Photography is something that I have always had an interest in, before my interests in art, design and architecture; probably because it is the most accessible for people to view and partake in. However through studying art, design and architecture I’ve gained a great and useful knowledge of photographers from commercial, fashion and art styles. In 2014 I visited an exhibition at the Barbican in London, Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, which I was amazed by, most notably so for the photographer/artist Andreas Gursky who was new to me, from then on I became fascinated by his style of work. Upon seeing he had a new exhibition in London I had to see it for myself.
Andreas Gursky is known for his large-scale photographs and images that portray emblematic sites and scenes of the global economy and contemporary life.
He is widely regarded as one of the most significant photographers of our time.
The exhibition at the re-opened Hayward Gallery (January 2018) was the first major UK retrospective of his work, featuring around 60 groundbreaking photographs from the early 1980s through to his most recent work; also including some of his most ionic images.
The Hayward Gallery is one of the sections of the monumental Southbank Centre complex in London along with the Royal Festival Hall, the Saison Poetry Library, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room (also the infamous Southbank Skatepark); together they form Europe’s largest centre for the arts. As a fan of mid-to-late 20th century, angular, concrete architecture aka Brutalism, the Southbank Centre is one of my favourite places in London to visit, with its abundance of cafés, restaurants, small shops, location by the Thames and general cultural buzz; it’s a great place to relax and admire.
After a 2 year refurbishment, costing £35m, the Hayward Gallery re-opened in January 2018 to a widely positive response. I must admit that, to my knowledge, I had never visited the gallery in its previous state however from what I have read, seen from photographs and heard, this new version is less of a re-design but more of a refresh by generally cleaning up the space through subtle and considered details.
Again, to go on about concrete, the walls and staircases throughout the gallery have been immaculately cleaned giving the material an interesting texture which feels industrial but in the context of the gallery space feels sculptural. The imposing staircases inside also have an outdoors feel to them as they echo what is on the exterior of the building (albeit recently painted yellow); this enhances one of the features of the Southbank Centre which is its numerous indoor/outdoor terraces across multiple levels.
Why is this important though, the refurbishment, the concrete and the staircases? To me, it gives context to the artist of whom the Hayward Gallery is presenting the work of: Andreas Gursky. As previously mentioned the exhibition is the first major UK retrospective of his work and when paired with the gallery re-opening it creates a great combination.
Andreas Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, East Germany and later escaping to West Germany via Essen to Düsseldorf. Gursky’s parents established a successful photography studio where he spent the majority of his childhood regularly playing with the studio equipment. He studied photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen (1977–80), and the Düsseldorf Art Academy (1980–87), where the photography course was ran by the esteemed conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher and whilst at the Academy, Gursky was taught alongside Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer and Axel Hütte; a group of successful artists/photographers who have since become known as the Düsseldorf School.
The Bechers were known for their devotion to the 1920s German tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity: a movement developed as a reaction against expressionism), also known for their typological black and white photographs of industrial structures including water towers, gas tanks and factories. Presented in groups and grids almost always with each object in the dead-centre of the frame and at eye level; through their work they strived for precision and comparability; each photograph has a inherently personal feel like a portrait of a person however their images never included people. Their work portrayed an overlooked beauty and the relationship between form and function. Both subjects addressed the effect of industry on economy and the environment.
“We photographed water towers and furnaces because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do — that is what we liked. A person always is what she/he wants to be, never what she/he is. Even an animal usually plays a role in front of the camera.”
–Bernd and Hilla Becher
Gursky and his fellow students modified the conceptual approach of the Becher’s by applying new technical possibilities through their personal and contemporary vision, whilst still keeping the documentary method their tutors promoted. Through their photography they chose themes which were strongly determined through culture such as different types of architecture, cityscapes, (man-made) landscapes, (group) portraits and interiors. Whilst the Bechers worked predominantely in black and white and at small sizes, their students often opted for colour and large images.
Andreas Gursky is arguably the most successful photographer/artist of the Düsseldorf School, through his large format photographs he captures the modern world with its landscapes, people, architecture, and industries in seductive detail. Often shot from an elevated perspective and produced on an epic scale, his images show the individual embraced by the masses and/or the encompassing environment.
