Charlotte Cotton (2014, 83) regards Andreas Gursky as “the figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography”. This makes his photography an ideal subject for the reopening of the Hayward Gallery, one of London’s more deadpan buildings.
The first thing to be said about Gursky’s work is that there is no substitute for seeing it in the flesh. Most of the exhibits are massive prints (typically 2 metres tall) and no reproduction in a book or on the web is going to do them justice.
Not only are the prints large but so, in most cases, are the subjects as Susan Bright commented (2011, 66)
Scale is vital to Gursky’s work – not only in his choice of subject and the way he depicts the scene but also in the use of giant format prints. These allow the viewer almost to fall into the scene and to experience it as the artist did when he photographed it.
‘Falling into the scene’ was my experience. Standing on the marked line (or inside it if there was no attendant watching), the image fills a large part of ones visual field and the experience is immersive. This seemed to be the experience of most viewers, who would alternate between the close view and retreating a couple of metres.
Gursky is one of the Düsseldorf School, having studied under Berndt and Hille Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1980s. Therefore, it is unsurprising that he has adopted their deadpan approach which is fascinating (for a while) but also rather disturbing to a viewer used to the conventions of HCB’s ‘decisive moment’ and of having a focal point and a way through the image. In most of the prints displayed, Gursky aims to fill the entire image area with equal amounts of interest (or banality in some cases). In this, he has been likened to Bruegel (Hayward gallery wall notes) but I would also cite the ‘Where’s Wally’ books of Martin Handford.
His early work is fairly conventional large-format treatments of his subjects, developing to a long-lens detached view. It was in one of these, Klausen Pass (1984), originally taken as a holiday snap, that he noted the arrangement of people in the image as a ‘perfect constellation’ and started using the distanced view as a way of exploring the relationship between people and their environments. His images of trading floors fall into this category (as well as the ‘Where’s Wally’ category) as does this one, Nha Trang (2004) where the level of detail can be seen in the larger image below. The women are making furniture for IKEA; they are wearing orange uniforms at Gursky’s request to unify the image.
Until visiting this exhibition, I had naively assumed that Gursky’s images were straight representations of what was in front of him, whether produced as a single negative or stitched together. I now know that they are composites, shot from a variety of viewpoints and manipulated in post-processing to emphasise or unify elements and, sometimes, to alter the essential truth of the image. For instance, in ‘F1 Pit Stop I’ (2007), not only has he greatly augmented the number of pit crew around each car, but the two teams are shot in different cities and only brought together in post-production (Hayward exhibition guide book)
And, in ‘Rhine II’ (1999), notoriously the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction ($4.34m in 2011) he has achieved the minimalist look by editing out significant details – such as a power station on the opposite bank. This raises some difficult questions about the nature or reality and its representation. In my opinion, it is fundamentally dishonest and negates the point of the deadpan approach. Gursky’s view is that “Reality can only be shown by constructing it … montage and manipulation paradoxically bring us closer to the truth” (Hayward exhibition guide book)
There are some individual images that I enjoyed. ‘Turner Collection’ (1995) is an image of three paintings on a gallery wall. Gursky has produced a picture of pictures at an exhibition. Does that mean that I have a picture of a picture of pictures at an exhibition at an exhibition? I also rather enjoyed the viewers of the image of flight information boards at Düsseldorf airport, looking as if they are reading the boards ‘live’.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about the exhibition. I was impressed by individual giant prints but, about three-quarters of the way round, I found myself feeling Gursky’d-out and the phrase ‘one-trick pony’ came to mind, possibly unfairly. Maybe the Hayward should issue season tickets to allow the exhibition to be viewed in multiple sessions.
Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.
Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Third edn. London: Thames and Hudson.