Andreas Gursky Is Taking Photos of Things That Do Not Exist

Andreas Gursky outside the Southbank Center in London. A retrospective of the artist’s work is being held at the Hayward Gallery.

LONDON — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her three predecessors sit in an orderly row; between them, these four figures have led Germany since 1974. Pictured through a window and from behind, they gaze at a huge abstract painting on the wall in front of them.

The moment would have been incredible to capture — had it ever happened. In fact, the image is a digital composition by the German photographer Andreas Gursky, who constructed it using pictures of the four chancellors he took separately. “Review” (2015) is one of nearly 70 works on display in the new retrospective of the artist’s work at the Hayward Gallery here. The exhibition, which opened on Jan. 25, is the gallery’s first after renovations that took just over two years to complete.

Credit...Andreas Gursky/ 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; VG BILD-KUNST, Bonn., via Sprüth Magers

Mr. Gursky set the record for a single photograph at auction in 2011 when one of his supersize images, “Rhine II,” sold for $4.3 million. The Hayward exhibition includes this and other famous Gursky views from the 1990s: a sprawling Paris apartment building, a 99-cent store, swarms of traders on stock exchange floors. Striking in their scale and resolution, they show humankind dwarfed by nature, industry, finance and the consumer society.

In recent years, Mr. Gursky has set out to test the boundaries of photography by composing works almost entirely in the studio, digitally creating spaces and scenes that never existed. The question is whether these are works that he will be remembered by.

In an interview at the Hayward before the opening, Mr. Gursky sat between two of his giant new compositions, both of them inspired by pictures he took with his smartphone. Placid and measured in his words, he wore a navy sweater and a string bracelet not normally seen on the wrist of a 63-year-old man. Speaking in English and occasionally reverting to German, with a translator on hand, he engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about art and success — and his passion for techno music.

Mr. Gursky began by explaining his recent output. “I’m just interested in making images,” he said. “And, of course, you have to reinvent yourself.” He pointed out that he made no more than eight images a year, and that they took time to produce.

The exhibition’s curator, Hayward’s director Ralph Rugoff (who was recently named as the artistic director of the 2019 Venice Biennale), said he chose to reopen the Hayward with Mr. Gursky because “he’s changed the language of photography in so many ways.” As examples, Mr. Rugoff mentioned “Review” and “Untitled XVI” (2008), in which the hivelike space in the picture was entirely fabricated using architectural software.

Those “completely constructed” works of recent years were among Mr. Gursky’s best, Mr. Rugoff said, because he was establishing a dialogue with abstract art and composing pictures the way a painter would.

From the very birth of the discipline, Mr. Rugoff said, “people were doing darkroom tricks and making things appear in photography that weren’t there.”

“This medium, which we, for official purposes like passports and school IDs, trust to be an accurate picture of the world, has always been something that can be lent to fiction as well as to fact,” he explained. “Andreas is not a journalist doing reportage.”

Other specialists expressed a preference for Mr. Gursky’s earlier work.

Quentin Bajac, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — where Mr. Gursky’s retrospective in 2001 gave the photographer a major career boost — said his signature pieces of the ’90s came “at a perfect moment,” just as globalization was gathering pace. Mr. Gursky represented the spread of multinationals and the explosion of financial markets, as they were striking “the right balance between something that is neither critical nor apologetic,” Mr. Bajac said. That “absence of narrative” mirrored the contemporary mood.

Mr. Gursky’s work also embodied the shift from analog to digital, from “taking images” to “making images,” said Mr. Bajac — initially doing both but now doing more of the latter.

Mr. Gursky was born in Leipzig (then in East Germany) and left when he was 1 year old. His father set up a successful commercial photography studio in Düsseldorf, in the West, so the little boy grew up surrounded by a lab and camera equipment. Though initially determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, he ended up getting a photography degree from the Folkwang University of the Arts, in nearby Essen, because “to be honest, I didn’t know what I could do.”

