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.
(2) Andreas Gursky | works – Hamm, Bergwerk Ost. 2018. Andreas Gursky | works – Hamm, Bergwerk Ost. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andreasgursky.com/en/works/2008/hamm-bergwerk-ost. [Accessed 15 April 2018].
(3) Jan Schmidt-Garre, op cit. Minute 2:10.
(4) Idem. Minute 1:26.
(5) Idem. Minute 2:54.
(6) Idem. Minute 9:56.
(7) Andreas Gursky | works – Prada II. 2018. Andreas Gursky | works – Prada II. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andreasgursky.com/en/works/1997/prada-2. [Accessed 15 April 2018].
(8) Jan Schmidt-Garre, op cit. Minute 12:09.
(9) The Monk by the Sea – Wikipedia. 2018. The Monk by the Sea – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monk_by_the_Sea. [Accessed 15 April 2018].
(10) Jan Schmidt-Garre, op cit. Minute 12:19.
(11) Idem. Minute 14:32