Andreas Gursky Gigantic Image Constructions

Andreas Gursky in front of his image of the asparagus field called “Beelitz”;
Andreas Gursky in front of his image of the asparagus field called “Beelitz”; | Photo (detail): © Burkhard Maus

“My images are forever,” – this was Andreas Gursky’s proud statement at the opening of his exhibition in his home town of Düsseldorf (23rd September 2012 until 13th January 2013). And nobody seemed to be particularly surprised by this for the images of this photographer, who prefers to call himself a photo-artist, never cease to overwhelm and amaze the viewer.

When you stand in front of the large-format photographs that measure up to three metres in height or five metres in width, you are veritably sucked into what is going on in the image – and you are absolutely enthralled. Enthralled not just by the gigantic dimensions and the brilliance of the colours, but also by all the various, clearly visible details that come to light even in the background of the image.

No way can the human eye see so far and with such depth of focus. The perfection of the exposition gives an idea of just how much time and technical effort has gone into the work. “In the most fortunate of cases one single photo of a particular situation might be enough to create an image, but that has happened only rarely over the last 20 years,” – this was how Andreas Gursky comments on the way he works. He constructs and creates his images on a computer using a wide variety of digitalised photos.

View of the exhibition with “Bangkok” (2012); View of the exhibition with “Bangkok” (2012); | © Burkhard Maus The spectacular subjects he chooses are symbols of the ambition and the fame of the photographer who has managed to gain access to many unusual locations all over the world as well as to privileged shooting positions. The technical process he has developed of merging pigment printing with silicon and acrylic glass ensures the durability of the material.

Collectors of art at any rate seem to be convinced of his prowess. His photograph, Rhein II, was auctioned for a record 4.3 million dollars in 2011, making it at the moment the world’s most expensive photograph. And it is not even a unique, one-off specimen. A smaller version of the image is on show at the Düsseldorf exhibition. As a rule Andreas Gursky has five or six copies made of his works.

View of the exhibition; View of the exhibition; | © Burkhard Maus

Well thought-out compositions

Although his works are on show in renowned museums and have been presented at lots of international exhibitions, the Düsseldorf exhibition is in many respects really something quite special. Andreas Gursky, who was born in Leipzig in 1955, moved with his parents to Düsseldorf in that very same year and has stayed there ever since.

His grandfather was a photographer and his father is still one. Gursky first studied at the Folkwang School in Essen, then from 1981 to 1987 at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf. He was a master-class student of Bernd Becher and started his career as one of Becher’s shooting stars like Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff. For two years he has been holding a liberal arts class at the Düsseldorf academy. He was given free rein for his exhibition on home territory in Düsseldorf. What is on display has been very carefully worked out – especially the constellations in which the works are shown.

In the first image one encounters at the exhibition there is unusually little to see. And yet it is anything but an abstract. The darkness covering the whole format turns out to be the surface of water. A startlingly bright ray of light vividly sears through the left-hand third of the image. It is only when you take a closer look at the image that you notice the shoe, the magazine, a few blossoms, a piece of cloth – flotsam that has either been lost or thrown away. As is always the case with Gursky’s work one is thrilled by its ingenious composition and refined aesthetics.

In this case it is garbage in the oily river of a big city. It is the first of a nine-part series of images that was produced in 2011 called Bangkok. There are six further photo-images of this kind that play with the effects of non-figurative painting spread out significantly along the route through the exhibition – an exhibition displaying 60 works from three decades of creative production.

View of the exhibition; View of the exhibition; | © Burkhard Maus

A re-mix of well known “Gurskys”

The photo of the grey carpet in Düsseldorf’s Kunsthalle exhibition hall where Gursky’s last solo exhibition was held is to be seen along with Frankfurt – a panorama of the check-in area at Frankfurt airport, in which the departures display seems to stretch into infinity. A cold darkness pervades the seemingly surreal scene.

Gursky makes the tiny figures harvesting the white asparagus in Beelitz in the state of Brandenburg almost disappear into a minimalist structure of stripes. He endows Vietnamese basket weavers with the choreography of industrious, cheap labour. Gursky has not only photographed Prada, but also fashion shows, Formula One racing, the Tokyo stock exchange and the Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, along with huge concerts and a spectacular political rally in North Korea. He also made use of satellite images for his Ocean series. View of the exhibition with “Katar”(2012); View of the exhibition with “Katar”(2012); | © Burkhard Maus

Icons of globalisation

Andreas Gursky also selected some images from the 1980s for his Düsseldorf exhibition – from the time when formats were still manageable, technology was not so sophisticated and people could still be counted. Klausenpass (1984), for example, shows lone hikers in a sunny alpine setting on a mountain. Ten years later his mountain panorama format took on monumental dimensions with his Engadin II in which the skiers look like an army of ants. His image of an American discount shop has become the icon of mass consumption. Throughout these works the photographer’s perspective is always from somewhere far above the subject. The overview and the details merge to form various contradictory elements for interpretation. This is why Gursky’s images can be seen as metaphors of globalisation.

Again and again Andreas Gursky makes reference to works from the history of painting, as if he was trying to outdo them with digital photographic creations. The latest addition to the collection on show at the exhibition shows an interior sparkling in gold that reminds the viewer of a scene from a science-fiction film. Maybe the title, Katar (Qatar), will help people to hit upon the idea that the image is of a huge tank for liquid gas that is being cleaned at that particular moment in time. “We only had a very short time slot to take the photographs,” Gursky explains, “and we had to improvise the lighting with construction lamps.” Again and again he emphasises that he does not invent an image, but discovers it.