Andreas Gursky and I are peering at a photograph of one of Mexico City’s sprawling and horrific garbage dumps. Somewhere in the picture - amidst the sea of waste and debris - are the children who helped him set up the shoot. ‘It was an amazing experience,’ he remembers, ‘because I drove there with two bodyguards but didn’t need them in the end, as it turned out that the youngsters were so helpful. I offered the children money but they didn’t want it.’ Our heads are nearly touching as we scrutinise the picture, looking for Gursky’s unpaid assistants. ‘We will find one,’ he murmurs before indicating a stick-like figure adrift in the slick of refuse. ‘Ah…maybe here,’ he says.
Under normal circumstances our task would have been considerably easier - the one thing that everyone knows about Gursky is that he makes very, very big pictures that are both astonishingly sharp and eminently readable. A couple of paces towards the photograph are all that is usually required to ensure the legibility of individual details. But we are looking at a radically reduced image, one that measures a mere 55cm high (frame included) as opposed to the customary wall-sized dimensions of his full-scale prints.
Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent, © Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009)
The Mexico picture and nearly one hundred other similarly sized examples are part of a comprehensive retrospective of his work, (currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery) - a show that ranges from modest views of suburban hometown Dusseldorf in the early 1980’s to the full-blown epic productions of recent years. Hanging alongside the small-scale copies that have been made especially for the exhibition are several of the more recent large format prints, many of which stand at over 3 metres tall. The irony is that by shrinking most of the photographs and thereby enabling such a generous overview of his career...a bigger picture emerges.
Gursky is softly, slowly and thoughtfully spoken, dapper in an understated way, and not altogether at ease amongst the drilling and hammering of gallery staff installing the show*. He looks well-kept and well-groomed - young for fifty-nine - and sports a tan which I suspect he didn’t get in Dusseldorf’s Volksgarten. We retire from the melee and I ask him how he feels about seeing his work in such an unfamiliar, diminished format. He makes to answer but first requests that the installation work be silenced.
‘Right now I don’t have enough distance from the work, because for me it is a new experience and I am still not accustomed to the smaller pictures. But from what I have seen I must say that I like seeing both sizes together. The pictures are not so small that you can’t recognise anything; and they are still big enough that if you approach them you can get many details. But there are also images like Kamiokande which can’t be read in a small size - it can only develop its power in a bigger format.'
'Also the smaller scale gives us the possibility to have a real retrospective here - in this space - which wouldn’t be possible if I were only showing the big sizes. I think there is only room here for about thirty of my full-sized photographs.’
James Bond Island III, 2007, © Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009)
As if to demonstrate the logistical headaches the dimensions of his work can cause, he gets out his iphone to show me two pictures of an unfinished and scaffolded concrete room, remarking ‘For example, now I am constructing a big underground storage area for my work which will have the facility to hang sixty of my five-metre long framed prints.’ If bunker-building appears extravagant it is worth remembering that Gursky is one of the world's most bankable photographers; in 2007 a diptych from the 99 Cent II series was the first photographic image to sell in excess of $3m.
As he has chosen all the photographs to be included in the exhibition, I wonder if the selection process had caused him to revaluate any earlier episodes or directions. As before, he answers precisely and thoughtfully in English, but not without first conferring with an interpreter.
‘Well, if I am installing an exhibition I don’t just choose the strongest works, it’s also about which works sit together best. But you will see that some older pictures always appear in the big exhibitions: like the early landscapes, the Klausen Pass, and the cable car in the Dolomites. For me these are very important pictures and I think they will stay that way - they are good enough to exhibit even after twenty or more years.’
Andreas Gursky F1 Pit Stop I, 2007, © Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009)
A similar sense of stability and continuity underlies his account of his own development as a photographer: ‘I was educated by Bernd and Hilla Becher (and before that by Otto Steinert) and my father was an advertising photographer - so I had these different influences and was exposed to different aesthetics. Then my time at the Akademie in Dusseldorf, where I met Josef Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Kasper Koenig and others, was really important. I experienced all those influences and my work developed - very slowly - as a result. For example, if you look at a picture like Bahrain II from 2007 you can see that in terms of composition it comes from the influence of Hilla and Bernd Becher: it has a central perspective and it is photographed from an elevated position - and this is a way that I often approach my subjects.’
Andreas Gursky, Cocoon II, 2008, © Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009)
The mention of fellow students inevitably prompts comparisons with other Becher pupils and I put it to Gursky that of all the illustrious graduates of the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie he had moved furthest from their teachers' precepts.
