Following my visits to various shows (link), I decided to use Andreas Gursy’s Rhein II as the basis for this assignment.
I first came across Rhein II like perhaps most other people, when it made the headlines after becoming the most expensive photograph ever sold in late 2011 (1), a record that it lost a mere three years later (2). At that time I did not know anything about Gursky or the Dusseldorf School of photography, but I was intrigued by something I read about his process for Rhein II. The photograph was heavily manipulated on purpose, with many objects removed in the process, something that took me back slightly, as I still had romantic ideas about the fidelity of fine art photography at that time. What Gursky had to say about the manipulation was in a way, a watershed moment for me:
‘I wasn’t interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it. Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ; a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river’(3)
At the time, and for many years after that, I found his justification a bit pretentious. How could something be an accurate portrayal of anything if it is fictitious? There seemed to be an embedded paradox in his declaration, but shortly after Rhein II came to my attention, I started to notice other artist using heavy manipulation to produce photographs. Visiting the Photographers’ Gallery in London a few years later, I came across the work of Finish photographer Martina Lindqvist, whose series “Neighbours”(4)(link to exhibition notes from the Photographers’ Gallery) includes desolated, somewhat abandoned houses set in the middle of aseptic winter landscapes, which have been digitally manipulated to expand them and clear them of any distracting elements, a process similar to that used by Gursky in many of his photographs.
Rhein II is on paper a very simple photograph, almost abstract. In books, the only place I have ever seen it before, it looks pretty much featureless, almost too monotonous to sustain attention. However, Gursky intended for this picture to be enjoyed in detail, judging by the monumental dimensions of the original, about 4 meters long and 2 meters tall, framed behind glass. The Gursky retrospective at the Hayward Gallery offered an opportunity to have a look at this very closely, something that I thought would be an ideal challenge for this assignment.
Rhein II, as its name suggest, was not the first picture that Gursky took of the Rhine. The first attempt, called Rhein I, was produced three years earlier in 1996. The original picture (5), which I have not seen in person, is narrower than the second attempt. It is also less “perfect”: The upper bank horizon seems perfectly flat where it touches the sky, but the lines made by the lower river bank when it touches the river, and the concrete path below it seem to converge towards the right hand side of the image. None of this is perceivable in Rhein II, where the lines are all seemingly parallel. The location of both images seems to be the same (a clue to this is that both images include the same staircase in the same place in the upper bank, touching the sky), but in Rhein I the bands of grass in the upper bank, the river itself, and the band of grass in the lower bank just above the concrete path at the bottom, are slightly thicker than in Rhein II, which suggests that the former picture was taken at a slightly higher viewpoint than the second one. The impact of this, almost imperceptible, is to push the bottommost band of grass in Rhein I slightly out of the frame, thus downplaying its significance.
As mentioned above, both Rhein pictures are the product of digital manipulation, although they started their life as straight photographs captured on film (6). The extent of the manipulation is something that perhaps we will never know in full. Gursky himself seems to downplay it (see my notes on this here), but we know that at least a large structure, a coal-fired power plant, was removed from the upper part of the frame, and is likely to have occupied a material portion of what is now clean sky. Because of its notoriety as the most expensive photograph in the world for a while, Rhein II has somehow transcended the world of fine art and earned a place in pop culture; thus becoming the subject of many social media discussions (7) and eliciting all sorts of memes and responses, some of them parodic, but others more interesting. One of these responses, which I found useful as a way of “visualising” Gursky’s treatment of this photograph, is this video posted in YouTube by Benkjov (8) which superimposes Gursky’s final photograph to what the river looks like around that area.
- The Guardian. 2018. Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II photograph sells for $4.3m | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/nov/11/andreas-gursky-rhine-ii-photograph. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
- Time. 2018. Most Expensive Photo: Peter Lik Phantom Sells For 6.5 Million | Time. [ONLINE] Available at: http://time.com/3628565/most-expensive-photo-peter-lik/. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
- Tate. 2018. ‘The Rhine II’, Andreas Gursky, 1999 | Tate . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gursky-the-rhine-ii-p78372. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
- Martina Lindqvist. 2018. Martina Lindqvist. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.martinalindqvist.com/neighbours01.html. [Accessed 19 April 2018].
- Andreas Gursky | works – Rhine I. 2018. Andreas Gursky | works – Rhine I. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andreasgursky.com/en/works/1996/rhein-1. [Accessed 20 April 2018].
- See for example what is mentioned about how the picture was captured in this article from Tate: Tate. 2018. ‘The Rhine II’, Andreas Gursky, 1999 | Tate . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gursky-the-rhine-ii-p78372. [Accessed 20 April 2018].
- As an example, see some of the discussions in Reddit and DPReview
- YouTube. 2018. BEAT CLINT — the place — (Andreas Gursky – Rhine II videoremix) – YouTube. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvBN__LKq2M. [Accessed 20 April 2018].