A Photographic Mind

An inadequate explanation of my passion for photography

Andreas Gursky retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, London

“My images are always interpretations of places”

Over the past 10 to 15 years I have repeatedly seen some of Andreas Gursky’s better-known images in the photography media and been unable to engage with them, partly because I was aware of the fact that there are varying degrees of manipulation in them. I have tended to find obviously manipulated images of most kinds relatively uninteresting. On Friday last I had to be in London for a conference, but my morning was free, so I booked online and went along to see if I reacted differently to the things themselves, in full size, at the Hayward Gallery.

The exhibition is a fairly full retrospective with 68 images on show, of various sizes, displaying Gursky’s range of image making subject and presentation decisions over the past 30 years. The development of his thinking and techniques is well documented in the statements and individual image captions that accompany the images, without them becoming overly international artspeak, academic or long.

It would be easy to say that the early work presaged the final destinations, and in some senses it does – the development of a more distant view of landscape that encompasses more detail and includes people, the interest in masses of data in complex scenes. But the eventual arrival at the large-scale, reworked imagery, has taken his work to another dimension that I found I engaged with very strongly. This was unexpected for me, and I understand that some people feel it is on a par with their engagement with Rothko’s large scale canvases, which I experienced myself in the Rothko Chapel and Menil Museum in Houston, but didn’t connect with, 15 years ago. Probably it’s me that’s changed in the interim – there were some strong echoes of my own journey in photography, though nowhere near as deep and prolonged as Gursky’s. The early work – exploration of the social uses of landscape – is a common interest for me and I would like to have seen more than the small selection that is in the show (if there are more in the projects that Gursky did).

The works that I really found fascinating started with “Montparnasse, 1993”, an image that was also a book that I had a chance to buy for myself some 15 years ago and passed up (I think it was £200 at the time and now dealers list it at £3,000). This perspective corrected amalgamation of several photographs is engaging at one level as a comment on humans living in regulated identical boxes that they somehow make their own. There are some little details that attract attention, such as an artist’s easel in one of the apartments, and a few people are caught unawares near their windows, but in a way the frustration is not being able to see more to confirm the individuality of the residents within the unforgiving and inflexible grid. The perspective “correction” emphasizes the rigidity of the grid, but I also found that the brain’s attempt to comprehend the mass of visual data and its implications to be important – my brain asking “how can I take all this in?”, “how can I comprehend what it means?”

My response to “Rhine II” (see image at the top of this article) was less a rationalization than an acceptance that the deliberate removal of detail had created something that at the same time engaged me thinking about the essence of the landscape, but also gives an increased awareness of what we do to the landscape when we install all our activity and industry and wealth extraction mechanisms on it. The photographic material technical and editorial fictionalizing enables the contemplation of the essence of what was there first. I think that this is what Gursky may mean when he says: “I am interested in the ideal typical approximation of everyday phenomena – in creating the essence of reality.” Imagining what has been taken out in looking at an image, for instance Rhine II, helped think about what has been left in the image means, represents and allowing myself a subjective response to that and what it feels like. I found that I could look at this image for a long time.

By contrast, in “Tokyo, 2017”, displayed both inside and outside the gallery (above), I found a serendipity connection with photos that I had made on way into London on the train that morning. I had realized that the view from the train track was a different set of data of what peoples’ lives look like – the backs of their houses, the back yards of their businesses – a more private, slightly voyeuristic, view, rather than the more tidy and restrained one you get from the normally seen street view of the “front of the house” view of their lives, whether personal or commercial (see my image below).

When I got to the Hayward I found that Gursky had been exploring the same issues, in 2017, of how to show the complex of multiple impressions that you see from a moving train or car, and how you might capture and present that to see what we can learn and understand of the complexity that we see. His response to the technical issues was to accept the possible out of focus blur as a part of the consideration, but he has stitched together many images of the same scene to achieve a new fiction in which “Gursky has described the relationship between construction, documentation and authenticity in his work as similar to the way that we might recall a landscape glimpsed from a moving vehicle”. You get an impression, not a detailed image in sharp focus. His more blurred work, “Utah, 2017”, makes this point better in my view, and is indeed more “cinematic”, as the caption describes it, than the more static feeling blur of “Tokyo, 2017”.

The day before I went to the exhibition, I was at a lecture on the financial services industry and in particular the view that the City of London is a an offshore tax haven for all the dirty money from the rest of the world and a sector that does not create wealth, but leeches it out of all the other commercial activities it touches. So Gursky’s complex images of an Amazon warehouse, a 99 Cent supermarket, the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Chicago Commodities Exchange had resonances for me with the complex activities of those enterprises and the fact that the vast majority of the world have no idea how they really work and the inconceivable amounts of money they make for their major stakeholders.

The details of course, can be telling. For instance in the Amazon warehouse image – where they have slogans of inducement to the workers on the warehouse pillars – “WORK HARD” “HAVE FUN” “MAKE HISTORY’ – that have chilling echoes of another “systematic” approach to the uses of humanity. In the 99 Cent supermarket image there is a person between the aisles in a mask like the ones used by the Occupy movement members. Go find these details for yourself.


For me the main images caused me to think about the conflicts between perfection and reality; the conflicts between social organization, industry and humanity. About the reality of what something is rather than what it forensically looks like in a traditional photograph. And about the fact and fiction debate; whether docu-fiction is no less a narrative about what it is to be human and exist in our world and the idea that a fictional construct can demonstrate the core characteristics of a reality that a stringently factual and “accurate” portrayal may not.

The work is also about the patterns and ruts of our lives that cannot be clearly seen when viewed close up, or indeed in the more distant perspectives that we are used to as our brain interprets what our eyes see, or with the particular perspective distortions of the cameras that we are used to using to memorise the world we have experienced.

So is what Gursky’s images are showing us, the complexity of modern life as portrayed in the massive tsunami of visual data that hits us daily, and what kind of narrative that we take on board from it of our part in all that, and so what it might mean for us in how we construct what purpose we can from it? For me it is that, rather than about the endlessly repeated questions of the nature of photography and the photographic document.

I could go on writing about this exhibition for pages and pages and pages. I may well go back for a second viewing. Go and book yourself in soon.

Note for visitors:

I was fortunate that the timing of my ticket was immediately after opening, and there were therefore fewer people before me as I walked around the show, so I got several minutes with each image uninterrupted by others in the way. This did make a difference for me, especially with the large pieces, as I found it best to view them from 15-20 ft distance.

Written by Robert Ashby

February 8, 2018 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I read your comment about Gursky’s work a couple of times as I am quite interested in the work of the three artists that the German press calls “Strufsky.” The others are, as you’ll know, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth also very well-known. We even went to Düsseldorf to see a Gursky exhibition just a couple of years back. It showed some of Gursky’s recent work using satellite images or marine reflections – the Bangkok series – with an emphasis on environmental matters. They appeared very glamourous as artpieces and some of that is the sheer size of them. On the other hand the huge dimensions do allow you to scrutinise the images and see details which are important to the work. As you stated, seeing the photographs themselves allows the work to be appreciated at varying distances. I enjoyed walking backwards and forwards in front of it and realised that viewing his work in a book or online was far too limiting. I wrote about Mayday V some time ago but I have never seen this image in a gallery. I don’t suppose it was at the Hayward?

    Kate Mellor

    February 14, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    • Kate, no the Mayday 5 image is not in the Hayward show, nor in the catalogue, which is a shame. I would have liked to see it in the original.

      Robert Ashby

      February 15, 2018 at 10:11 am

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