‘Yes’, he agrees, ‘I have progressed. Axel Hutte, Thomas Struth or Candida Hofer, for example, still all work on specific subjects for certain periods. But in my case I don’t distinguish between one area and the next - for me it’s much more of a slow process. But I also think that if you compare me to Thomas Ruff, you can see that he has moved on as well because what he is doing is maybe more like the work of a scientist who is trying to find out what the essence of photography is.’
One tendency that emerges within the 'bigger picture' of the retrospective is Gursky's increasingly ambitious use of digital re-touching and manipulation techniques. This is nowhere more stark than in the exhibition’s juxtaposition of an early work - an unremarkable image of a gas cooker - and its last, an extraordinary self-portrait in which the photographer has pictured himself in an area bounded by a ‘wall’ made of layers of an indeterminate cell-like structure. It is based on the interior décor of a German club, Cocoon, but that is as near as the photograph gets to a tangible reality. In fact Gursky created the environment digitally and then added the photograph of himself to the image. He appears holding a section of the computer-generated 'wall' - a reflexive, arch reference to his role as creator of artifice. I suggest to him that there is a lot of ground separating the two images, cooker and self-portrait.
‘Yes, that’s a long distance - because my earlier work, the photograph of the gas cooker, is based on visual experience. It was my gas cooker and I was cooking with it; and then after a while I saw it as an image. This was how I worked earlier in my career. There are more examples; for instance, the abstract photographs - including the grey carpet and the street scene at night - are bizarre pictures which are based on the fact that, just by chance, I would see the structure for a photograph. The street scene happened when I was looking at the ground during a conversation with my girlfriend. I can honestly say I no longer work in the same way .’
Andreas Gursky, Gas Cooker, 1980, © Andreas Gursky / SODRAC (2009)
‘Now I think about photographs. The last photograph in the show is influenced by a club that is run by a friend of mine. And although it’s a picture of me…in a way it’s no longer a photograph. I am photographed, and a young person and some of the details are photographed too. But the whole space is completely artificial - it’s calculated with an architectural software programme; it’s not photographed. So yes, it is a long way indeed from the early pictures.’
With the direction of his latest work in mind I ask how important photography is to his practice, whether he might one day be known as a ‘composer of pixels’, say? But he’s having none of it - ‘Even with that last picture there is no doubt that I did it with photography,’ he maintains, ‘yes, I did some of it without a camera, but because there are realistic elements in this picture you read it as a photograph.’
Just as the increased use of digital post-production techniques constitutes a move away from an earlier modus operandi, so too does a focus on the mass media as a source of subject matter: ‘Now I have a big archive where I collect images and after a while I lay everything down in the studio and I think about which subject is worth researching. Whereas in the past, in the 80’s when I did the landscapes, I researched more by travelling and discovering the world visually, now I am much more focused on reproductions, the internet and TV.’
The astonishing Pyongyang IV, one of the large scale prints in the show, is a case in point. Gursky originally saw a news photo of North Korea's spectacular Arirang Festival - the last word in Communist crowd control - then proceeded to negotiate access to the country and the event. The finished image is a composite. ‘The amount of people is more or less exactly how it was,’ he explains, ‘but for technical reasons I shot in different stages: you have to focus on the foreground, the middle ground, then the background.’ The clarity and detail are of course stunning - you can even make out the smiles on the faces of the happy Communists. But as with so much of his work it is the camera position that makes the picture; and in this case it was particularly hard won.
‘I asked for a high position and they gave me a place which wasn’t high enough…and so I asked for an even more elevated position, because if you are in a very high location you can read the choreography much better. In the beginning it was really difficult but by the end they were really helpful. So day by day I got better positions until in the end I was on this gallery with a big portrait of Kim Il Sung, and a small altar to him with flowers. They cleared everything away and gave me this God’s Eye view where Kim Il-Sung watched from.’
Elevation - the trick he learned from the Bechers - is key. For his former mentors it furnished a means of recording square-on the blast furnaces and cooling towers of a disappearing industrial past. Gursky, typically, reaches for higher heights, not content until he's up there with God. And Kim Il-Sung.
© Guy Lane, 2009.
* This interview first published in Art World magazine. Andreas Gursky was interviewed at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm - the retrospecxtive has since travelled to Vancouver.
Andreas Gursky, Works 80-08
(Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Feb 21 - May3)
Vancouver Art Gallery May 30 - September 20 2009
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