The street photographer Garry Winogrand once said, “Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.”
Winogrand, who stalked the pavements of New York ready for a chance encounter to transform into subject matter, could hardly be more different in approach to Andres Gursky. Yet his ideas about changing facts with the four edges of a photo frame is just as appropriate.
Gursky adopts what you might call an impossible point of view: a photographer who’s post-shoot manipulations provide vast panoramic vantage points, often involving the digital splicing of numerous images into one grand perspective.
What is Andreas Gursky proposing when he presents one of his epic photographs?
A photograph such as Paris, Montparnasse (1993) seems to offer an analysis of our highly atomised world: an essay in repetition, an enormous structure dwarfing the people who use it, whose absence indicates their inconsequentiality, the monumentality of the system against the individual.
These themes occur again and again in Gursky’s work. Immediately the mind turns to narratives of globalisation and commercial expedience, how these forces act at the cost of the human need, the organic and the natural. Gursky’s world is the antithesis of the Bloomsbury ethos.
But is this reading already assuming too much? Gursky gives us images of stuff in great quantities: products lined up on shop shelves, a mass of human figures at a rock concert, hundreds of windows in a building, an Amazon storage depot crammed with millions of items. But he is not telling us how to think about them.
We look and we marvel at it uncomfortably. The formal arrangement is pertinent; a classical composition, based on rules of balance, symmetry and harmony. In all, he seems to work in praise of the monumental – the twenty-first century shrine, monolith, temple, tomb, mausoleum.
Gursky likes to print his images on very large scale paper. Think Monet’s water lily series at the Orangerie, Paris. So as you approach a work it fills your field of vision. As well as enveloping you, the technique also has the effect of encouraging you to forget about edges of the picture, to disregard what lies beyond, and to overlook the very deliberate cropping that Gursky undertakes.
Was there ever a photographer who didn’t crop with deliberate intention? Most likely not, but with Gursky the cropping leads to a sort of sanitisation or purification, so we see only the effect of the unceasing mountain of stuff and nothing else. By removing the beginning and endings he manages to suggest an infinity beyond the frame. Thus, the mindlessness establishes itself first in the quality of the unfathomable.
This, it seems to me, is Gursky’s proposition – no more and no less that a nudge in the direction of strangeness. He is after the paradoxical metamorphosis that occurs in the quest for more and more precision: the more precise it is – the more detailed, the more realistic – the more abstract and stylised the view it becomes. So we marvel at the human systems that have arrayed this stuff; there is something unnerving about how mindless it all appears.
Some commentators have noted Gurky’s use of aerial vantage points and praised them for their going-beyond of normal reaches of human perception. This seems like feint praise to me; have we not all stood on a tall structure (a building, a hill) and looked down on the world? I don’t think Gursky is trying to break out of the ground-level viewpoint or to offer us something original in this sense. What I think he wants is for us to participate in his sanitising project. An aerial or distant viewpoint helps because it contribute to the silence. Silence is important, because his images crave to render the monumental in our landscapes. In this, Gursky has learnt from his teachers Hilla and Bernd Becher, who photographed and documented the disappearing German industrial architecture. The silence of their images dramatises the obsolesces of the industrial hinterlands; with Gursky, silence is transformed into an alienating disturbance.
Andreas Gursky, The Hayward Gallery, London, from January 25 – April 22, 2018.