Against the backdrop of the much-anticipated retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery, we examine the impact of Andreas Gursky on the story of 21st Century photography, and the growing strength and impact of his work on the market.
There's a strong argument to be made for Andreas Gursky being the most important photographer in the world. He’s certainly the most lucrative. Of the twenty most expensive photos ever sold at auction, the German was responsible for taking six. (That number is actually matched by the American, Cindy Sherman, though Gursky trumps her by having sold a greater number of works for more than $1 million: nine to Sherman’s seven.)
He's beloved of curators and museum directors internationally too, his images featuring in the collection of pretty much every major institution of contemporary art. And let’s not forget the countless retrospectives he has had over the years, at venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Reina Sofía in Madrid; Centre Pompidou in Paris; and currently, as it marks its 50th anniversary, the Hayward Gallery in London. Ralph Rugoff, Director of the newly re-opened Hayward Gallery, states that Gursky is: "an artist who has created some of the most visually compelling images of his generation – work that has changed not only the vocabulary of photography, but of picture making in general. Acutely thoughtful as well as ingeniously composed, Gursky's photographs provoke us to reflect anew on contemporary social landscapes across the world."
What is it about Gursky that makes him so special, though? His formative years don't provide much of a clue. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he was brought up in Düsseldorf, where he studied photography at the Kunstakademie under husband-and-wife duo, Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their rigorous, black-and-white documents of industrial sites and structures.
The chief lesson he learned from the Bechers seems to have been that art can be found everywhere, that every square inch of our world has potential – whether it's the inactive wheel material handler in 1984’s Essen; or the architectural innards of Beijing National Stadium (otherwise known as the Bird’s Nest) in 2010’s Beijing, which will be offered for sale in the forthcoming Contemporary Art Day Sale at Sotheby's in London. Alex Branczik, Head of Contemporary Art explains: "Andreas Gurksy is a history painter for the 21st century, a chronicler of our times. While his images depict our contemporary existence, they are underpinned by an acute awareness of art history."
One of the most striking aspects of Gursky’s photographs is their size. Thanks to advances in printing techniques in the early 1990s, he has been able to reproduce them in large formats that had previously been the reserve of painting – often they’re two or three metres long. The fact he strictly limits the number of editions of each image suggests a striving to match the uniqueness of painting too. Gursky says he has “always been alert to art-historical parallels in [his] work”, and part of his success can surely be put down to this. In his early years, for example, he was fond of shooting vast landscapes, which many a commentator compared to those of his Romantic, 19th-Century compatriot, Caspar David Friedrich.
More recently, he has taken to producing views of large groups of people from on high – such as the frenetic stock market traders in Chicago Board of Trade (1997) – which might be deemed contemporary updates on Hieronymus Bosch.
In one of his most famous works, meanwhile, 1993's Paris, Montparnasse – depicting the exterior of the French capital's largest apartment block – we see what is essentially a grid that harks back to geometric abstraction. Gursky, in short, aspires to have his photography accorded the status of fine art – or, at least, have it discussed in the same breath as the paintings of past masters. Recent auction results are proof he's succeeding.
For his subject matter, however, Gursky never looks to the past. Indeed, it couldn't really be more contemporary. He’s renowned, above all, as a chronicler of global capitalism in the late-20th and early 21st Century: from seaports and superstores to factory floors, he captures it all, usually from a distance that offers a cool neutrality rather than any form of social commentary. Generally, the humans in these images are portrayed like ants: tiny, toiling and tireless, animating the bigger picture but of zero significance in their own right. As Gursky himself put it: "I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment".
Gursky's method is very modern too. He uses digital trickery to end up with scenes that aren't exactly as he shot them, presenting what might be called 'heightened reality'. Take Paris, Montparnasse, which is actually the result of shots taken from two different vantage points pieced together. Gursky thereby does away with foreshortening and gives equal emphasis to each of the block's 750 windows. In other works, his editing extends to removing, at will, people, trees, buildings and much else besides.
Like any good artist, Gursky picks and chooses what to include in his compositions and what not. It’s just that, by working in a medium that traditionally has been associated with documentary truth, he subverts our expectations.
One might say, though, that, in 2018, times and technology are finally catching up with Gursky – to such an extent that the implications of his photographic process are more pertinent than ever. In this era of "fake news" – when so much of our lives is determined digitally and photo-editing apps are available to anyone with a smartphone – how can the public trust the veracity of the images it consumes?
For an artist so alive to art history, Gursky also has remarkably few peers when it comes to engaging with the world around him.
Andreas Gursky runs until 22 April 2018 at Hayward Gallery, and is proudly sponsored by Sotheby's.