Since the birth of photography, there has been a common misconception that the camera never lies. In this current climate of fake news and retouched multi-limbed Vanity Fair cover stars, the question of what is real and whether we can believe what we see has never been more pertinent.
Andreas Gursky has manipulated his images digitally since the early 90’s and I have always felt an affinity with the german photographer’s work. When I edit my images, I always feel that I’ve ‘failed’ if you can see what I’ve been up to. Gursky works in a similar way, creating seemingly life-like huge scale images that are at once hyper realistic and yet somehow skewed and unreal. The image of Paris, Montparnasse from ’93 is a perfect example of his constructed reality. The image of the largest apartment block in Paris seems perfectly straightforward on first glance. It is only as you continue to look that you realise that there is no perspective, no curvature, none of the things we would see if we were actually standing in front of the building. It is only then that you realise that the image has been constructed from multiple photos from different viewpoints. The manipulated image shows the viewer an ideal view, but not the real view of the block. Magic and trickery in action.
Another example of this seamlessness is the composite portrait of four German chancellors, sitting in front of a large Barnett Newman painting. Angela leaning towards Gerhard who, as always, is puffing on a cigar. Eva, my friend visiting from Münich, remembers him lighting up whenever he fancied – the Reichstag, a tv studio or on stage, it made no difference to him! We watch them through a window, framing the scene and adding another layer of artifice – pure theatre, pure fabrication, and also an example of the humour that is often ignored in Gursky’s work. One of his most famous images is Rhine II (mainly because it sold for £2.7 million in Nov, 2011), and again this beautiful ribbon-like composition is a lie, with the offending coal fuelled Power Station having been carefully removed. But does it really matter? We are seeing the idealised version, the way we would like things to be.
Whatever his subject matter, Gursky retains a great eye for framing and composition. The son of a successful advertising photographer (who’s father was also a photographer), some commentators have written that his pictures are sterile and devoid of the human touch. I feel that that misses the point of his work completely. His work documents all human life and the presence and effects we have on the planet. This can bee seen in his earlier work in the 80s. Often dismissed as twee or pastoral, these German landscapes show people going about their business – fishing, swimming, plane spotting, they are living their lives.
Whatever subject he chooses, Gursky imbues the subject with a grandeur and scale worthy of the Abstract Expressionists. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of his major works are so vast, a reminder of that red Newman painting in their sense of scale. His Prada display case looks like a Dan Flavin Fluorescent tube sculpture and the vast ‘Kamiokande’ (the world’s largest underground neutrino detector
in Japan) looks like a glittering faberge creation, until you spy the people in tiny boats in the bottom right of the frame.
Whether it is a huge google warehouse or pollution in Bankok, the wall of an egyptian pyramid or an iphone snap out of a car window, these constructed, edited, composite images seem to be filled with a truth about the world and our existence, just as the works of Sebastião Salgado are, but in a very different way. I’ll leave the last word to Gursky himself:
“I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life, I am concerned with the human species.”
The show at the Hayward Gallery on the Southbank runs until the 22 Apr 2018, and as you may have guessed, I cannot recommend it enough.
All works ©Andreas Gursky, all text and images ©Jonathan Dredge.