The advent of photography had a huge effect on how we see the world. The first photographs, though often posed, attempted to show the world as it ‘really was’, in all its vivid detail. This moment. This object. This person. Held like a fly in amber. It became part of family ritual. The desire to record, to frame, to snap, to shoot, to capture. As photography took on the role of describing the minutiae of the everyday, painting moved away from representing reality to experiments with material that said more about the psyche of the artist than about the validity of the external world.
But with modern technology, and the feeling within a postmodern culture that there is not simply a single truth, one centre, one vantage point from which to see the world but a variety of interchangeable ways, each of which has equal validity, all that has changed. The adage that the camera never lies has been turned on its head. The camera, or a least the photographer behind it, is often, now, an unreliable narrator.
Andreas Gurksy is one such, known for his large-scale, often spectacular images that highlight our modern global economy, as well as much that is simply odd or surreal about contemporary life. Commerce, industry, tourism and sport provide his subject matter. His aim, he has stated, is to: “pursue one goal: the encyclopaedia of life”. An early photograph in the current Hayward show, Mülheim, Anglers 1989, shows a meandering river where small figures crouch in glades on the grassy banks. The soft grey- greens of water, tree and sky, broken only by tiny touches of colour of the distant people, evoke the classical landscape painting of Claude Lorraine. Yet, in fact, it is not some bucolic French idyll but the German Ruhr, an area that’s heavily populated and industrialised. The only clue is the distant concrete bridge. Gursky’s aim is always to engage us in ways that are ambiguous, even duplicitous, catching us in our own webs of preconceived notions and viewpoints.
Often, he starts with a banal image. The incidentals of the everyday that lie below the radar of more conventional photography – a game of amateur football, Sunday walkers, a field full of chickens or a municipal swimming pool – questioning what is worthy of our attention. In a number of early works he uses landscape to play with ideas of the Sublime. In Klausen Pass from 1984, a sphinx-like peak dominates a landscape where, on closer, inspection, tiny hikers are scattered across the foreground. Yet there’s something not quite right, something artificial about the image, as if, like those miniature plastic figures favoured by architects, they’d been planted there. Elsewhere, a photograph entitled Dolomites, Cable Car 1987 evokes the German Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich with its swirling white mist and mountain terrain, until you notice a tiny red cable car hanging precariously in the fog. David Friedrich is also suggested in the seemingly prosaic image of Sunday walkers standing on the edge of an airfield watching planes take off in the distance. With their backs to the viewer they echo David Friedrich’s existential figures staring out into the void.
In 1990 Gursky shifted his focus to the built environment, urban structures and interior spaces that range from the floor of stock exchanges to factories. With Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990 he introduced a unique form of all over-composition that has become his signature style. The absence of focus and perspective, of a place for the eye to rest in the chaotic hubbub of the trading floor where all are, more or less, identically dressed, not only conjures the complex machinations of the stock market but reduces the individuality of all those depicted to cogs in a global money-making machine. In the same year he produced Salerno I, a view of the Italian port taken from a high angle, where the geometric grid of cars sitting at the dock waiting to be transported in large shipping containers stands, in contrast, to the natural mountainous vista in the distance.
The grid is a form much favoured throughout Gurksy’s work. In his celebrated Paris, Montparnasse 1990, a four-metre-long photograph of the city’s largest post-war housing block, the building dissolves into an abstract lattice of competing colours that pays homage to American modernist painting. The viewer is unable to take in a single vantage point but must stand away to see the whole thing, then move close to identify the small-scale detail. The effect is both destabilizing and uncanny. Not only does the structure suggest how isolated and compartmentalised our lives have become – stacked one upon the other – but the whole has been flattened out with no sense of perspective or hierarchy. Each individual window creates a picture frame around hidden lives.
In contrast, in May Day IV, a mass of young people at an annual Dortmund rave, fill the picture space. Constructed from multiple images there’s something of Breughel here, for Gursky uses the same technique as the Flemish master. Dozens of small figures, seen from a high vantage point, are spread evenly across the central picture space. Elsewhere his images are tightly framed by the surrounding architecture. Schipol, for example, shows the empty airfield through a series of vertical metal framed windows that create a view that’s at once selective, artificial and mediated.
Included in this exhibition is one of his most well-known images, 99 Cent, 1999. Here, a supermarket mall is stacked full of brightly coloured packages. This is a landscape of instant gratification. Everything is of equal weight and value, yet, consumer choice is completely manipulated.
Gursky’s interest in painting is everywhere and particularly apparent in his images of the Rhine, 1996. Perspective and depth have been removed to leave empty bands of green and grey arranged geometrically, which evoke the abstraction of Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland.
In images such as Greeley, where a grid of cattle pens is filled with livestock minding their own business shot from above, and the beach in Rimini, also taken from a high vantage point that shows the geometric layout of the different coloured beach umbrellas, Gurksy does not draw the viewer’s eye to a single point but rather presents a democratic equalising space. He has said: “My manipulation of the image seeks to adjust the properties and scale of the tiny pixels in the back and the objects of the foreground. Figuratively speaking, what I create is a world without hierarchy.”
We tend to view our environment through a lens constructed in the 19th century, focused on the individual. But Gurksy has claimed that: “I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.” As a result, he reveals the interdependence of the modern world, linked by the far-reaching tentacles of global trade, the cycles of production and consumption. This is the photographer as sociologist.
Gursky’s work is both harsh and beautiful. His digital manipulations create hallucinatory scenes in which we can’t quite trust our senses. Things are both clear yet destabilised, easy to read yet hard to make sense of, which forces us to re-evaluate the contemporary world.
Andreas Gursky at Hayward Gallery is running 25 January – 22 April 2018
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art critic, award winning poet and novelist. Her new novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth.