. This could have been easily removed, but Gursky decided to leave there, clearly visible for those paying enough attention.
Below the narrow strip of rock there is a wider strip of grass, almost as wide as the strip of water. Unlike the horizon strip above, the grass here is of a duller, darker hue of green and looks generally unkempt. The texture of the photograph in this part is also slightly grainier than in the rest. This strip is full of extraneous objects that Gursky decided not to remove: rubbish, dead leaves and what appears to be small fallen branches. The strip is also cut at various points by what appear to be rambler-made irregular paths and small mounds, in contrast with the clear line that cuts in half the top grass strip.
The grass strip at the bottom is cut again, very decisively, by a smooth, uniform and dull grey paved path, with clear delineated lines running perfectly parallel to the lines containing the water (in contrast to Rhein I, where these lines were converging to the right). Nothing other than uniformity appears on this grey strip, but the unkempt, slightly irregular and grainy grass strip continues just below it, progressively darker as we approach the point which is closest to the camera.
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When looking at Rhein II from a distance, about 5 or 6 meters behind the surface of the print, as exhibited, it is clear that there is an overall progression from lightness to darkness as we move from top to bottom. This is only interrupted twice: first when we hit the water, which – aside from the shadows of the waves – is second only to the sky in lightness; and lastly when we meet the lower, narrow paved path, almost at the very bottom of the frame. This could also be perceived in some small book reproductions of the photograph, but is clearly visible when looking at the actual piece, specially from some distance. It is also actually measurable, as shown in the analysis of luminosity from a central strip of the print – see image 6 below. For a moment I thought this effect may be the result of the way the picture is displayed, with most of the light coming from the ceiling, but to be sure I repeated the same luminosity measurement experiment with other pictures of Rhein II available online, and the result very similar to the ones I got from analysing the Hayward print.
From afar, the photograph is very flat and abstract, with essentially no recognisable features or texture, other than the surface of the water and the small staircase just touching the horizon, which is clearly visible even from a distance, sticking out visually and demanding our attention.
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As previously mentioned, I took advantage of the Hayward’s permission to take photographs during the show and took several close-ups of parts of Rhein II where I wanted to emphasize some detail. I took with me a sensor stabilised camera which allowed for relatively low ISO values by reducing the shutter speed. There was a part of the picture, towards the right hand side, where I was getting what I assumed were constantly blurred images. The results did not change even after I cranked the shutter speed up to eliminate what I assumed was camera shake. I was about to give up, thinking that my camera was somehow defective, when I leaned as much as possible towards the surface of the print and noticed that the photograph was actually blurred at this point, the kind of blur that is noticeable sometimes when you focus-stack images in Photoshop to increase the depth of field, but the algorithm did not work properly or you did not have enough pictures to have everything in focus. I was slightly taken aback by this artefact, perhaps the only evidence that I could find of the “seams” in Gursky’s digital manipulation. The effect is only slightly visible upon close inspection, and I am left wondering if perhaps by printing the image at a slightly smaller scale Gursky could have gotten away with it.