Rhein II, Worth $4.3M?
On November the 8th, 2011, the hammer fell at Christie’s Auction house in New York; $4,338,500 was paid for a 190 x 380 cm chromogenic colour print of a photograph. Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II (1999) had captured the title of “Most Expensive Photograph in the World”.
The Blogosphere erupted in indignation, electronic roars of “$4M for a photo?”, “I could have taken that!”, and “more money than sense”, typified the responses. More serious commentary was mixed: Maev Kennedy of The Guardian commented somewhat pithily “a sludgy image of the grey Rhine under grey skies” (2011). By contrast Florence Waters of The Telegraph wrote; “This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable - contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.” (2011)
Four years earlier, another photographic work of art by Andreas Gursky had sold for $2.48M, 99 Cent Diptychon (2001). Gursky now held positions 1 and 3 in the value stakes for art photography. In both cases the art works were huge in scale and significant digital alterations had been made to the original photographs.
So, who is Andreas Gursky and why is his work so valued?
Andreas Gursky was born in January 1955 in Essen, the heartland of Germany’s industrial Ruhr. He was born into a family of commercial photographers: both father and grandfather worked in advertising, however, Andreas was to be the first artist in the family. Subsequently Gursky was never far from a camera; even appearing in some of his father’s advertising work (Galassi 2001). Growing up during the time of Germany’s Wirstschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), he directly experienced the explosive growth of the economy and surge in consumerism that marked the 1960s. As did many other German teenagers he rebelled against the new materialism, a rebellion that echoes in his subsequent work. Rather than do compulsory military service he took the longer road as a Zivi (Zivildienstler) – in other words a conscientious objector who performed public service in the community.
In 1977 he returned to the family trade and enrolled in the photography program at the Folkswangschule in Essen. Under the tutelage of Michael Schmidt, the emphasis was very much on preparation for a career as a photojournalist or commercial photographer: a 35mm Leica the camera of choice and Henri Cartier-Bresson the paragon the students strove to emulate. Looking at Gursky’s work during the time he spent at Essen it is not easy to see the beginnings of the work that subsequently brought him fame. Schmidt also brought to Gursky awareness of the emerging American art photography movement, and in particular the influence of Robert Adams and his objective documentation of the suburban sprawl of mid-west America.
Whilst his days at the Folkswangschule grounded Gursky in the basic tenets of photography, it was his next step that would begin the rise to the summit of the art world. Completing his studies in Essen, Gursky packed up his best work and sought employment as a photojournalist. Without success. Consulting a friend, Thomas Struth, he was firmly pointed in the direction of the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. Here he came under the influence of the husband and wife team, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Although Bernd Becher held the title Professor, he and Hilla worked and taught as a team, indeed much of the tuition and critical discussions took place at their home rather than at the Akademie. Inspired by the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of Weimar era Germany, their work and tutoring emphasized a practical engagement with the world, through photographs that accurately and faithfully recorded that which stood before the lens (Gronert, 2009). Above all a dedication to craft and method infused their ethos; they were the diametric opposite of the Otto Steinert influenced Folkswangschule, where the serendipity of street photography was a stronger influence.
It was into this demanding yet intimate world that Gursky entered in 1980, one of a class that at the time included Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff. After a year of general tuition Gursky engaged in a six year Master Apprentice relationship with Bernd Becher, at the end of which Becher alone would decide whether or not he deserved the title of Meisterschüler (Master Student).
This was the beginning of the development of Gursky as an art photographer, although still within the strict constraints imposed by the Bechers. A core element of their training was the construction of typologies, requiring the repetitive creation of a series of photographs of thematically linked subjects. In Gursky’s case this involved two notable studies: one of details of the interiors of bars and cafés (a natural choice for a student); the other of Pförtner (desk attendants) who sit at the entrance to German companies. This latter series earned Gursky his Graduation from the Akademie. Gently humorous, these observations of the serious faced desk attendants draw attention to the fact that they sit in pairs, ensuring the security of the building not only from interlopers, but also from each other. Pförtner, Spaeter, Duisburg (1982, pictured) already contains essential elements that would become Gursky’s trademarks: a nascent commentary on the commercialism of the modern world, deadpan framing and the reduction of the photograph to a single image plane.
A vital aspect of the education Gursky received from the Bechers resulted in the replacement of his Leica by a 5x4 or 7x5 view camera (Galassi 2001). Gursky also came under the influence of the New Topology movement in the USA and in particular Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. The view camera and American influence further supplemented his visual style, by inclusion of penetrating detail and the adoption of colour, stepping away from the stark monochrome of the Bechers own work.
To this mix of framing, detail, colour, and social commentary, a final component was needed that would eventually propel his work into the big league of art photography: theatricality. Whilst at the Kunstakademie Gursky had met with and become a friend of Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist noted for elaborately constructed photographs that have a cinematic quality, both in creation and structure. Wall was to have a significant influence on Gursky’s direction as he made his first forays into large scale imagery (Burnett 2005). Fortunately, whilst Wall clearly influenced the size and chromatic intensity of Gursky’s work, Gursky did not follow his path of constructed realities: his photographs remained grounded in the real, even if it was an intensified real.
