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 Message here). 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.
(5) The Guardian. 2018. Andreas Gursky on the photograph that changed everything: ‘It was pure intuition’ | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jan/18/andreas-gursky-each-photograph-is-a-world-of-its-own-best-photograph-salerno-harbour. [Accessed 15 April 2018].
(6) Hayward Gallery, op. cit. “Elevated Viewpoints” section.
(7) Idem. “Display” section.
(8) Idem. “Photography and painting” section.