Gursky at the Hayward

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.

References

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.

Advertisements

Study Visit -Deutsche Börse and Roger Mayne at the Photographers Gallery

This was my first OCA study visit and an opportunity to meet coursemates and a tutor face-to-face. Robert Enoch and 15 students from all levels visited the Photographers Gallery to view the Roger Mayne retrospective and the shortlist for this year’s Deutsche Börse  Photography Foundation Prize.

However, first we had a peer-review and criticism session. Most of us had brought some work to show, most of it assignment work or ‘serious’ documentary. I was a bit embarrassed to be the only one with a personal project (EYV work is with assessors, and I haven’t started serious photography for C&N yet) of a more pictorial type. However, they were kind enough to say nice things about my ‘back garden macro’ project and offer some names of photographers worth researching.

IMG_1333

Deutsche Börse shortlist

Sophie Calle

Calle is a conceptual artist and photographer, nominated for a piece of work involving a postcard set – which is not best suited to a gallery environment. The work on display is another project ‘My mother, my cat, my father, in that order’ reacting to the deaths of her parents and her cat over a short period. It is presented as a set of photographs or objects, each juxtaposed against a piece of writing. This was the display that appealed least to my coursemates, but I found some resonance as the loss of my own parents is recent enough to have empathy.

IMG_7433

Awoiska van der Molen

Van der Molen makes large monochrome abstracted landscapes. Displayed without titles or indication of location, interpretation is left very much to the viewer. For instance, the darker image below is solid black and dark grey, with two white ‘scratches’. My first impression was of a volcano with narrow lava channels; on a second viewing I think I see light-trails on distant mountain roads.

With the dark and rather contrasty printing, my overall impression was of sombre, or even sinister thoughts.

It must be said that the lighting in the particular gallery (a mix of window light and spot lighting) is not ideal for viewing large semi-gloss images as it was impossible to get away from reflected highlights, as seen in the first image above.

Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg’s project ‘Imperial Courts 1993-2015’ follows from a 1992 assignment to Los Angeles to document the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. She revisited one housing project in 1993 and made numerous further visits between 2008 and 2015, building a relationship with the community and following the lives of its residents over an extended period.

There is some ‘urban landscape’ but the majority of the images are large-format informal environmental portraits. It is interesting to view the different attitudes and body language between the male and female subjects, and to speculate on how much that was influenced by having a female photographer. The student discussion was inconclusive but this is a topic that I may revisit in a future posting.

If our group were the Deutsche Börse judges, this would be the winning project.

IMG_7453

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

This is the story of a 50,000km ‘road trip’ from Switzerland to Mongolia via Russia and various ‘Stans. Onorato and Krebs recorded the journey on a variety of analogue media including 16mm movie and 5×4 large-format film. The result is shown in a darkened room with movie and slide projectors running simultaneously.

Of the things that I saw on this visit, this is the display that spoke least to me and I dismissed it as a exercise in presentation style rather than content.

Roger Mayne retrospective

The other major exhibition at the Gallery is a retrospective of Roger Mayne’s images of street life in the 1950s and early 1960s. The majority were taken in and around South Street, North Kensington but there are also some from the Raleigh factory in Nottingham (1964) and the (then) new Park Hill estate in Sheffield (1961-65). The high-contrast monochrome style and the post-war background are similar to what the trio of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy would be doing in fashion photography a few years later. I also found some images evoking the spirit of the cartoonist Giles.

Many of the street photographs show children in unstructured play, in environments that would make a health-and-safety officer blench. This led to at least one discussion between coursemates on the topic of how children’s play is depicted then and now. Will a future historian look at the current photographic record and ask ‘Where are all the children?’. The answer is twofold, many of them are indoors in front of a computer screen but, also, photographers are afraid to take candids of children for fear of modern attitudes to ‘child protection’ (see conversation in Howarth and McLaren 2011, 236-237)

Martin Parr

As an unexpected bonus, the print sales space in the basement had a small exhibition of some of Martin Parr’s early monochrome work (he moved exclusively to colour in 1986). The quirky observation and humour were, clearly, with him from the start.

Reference

Howarth, S. and McLaren, S. (2011). Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson.