Andreas Gursky @ the Hayward Gallery

I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life. (Andreas Gursky)

Andreas Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, in what was then East Germany, before he and his family escaped to West Germany, settling in Düsseldorf, where he grew up.

Gursky’s father was a commercial photographer and young Andreas spent hours in the treasure trove of his father’s studio, absorbing the power and persuasiveness of strong, clear images, and becoming highly literate from an early age in the technical complexities of photography.

The aesthetic standards of advertising photography were burned into my way of seeing at an early age.

I first became aware of Gursky’s work when I went to the big retrospective held at the Serpentine Gallery back in 1999.

He is best known for his enormous, panoramic, colour prints of scenes which convey the complexity of late-twentieth century life, often teeming with people or indicative of huge and complex technologies. At that point, in the late 1990s, his approach could be epitomised by his photographs of stock exchanges, especially the Chicago Board of Trade photo he took in 1999, which became widely known.

London’s Hayward Gallery has been closed for nearly three years. It is marking its re-opening with a major retrospective of Gursky’s work, which now covers forty years and features 68 stunning colour photographs, eight of which are being exhibited for the first time. The exhibition puts the famous panoramic photos into the broader context of his career, showing how his style evolved from simpler beginnings towards the aesthetic summed up by the the stock exchange shots, and has continued to evolve in the twenty years since then.

Pyongyang VII 2007/2017 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Pyongyang VII 2007/2017 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

This photograph of the opening ceremony to the Arirang, a massive annual gymnastics festival in North Korea, typifies many aspects of Gursky’s work.

  1. It is enormous, the height of a door and about one and a half doors wide
  2. It is taken from very high up, from a commanding vantage point far from the subject
  3. It is emblematic or symbolic of a certain kind of modern life e.g. display in a totalitarian regime
  4. It features people, lots of people
  5. Technically, it is all in focus – he doesn’t use focus to create a more blurred background and therefore give a sense of depth and perspective: everything is present

This last point leads to what I found the most insightful comment on his works, which is that – all the details are of equal importance. Usually, in any of the thousands of images we see all day long – newspaper photos, magazine photos, billboards and hoardings and adverts, posters, stills on TV or on any one of millions of websites and phone apps – usually a photographic image has a focus, a subject, it promotes and foregrounds something (most often, when you think about it, a person – a politician in a news outlet, a film or pop star, sometimes a product in an ad etc).

On the contrary, in a classic Gursky shot, all the details are treated equally. This is so contrary to the normal practice of ‘the image’ and so contrary to our trained habit of ‘looking for the subject’ that I find this by far the most striking and unsettling aspect of his work.

Amazon, 2016 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Amazon, 2016 by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

The result is that you tend to be overwhelmed not only by the size, but by the intensity of detail everywhere in his photos – for example, in this 2016 photo of an Amazon warehouse.

And this psychological response is appropriate to his subject matter because the classic Gursky is a panoramic view of scenes which are emblematic of the modern consumer economy – scenes like the Amazon warehouse, a hectic stock exchange, desolate plains covered in plastic in Spain where much of our fruit is grown, a huge shot showing the zigzag route of the Tour de France down a mountain which is littered with human spectators, their cars, media vans, an oppressively tacky Wal-Mart supermarket in America, or the huge panorama showing the complete departure board at Frankfurt airport completely dwarfing the handful of impotent little humans at its feet.

Frankfurt 2007 by Andreas Gursky

Frankfurt, 2007 by Andreas Gursky

That is the ‘classic’ Gursky look, if you like, and it is difficult not to be awed by the sheer scale, the fullness of detail and the classic square-on composition of the images, as well as amazed, dismayed, startled etc by the scale of some of the subject matter – like another photo of vast fish processing plant where workers are slaving away in orange overalls, or one of an enormous network of cattle pens on a ranch in Texas.

But what makes this exhibition more than impressive is the full context it gives to Gursky’s development and this means exhibiting quite a few photographs from early in his career, back in the 1980s where he hadn’t yet developed his signature approach. These are, for a start, smaller, and often of simple landscapes.

