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 on 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 enhances 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 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 head-on, 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. To 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 lower bank 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 upper bank’s, 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 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.