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Even people without children may be familiar with Martin Handford’s highly successful Where’s Wally? books. Each cheerily drawn page shows a chaotically crowded scene and, after some minutes of staring, a sorting should occur in the brain and the man-without-qualities hero will appear in the crowd. Where’s Wally? pictures are often drawn from a perspective above the scene, where, in spite of the angle of view, objects in the distance are never quite as diminished by perspective as they naturally should be. It is not, I hope, to underestimate the most successful photographer of this generation to say that the same forces are in operation in the intricate work of Andreas Gursky.
A diptych by Gursky sold for £1.7m at auction in London in February. That makes him the holder of the world record for a photograph sold at auction. Two fancy galleries in London opened their Gursky shows this week, and could barely muster a dozen of his pictures between them. The pictures are huge (they’re often described as billboard-sized) and very, very expensive.
Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, East Germany. His parents were commercial photographers, and his grandfather a portrait photographer. He attended the art school at Düsseldorf as a Masters student of the husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their seemingly objective classification of industrial architecture.
Gursky, in other words, has form. He is from several different sources highly literate in photography, and his pictures can demand a high degree of literacy to make sense of them. Screeds of art-words are written about what he does, claiming with varying degrees of plausibility his intimate immersion in this or that school or movement.
There may be something to some of that, but the truth is very plain. Gursky is interested in the present human condition on a very big scale, and not very interested in individual narratives. There can rarely have been an artist less interested in the domestic. In Gursky’s world, people are small and perform routine activities that involve either making money or spending it, all of which he regards with a kind of wrong-end-of-the-telescope detachment that makes his subjects similar, whether they are in Kuwait or in the Engadin. Whether the setting is architectural or landscape, people are reduced to a scale where individuality is lost.
His technique has developed over the years, but since the early 1990s Gursky has increasingly used digital manipulation (again, on a huge scale). I heard one private view goer dismiss the whole set of pictures on show with an airy “Over Photoshopped for me”, which sounded very much like the Emperor Joseph II complaining that Mozart used too many notes. Gursky deliberately blows apart the silly debate about whether photography can possibly still be photography in the digital era. He does choose still to make what are, in effect, old-fashioned C-type colour prints, in spite of the digital input that goes into them upstream of the printing process. As a result, his prints have a physical surface beauty that no digital printer has yet been able to match.
In the middle of the hoopla, what does Gursky actually do? We have an artist interested in what some writers refer to as late capitalism – global, systemic, dehumanising to an extent. In his huge tableaux he plays with the coherence of systems to make us see something not quite right there. A marvellous snaking view of a Formula 1 circuit in Bahrain – seemingly realistically photographed from a high angle, black tar against ochre sand – is not in fact circuitous. You cannot trace a continuous line round the circuit, and therefore whatever else it is, it is not a neutral view of a racing track.
I was delighted when a friend spotted the same asparagus picker repeated twice in Gursky’s plunging view of agribusiness in the Beelitz region. Different coloured shirt, but same stance, same scale, everything the same. A real Where’s Wally? moment, and suddenly the mechanics of Gursky’s magic trick were briefly on view. Same raw material, used twice, in different contexts. That’s how musicians compose, isn’t it? And Gursky is very like a musician. He makes arresting patterns. With his puzzler’s enthusiasm, he keeps the eyes of the viewer engaged for longer per picture. Many good photographers have tackled photography’s essential lack of surface appeal, and by compressing so many different views (digitally) together, Gursky has invented a way of compressing a photographic series into a single frame.
For my eye, much of the macro-economic or even macro-sociological stuff that we are supposed to see in Gursky isn’t nearly as interesting as the same questions tackled in prose. What is there in abundance is a virtuoso skill in image-making, and a delight in making sense and nonsense clash in stimulating ways. But that skill is held under very tight control. Gursky doesn’t just make the pictures that interest him: he doesn’t make (or doesn’t show) the pictures that don’t conform to the brand. Once you’ve seen a couple, you can no more miss the author than if they had three parallel stripes or a swoosh emblazoned on them. It’s that phenomenal branding that makes them such a success. And like all branded products, there are certainly some less good ones that creep into the mix. Gursky’s views of those Stalinist mass-displays in Pyongyang fall short because the patterns are dictated by somebody other than himself.
The four views of Formula 1 pit activity (on show at White Cube, see above) are something of a departure. The people are no longer made ant-like by scale but by colour-coded helmets and uniforms and by the ant-like work they do. The writhing heap of mechanics attending the cars could be from Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. It takes a moment to realise that there are just too many servants per car. In these 6m- long pictures Gursky has digitally bred a tribe of F1 mechanics.
Gursky has done great things in marrying a certain old-fashioned pre-digital large-format photographic passion with almost cinematic post-production. These pictures are a visual treat. What they are most like is the tapestries from the Gobelins or Bruxelles factories, superbly crafted giant wall hangings that most of us can only dream of having castles big enough to keep.
Works by Andreas Gursky are on display at White Cube, London SW1, until May 5, tel )20 7930 5373; and at Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers, London W1, until May 12, tel 7804 274239. There is concurrently a Gursky retrospective at Munich’s Haus der Kunst until May 13, tel +49 89 21127 113