There’s a normal size black and white photo of a glacier, a photo of a handful of cyclists who’ve stopped on a Sunday outing to lean against the fence of an airport and watch planes taking off and landing, titled Düsseldorf airport, Sunday walkers (1988). This latter typifies his early habit of shooting people from quite a distance, so that they are dwarfed by natural or man-made scenery, and also from behind, so we don’t see their faces, but they become deindividualised mannekins.

One or two have what you could call a focus, what Roland Barthes called a punctum, a small detail which draws the eye towards it, like in this shot of a cable-car eerily disappearing into the mountain fog of the Dolomite mountains.

Dolomites cable car 1987 by Andreas Gursky

Dolomites, cable car 1987 by Andreas Gursky

Then there is the ‘mature style’ of the monster panoramas of the late 80s and through the 90s, but the exhibition then continues on to more recent work in which Gursky has experimented and branched out. This became clear (to me, anyway) with a characteristically enormous photo of rooftops of a suburb of Tokyo. What was new was that the foreground was blurred and, the wall label told me, Gursky had deliberately inserted blurred elements sporadically throughout the image, to experiment with the effect.

It was only at this point that I really registered what the wall labels had been pointing out for a little while, which is that many of the most iconic panorama shots are in fact heavily doctored in post-production. Many of them are in fact made up by splicing together a number of smaller in-focus shots or, as the commentary puts it:

Over the past three decades Gursky has increasingly made use of computer-enabled post-production techniques to make photographs whose scale, precision, composition, and complexity are unprecedented and have critically expanded the possibilities of the medium.

Thus I was a little staggered to learn that the dramatic F1 Pit Stop (2007) whose symmetry and colour contrasts look a little too be good to be true, is in fact way too good to be true: not only are certain elements of the scene touched up and transposed to create a clearer composition, but the two pitstop teams were actually photographed in different cities and brought together via sophisticated post-production. And there are some people who still say ‘the camera never lies’ – the camera does nothing but lie.

This aspect of post-production manipulation of images became really the more overt in the final room which shows Gursky experimenting with the new(ish) technology of mobile phone cameras.

Instead of the high vantage point panoramas, a number of shots in the final room are designed to convey the sense of blurriness and speed experienced looking out the window of a train or a car, as in this photo of Utah.

Utah (2017) by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

Utah (2017) by Andreas Gursky © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017 Courtesy: Sprüth Magers

It’s still big, it’s still of the human influence on the landscape, but the style is significantly different with its deliberate use of blurring and the horizontal lines along the top of the rocks signifying the blurry effect of the frame of a car or train window.

There’s more, a lot more, including several stunning photos of light reflected on the oily black water of the klongs in Bangkok, a powerful shot of the ship container port at Salerno, which contrasts the landscape painting-type beauty of the hills in the background with the enormous wasteland of rusty containers and vans parked in a huge car park in the foreground.

Taking the high vantage point theme to extreme limits there are some examples of the Ocean series he made in 2009 and 2010 which splice together satellite images of the world’s oceans, using up to date digital post-production techniques, not least some awe-inspiring views of Antarctica from 35,000 kilometres up, which gave me vertigo.

Or this work, Bahrain I taken in 2005, a typically panoramic view of the Bahrain International Circuit built to host Formula One motor races.

Bahrain I by Andreas Gursky © Courtesy Monika Sprueth Galerie, Koeln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2018

Bahrain I by Andreas Gursky © Courtesy Monika Sprueth Galerie, Koeln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2018

Gursky’s photos are works of wonder in their own right – they capture and record all kinds of aspects of our modern environment-destroying, wasteful consumer culture with often terrifying clarity – and this exhibition sets them within a fascinating overview of the development and evolution of his style and approach.

This is a great exhibition with which to welcome the shiny new refurbished Hayward Gallery back to the front rank of London art galleries.

Installation view of Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery

The promotional video

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