In 1980, he enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy to study with the pioneering teacher Bernd Becher, whose other disciples — Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer — also went on to become prominent photographers. While there, Mr. Gursky started taking color panoramas of mountains, camping sites and swimming pools featuring tiny human beings.

A switch to digital photography in the early ’90s allowed Mr. Gursky to take large-format photographs and to manipulate the images in digital postproduction — by “pumping up the color sometimes or combining several different images in order to get this really even perspective, where you can see everything and details that aren’t available from just one perspective are suddenly made available to you,” Mr. Rugoff explained.

The giant formats found a ready market. Photography had historically been black-and-white and small, and printed in large editions. Mr. Gursky blew it up, made full use of color and set out to “document the key themes that dominate our lives today, then produce these works in limited editions of between four and six,” said Francis Outred, the chairman and head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, one of the Hayward show’s sponsors. He created “a capsule of value” akin to a painting, Mr. Outred said.

Mr. Gursky also outpriced his peers by pointing his lens, early on, at major world exchanges such as the Tokyo Stock Exchange in 1990 and the Chicago Board of Trade in 1997. “If you’re looking for an Andy Warhol, you want a Marilyn, and if you’re looking for a Gursky, you want a stock exchange,” Mr. Outred said, adding that one London hedge fund had collected four or five of them to decorate its trading floor.

At the turn of the millennium, Mr. Gursky started digitally recomposing photographs to give them a look similar to abstract paintings. In his record-setting river view “Rhine II” (1999), for instance, the perfectly straight lines of green and gray recall abstract paintings by Barnett Newman or Kenneth Noland. Mr. Gursky edited out a power station that spoiled the composition.

Mr. Gursky meanwhile continued to capture images around the theme of labor and capital. “Amazon” (2016) shows one of the online retailer’s Arizona warehouses, stocked with books and boxes, and plastered with motivational slogans that read: “Work hard,” “Have fun” and “Make history.”

Mr. Gursky said visiting the warehouse was tough because of the working conditions, but insisted that his images were not “accusing” or a “political statement.”

“Our world is also seduced by Amazon, because it’s so practical and so quick, and you want something and the next day you have it. This is also the truth,” he said. “I show our contemporary world the way it is.”

Asked if his fame and fortune caused him discomfort, Mr. Gursky laughed. Money had, of course, changed his life, he said, because he could afford to travel wherever he wanted.

He said he planned to use his wealth to set up a public foundation on the premises of his studio in Düsseldorf, which he would endow and where all of the prints reserved for his private collection would be viewed in the future. Will it open soon?

“No, I’m still a bit too young,” he said with a smile. He had thought about the foundation for a long time, he said, and was happy to have reached a decision: “It’s strange for a living artist to talk about what’s going on after he has died.”

For now, Mr. Gursky leads the life of a much younger man. He plays sports — tennis, jogging and cycling — and has been a fan of techno for the past 20 years, describing it as music for all generations. He is close friends with the D.J. Sven Väth and other techno performers. “My son complains that I’m hearing the same music as him,” said Mr. Gursky, referring to the youngest of his two children, who are in their 20s. “Maybe he has a problem with this, but not me!”

After the Hayward exhibition, Mr. Gursky said he planned to stop teaching at the Düsseldorf academy, take a two-year sabbatical to travel the world, and spend more time in Ibiza, Spain, where his friends live and where he’ll be able to hear a lot of techno.

Whatever he does next, Mr. Gursky will stand out as a maker of images, said Udo Kittelmann, the director of the National Gallery in Berlin and the curator of a Gursky show at the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden in 2015.

A painter’s work is usually fairly recognizable, Mr. Kittelmann explained. “In photography, it’s much, much harder.”

“It’s quite surprising that a photographer found a special handwriting in photography, that there is no misunderstanding,” Mr. Kittelmann added. “A Gursky is a Gursky.”

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