Gursky: Permission not to be so Monumental

Andreas Gursky is one of the most celebrated photographers working in the world today.  His photographs sell for record sums––a print of Rhine II (1999) fetching $4.3M in 2011––and his surname has become synonymous with a particular kind of image.  To take a ‘Gursky’ is a perfectly understandable description for someone attempting to capture a large-scale scene of either regimented human busyness, monumental architectural similarity, or epic natural order.

An exhibition covering four decades of his photography is currently on display at the recently reopened Hayward Gallery in London (until 22 April 2018).

400 gursky ticket

Most of Gursky’s ‘Gurskys’ were already familiar to us and, like any reunion, it is always good to catch up with old friends.  However, much of his early work was unknown to us and, like when first meeting total strangers, there is apt to be an initial period of assessment, of judgement, even of suspicion.

And so it was.

Gursky is known for working big.  At the Hayward, his most famous photographs are displayed in wall-sized prominence and justify the indulgence; however, some of his early work is similarly displayed and, this perhaps only serves to highlight some of the technical flaws, which on a smaller scale would not have been visible.

800 gursky panorama

We have a simple test of gallery photography.  It often requires a slight leap of the imagination, but it usually produces results.  Look at the image; often it will be a huge, blown-up image.  Consign it to memory.  Close your eyes.  Imagine it as a typical 6’x4’ print in your hand, which you have just collected from Snappy Snaps.  Would you be pleased with it?

Gursky’s ‘Gurskys’ pass this test with flying colours––the Amazon warehouse; the Bahrain motor racing track; the Vietnamese basket weavers––all excellent; every one would happily take pride of place in our family album.  However, a few of the earlier works––chickens at Krefeld; woods at Krefeld––might struggle to make the edit.  Now, we appreciate that there is a progression at work here, and that it is interesting to observe the evolution of an artist.  Not everything can emerge fully formed instantly.  That is not how evolution works.  Prior to every beautiful butterfly there is an inevitably ugly chrysalis; the heroic failure before the hard-won success.  However, there is a danger in modern exhibitions––and a tendency of modern viewers––to equate size with importance.  This approach is perfectly fine when the work justifies it, but it is never going to turn a turkey/chicken into something it isn’t.

© Os Bros


Os Bros find more peacocks than chickens during their time at the Hayward Gallery.

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