This level of detail, combined with the grand scale of his images and the vibrancy of colour is what draws us in as viewers; it is easy to get lost in his images; moving from one section to the next whilst becoming transfixed on a particular part. Also through digital manipulation he creates impossibly complex images and compositions.
This exhibition at the Hayward featured around 60 of his photographs and include all the images for which he is known for. At the start of the exhibition, a series of images documented Gursky’s initial interests in photography, exploring this relationship between people and the environment. A lot of the photographs here were very focused on nature with a lot of trees, natural water, hills and and sky; a stark contrast to the more technical and modern content in his later work.
This last image here, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Angler symbolises this landscape series well. It explores how our landscapes have been altered by humans; these humans often always dwarfed by these landscapes. This image has that picture-postcard feeling of somewhere not too distant in Europe, a tranquil river creek with luscious trees; a group of anglers sit peacefully on the bank; however the motorway bridge visible in the background tells us that they aren’t too far from the city and their ‘peaceful’ activity would be constantly disturbed by the noise of car traffic, a constant reminder of human activity.
Not at the start of the exhibition, but towards the end yet still focusing on a natural landscape, is one of Gursky’s most famous photographs; albeit with a very minimal landscape; the photograph in question is Rhine II. The photograph, taken in 1999, portrays a perfectly pristine river, the image featuring only horizontal bands of sky, water and grass; although the image is not actually true. Gursky is also known for his manipulation of photographs, often stitching together multiple images and in this case editing out significant details such as a power station on the other side of the river to create this perfect photograph, in his own words:
“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.”
This 3 metre wide photograph is known as the most expensive photograph ever as it was sold for $4.3 million in 2011.
This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable — I should say unforgettable — contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.
–Florence Waters: The Telegraph.
Despite being his most valuable photograph, there is a photograph more important to Gursky which is Salerno, a photograph which went against all he had been taught: “It was pure intuition”.
In an interview with The Guardian, Gursky explains how he was driving with his family in Naples when he came across the harbour with the sun setting when he knew he had to capture it despite it being everything that the Bechers (his teachers) had taught against: photographing with sunlight, blue sky and strong shadows but he said he was overwhelmed by what he saw. The complexity of the photograph with the vast amount of goods, cars and containers.
When you look at the photograph it’s difficult not to be sucked into it, immediately your eye is drawn to the rows of white, black and red cars and which then lead you around the coastline towards the containers on the left and almost through the apartment complexes and around the mountains towards the top of the photograph.
He saw this pictorial density as a pattern and he opened his eyes to the industrial aesthetic; to him it opened up a new sense of possibility both stylistically and thematically.
He saw the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail; the more and closer you look at the photograph you begin to see all these details such as the typography on the ships, the different shaped cars and the logos, flags and symbols on the vehicles.
Throughout the rest of the exhibition and Gursky’s work in general architecture and structures play a dominant role; both public and private spaces are explored and documented in his photographs. The context being the way in which architecture frames and packages our everyday experience.
One factor is the scale of human to structure and particularly how we are in awe of our own creations; exemplifying a sense of industrial and technological capability. Not only depicting large structures though, Gursky also chooses to sometimes focus on non-heroic parts of buildings such as floors, lights, ceilings and more mundane objects; creating patterns and semi-abstract images; both of these styles of architectural photography result in breathtaking, provoking and at times perplexing images.
What I find most impressive and interesting about Gursky’s work is how he is able to draw you into his photographs no matter how simple or complex they are; the singular image tells one story and there are often stories inside. He is the master of the large format image both in terms of how he captures his images using a large film camera for incredible detail and how they are displayed at huge scale to show this much detail.
Gursky often refuses to comment on his own work, preferring to let the images speak for themselves and allow the audience to ascertain their own opinion; which adds the initial mystery of his work. At first glance his photographers are simple and standard; a clear representation of every day life and reality–nothing special. However Gursky is about this, showing what our reality is like, it’s an ambition to capture ‘the encyclopedia of life’. His work focuses so much on what we as humans are and do; it is a “series of anthropological studies”.