In the photograph, Amazon, 2016, the German photographer Andreas Gursky portrays one of the online retailer’s massive stockrooms. It is a sea of thousands of multicolored books, toys, boxes, and appliances in miles of space. But looks can be deceiving. Gursky commonly manipulates his imagery, overlapping and distorting images to make them impossibly expansive. And yet Gursky hardly ever applies his techniques to the natural world or to portraits of people. His subjects are the places of everyday life—public beaches, racetracks, storerooms—and through his eyes, it is extraordinary. His photographs give sprawling views of the contemporary world we have created—one that is exaggerated but closer to the incomprehensible truth. As Gursky has said, “I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life.”
One of the most famous living photographers today, Gursky creates photographs sought-after the world over. His Rhein II, made in 1999, was auctioned for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive photograph ever publicly sold. Eight of his photographs are among the 25 most expensive photographs ever sold, more than any other photographer. To say that Gursky dominates the medium is an understatement. But with Gursky, nothing is understated.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Hayward Gallery in London mounts an exhibition of the photographer’s work from January 24 to April 22, 2018, including roughly 60 photographs from the 1980s to the present. The show marks the end of a two-year renovation of the gallery as well as the first major retrospective in a UK institution of Gursky’s work.
“I’m thrilled that we will reopen Hayward Gallery with an exhibition by an artist who has created some of the most visually compelling images of his generation,” said the gallery’s director, Ralph Rugoff, in a statement, who also curated the show alongside Gursky himself.
Gursky uses a large-format camera to take his large-scale photographs, giving views of the 20th and 21st century as transformed by online shopping, globalization, and constant entertainment. A field of thousands of solar panels; a beach impossibly full of coordinated stripes of colored umbrellas; the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade: these are just a few of the tableaus that make up Gurksy’s world, often seen from the perspective of a godlike, omniscient narrator. His images are flat yet huge, colorful yet cold, invested in capturing our moment in history while remaining unemotional. There are no stances in Gursky’s work, only places, objects, and bodies in overwhelming, titanic displays.
“I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment,” Gursky says.
Born in 1955 in Leipzig, in the former East Germany, controlled by the USSR, Gursky lived in the midst of the postwar divide. His family moved to West Germany; the shock of capitalism, materialism, and excess would pervade his work years later. He studied with the noted photography duo Bernd and Hila Becher, whose sterile, objective images of industrial architecture influenced a generation of photographers. Here, Gursky came of age alongside today’s best-known photographers: Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Candida Höfer, all of whom were shaped by the unique character of what would later be called the Dusseldorf School. Dusseldorf photographers share a neutral, unbiased take on their subjects. Though noted photographers of the same generation such as Lauren Greenfield also depict materialism and excess, Gursky doesn’t moralize or attempt to penetrate anyone’s psychology. In Gursky’s hands, the world is flat; that is, he’s not looking beneath the surface. The surface is what fascinates him.
Gursky’s later work would echo the Bechers’ practice and images, with one major exception. Though Gursky initially took photos from real life, starting in the 1990s he began to adjust his images with the help of computers. One might argue that as the world changed into an increasingly digital one, so did the way Gursky thought of the medium of photography.
Gursky travels widely for his works, from the Americas, to Asia, to Europe; essentially, wherever modernity exists. From grandiose Chinese theaters to European techno clubs, his camera captures huge moments with cool precision.
“Everywhere you look there’s always a Gursky,” said collector Anita Zabludowicz when interviewed in a British documentary about the artist. “When my husband and I go past an airport, we always think, ‘Oh, that’ll make a good Gursky.’”
So what makes a Gursky? A high point of view; a computer-generated, multiplication of visions—the word über applies—as well as massive structures combined with large gatherings. Big spaces like clubs, racetracks, factories, and fields commonly play into the visual vocabulary of the artist, but also the places people work, shop, and live. In Paris, Montparnasse (1993), he shoots seemingly endless rows of housing, while in 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001) he trains his lens on the rainbow-colored mania of budget shopping. He also draws inspiration from art history, from Dutch masters to abstract painting. Part of his appeal lies in that, in addition to the overwhelming, information overload that characterizes his work, he can’t quite be pinned down as an artist either.
“Reality is so complex,” Gursky has said. “When you’re looking with your eyes, it doesn’t mean you’re seeing.”
The Gursky exhibition at Hayward Gallery includes major works such as Rhine II (1999/2015), Amazon (2016), and Prada II. They span his travels the world over, from Japan to Germany to France. The Hayward show also considers how Gursky’s career has changed, such as his development of a seemingly ironic interest in abstraction. Though Gursky is somewhat of a documentarian of our times, the resulting images can become planes of shape, color, and pattern as the subject gets completely blurred. Images like Shanghai or Tulips, in which the digital manipulation renders the individual objects—a balcony, a tulip—essentially meaningless, share more in common with a Rothko or a Pollock painting than a traditional photograph. Another area the exhibition looks at is Gursky’s interest in “fictional photography” in which he invents scenes that never occurred: Review (2015) presents German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her three predecessors staring at Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis. (1950–51).
Rugoff also notes that Gursky’s work, “has changed not only the vocabulary of photography, but of picture-making in general,” in his statement. “Acutely thoughtful as well as ingeniously composed, Gursky’s photographs provoke us to reflect anew on contemporary social landscapes across the world.”
And therein lies much of Gursky’s appeal: his photographs capture, however fantastically, the way we live now. And that’s something always worth taking a second—or exponentially multiplied—look at. As the photographer has said, “Vision is an intelligent form of thought.”