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Determinedly anti-individualist: “Rhein II” (1995, remastered 2015) by Andreas Gursky  (© ANDREAS GURSKY/DACS 2017. courtesy: SPRÜTH MAGERS)

In November 2011 Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II (1999) became the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction. The image, a huge six feet by 12 feet, fetched $4,338,500 and is of the utmost banality. It shows horizontal bands of flat, grass-covered riverbank, a tarmac cycle path, a grey stripe of river, and a flat, cloudy and near-colourless sky. It is a slice of nothingness containing no people and no buildings. Nor is it quite nature: the landscape has been shaped and emptied by man — straightened and denuded of trees. The photograph displays little interest in colour and none in traditional concepts of beauty and nor is it even a real scene — Gursky digitally removed a factory on the far bank in order to create what he called “the most contemporary possible view” of the Rhine.

Gursky is, in auction terms, by some way the most successful of all photographers: nine of his pictures have sold for more than £1 million and his works occupy eight places in the list of the 25 most expensive photographs ever sold. His work is distinguished by its epic scale (some up to five metres in length), its hallucinogenic detail, its demonstration of the patterns in nature and the built environment, and Gursky’s determined anti-individualism: “I have never been interested in people,” he says, “but instead exclusively in the human species and its environment.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson famously defined photography as being concerned with capturing “the decisive moment” — the quintessential instant in which people (and it was always people with him) are most truly themselves, regardless of whether they are alone or interacting with others. For Gursky though the decisive moment “sometimes stretches on for days or months and appears to be reproducible at any given moment, appears to stop time or, one might say, to stretch it into infinity”. His pictures of stock exchanges, warehouse interiors, superstores, airports, rubbish tips, hillsides and container ports contain no obvious narrative and have no specific rooting in time or place.

There are links in his work to art history, both to 20th-century minimalists such as Donald Judd and Barnett Newman, and to the Romantic-era painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and the 19th-century American Hudson River school. Gursky too works with the sublime, although his is a post-modern version in which awe in front of nature and its numinousness has been replaced by its opposite — numbness.

Gursky is the subject of a major retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, until April 22, the first exhibition to be held there since its two-year refurbishment. Some 60 of his photographs are on display, tracing the development of his work from his training at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf under Bernd and Hilla Becher — whose photographs of industrial buildings presaged a new way of looking at unlovely architecture — through the more human-scale pictures of the early 1990s to the dwarfing photographs of his maturity.

Gursky’s photographs are a disquieting but valid way of looking at the modern world. It is often claimed that his work offers a critique of capitalism and the gigantism of the modern global world — vast, faceless spaces for production or consumption, the industrial scale soullessness of modern farming and mass tourism — but his photographs can equally be seen as non-judgmental. “I only pursue one goal: the encyclopedia of life,” he has said, but whether the entries in that encyclopedia are good or bad is not his concern.

A photograph such as Paris, Montparnasse (1993) is four metres long and shows the city’s largest post-war housing block — a front-on cliff of apartment windows, innumerable identical spaces each differentiated by their curtains or blinds. The building resembles one of those ant farms of childhood though with hardly an inhabitant to be seen. Here is a structure that perfectly exemplifies Le Corbusier’s “machine for living”, a vast Mondrian grid into which human lives — absent and present — have been inserted.

Gursky’s interest though is also formal and technical. The viewpoint is impossible: he could not get far enough back to photograph the endless horizontal swathe in one go so he took multiple images from two different points and digitally combined them. The magnification he achieved turns the real into a near abstract, a panorama with a rhythm of its own, and does away with the idea that, at heart, photography is all about single-point perspective. His aim, he says, is to merge foreground and background into a single entity: “I call this the democratic view.” Without a clear focal point, every inch of the image is as important — or unimportant — as every other, “which completely dispenses with hierarchy”. This is not a subject in a setting but the setting as the subject.

What is perhaps most potent about Gursky’s photographs is that they fight the eye’s natural instinct to home in: he homes out. Nor does the knowledge that he has digitally altered images put the photographs into the realm of invention: his post-production additions, subtractions and flattenings are designed to increase each image’s sense of instinctive reality, not to give them artificiality.

His are not comfortable images: they show that we design buildings intended to function rather than enhance, that we are largely blind to the patterns that are intrinsic to both the natural and man-made world, and that even en masse — lining the side of a mountain road up which the Tour de France cyclists will climb or pulsating in our thousands at a May Day rave in Dortmund — we are just flecks. In this image-saturated world Gursky gives a fresh twist to the old saw: in the age of the photograph, where we perceive everything through pixels, man is just another pixel too.
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