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 (see my previous reference to this here):
“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
- Andreas Gursky | works – Rhine II. 2018. Andreas Gursky | works – Rhine II. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.andreasgursky.com/en/works/1999/rhein-2. [Accessed 20 April 2018].
- Andreas Gursky: Long Shot Close Up, 2011. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Germany: Arthous Musik.
- 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].
- 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].
- Rugoff, R. Op cit. P 64
- Idem. P 66
- 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].
- Andreas Gursky, as quoted by Schröder, in Rugoff, R. Op cit. Pp 61-62.