Upon graduation Gursky’s work centred on people within the environment, sometimes portrayed as lonely aliens in a mechanistic world, but mostly captured en-masses at their leisure; always small, rarely identifiable, just dots in the landscape. Chance development of a photograph taken whilst vacationing in Austria (Klausenpass 1984 – Plate 1 in Galassi 2001), revealed within the rugged mountainous terrain tiny dots, people walking up and down the hillside. At first glance the walkers appear randomly scattered; however, careful study reveals patterns created by the morphology of the hillside and social relationships of people in the photograph. This almost revelatory experience led to a series of photographs that revealed the manner in which humans cluster together. A prime example may be found in Schwimmbad Ratingen (1987, pictured). Gursky positions the camera high above the scene and looking down; people become objectified and the eye dwells not on the individual but upon their relative position within the community.
During the late 80’s and early 90’s Gursky created a number of photographs that revealed the vulnerability and isolation of mankind confronted by nature: Seilbahn, Dolomiten (1987 – Plate 7 in Galassi 2001) and Niagra Falls (1989 – Plate 8 in Galassi 2001) both place the subjects in the grip of forces seemingly outside their control. Gursky also made what at first glance seems a rather bland, almost banal landscape of the river Ruhr (1989, pictured), showing a stretch of the river bounded at the far end by an Autobahn bridge, occupied by small groups of anglers. This photograph captures two key elements of Gursky’s philosophy at the time: the encroachment of modernity represented by the motorway, contrasting with the need of people to find a space within which to shelter from this intrusion. Greater knowledge of the location reveals the precious nature of this viewpoint; to the side and behind the photographer sat industrial works characteristic of the Ruhr valley (Hentschel 2008). An example of objective reality obscured by the taking of a photograph, or perhaps the beginning of the intensification of reality that Gursky brought to his later work.
The stage was set: Gursky had the tools, a distinct world view, and now entry. He was an established artist carrying art world credentials granting him access to normally inaccessible places from which he would start to create some of the most stunning photographs of the past 20 years. The small groups of people became vast crowds filling the frame, his objective viewpoint became almost godlike, and the detail captured by his view camera was multiplied by the digital merger of multiple frames to create huge tapestries of colour and complexity. His photographs grew in size to a maximum height of 180cm limited only by printing technology, width essentially bounded by the length of a roll of paper and the ability to frame such a colossus (Galassi 2001). The size of these images was driven not by grandiosity, but by the need to reveal the detail within the frame. This was the moment that photography began to seriously rival painting in demand for gallery space: the size of the images brought a similar gravitas that fine art painting had exclusively enjoyed for centuries.
Gursky was now producing carefully planned singular works of art, the medium of photography enabling, but not constraining his vision. Each work required months of planning and conceptual thought. The act of photographing would take place over several days and involve multiple exposures, often needing very sophisticated lighting. The negatives would be scanned and then combined on a computer, not by Gursky himself, but by a technician working under his direction. Further photographs might need to be made, enabling the addition of details not present when the original shots were taken, and unnecessary elements of the original images could be removed (Schmidt-Garre 2011). Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (2008, pictured), chronicled in Schmidt-Garre’s documentary, presents a good example of the complex image construction and working technique favoured by Gursky. The hanging baskets containing miners’ personal effects are a fabrication of overlapping individual images; the people below were shot days later and added into the photograph to create a human dimension.
Contained within Gursky’s visual creations are a number of elements that build not only upon his own history, but also draw upon the world of modern art. His repetitive themes echo the work of Gerhard Richter (Paris, Montparnasse 1993 – Plate 28 in Galassi 2001), whilst his frequent use of horizontal stripes of colour and form bring to mind Mark Rothko (Rhein II 2001, pictured). This, combined with the craftwork involved in the creation of his works and the lengthy production process leading to a limited flow of new work, makes a Gursky photograph more comparable to a painted work than the mechanical reproduction referenced by Walter Benjamin (1934). I believe this underlies the rapid rise in value of Gursky’s work; his creations are not valued so much as photographs, but as unique statements in modern art. The fact that they are photographs is almost incidental to their worth.
Ironically whilst he profits from his endeavours, I suspect that Gursky is gently mocking the worlds he portrays: the stock markets, the docks full of cars waiting to be loaded, the towering architectural edifices, and artificial islands built to house the obscenely wealthy. By photographing these spaces and enhancing their reality through digital repetition of form and structure, he is drawing attention to the innate commercialisation and hectic speed at which the modern world proceeds. The Chicago Board of Trade (1999, pictured) is typical of these “commercial” photographs, replete with colour and energy, money is being made.
Gursky’s rise to fame mirrored that of his contemporaries Ruff, Struth, and Höfer, all graduates of the same school during the same era, often collectively referred to within the context of Düsseldorf. However, I feel that the differences are greater than the similarities. In their early work the Bechers influence is plain to see, but within a few years of leaving the Kunstakademie each took their own distinct path. Struth and Gursky are alike in their attention to detail and the monumental scale of their work, but separated by subject and philosophy (Kruszynski et. al. 2010). Ruff’s highly experimental style has taken him far from Gursky, his reworking of JPEGs and Nudes being the anti-thesis of the detailed work of Gursky (Ruff 2012). Höfer seems captured by an almost “Becheresque” compulsion to photograph empty indoor spaces (Krüger 2003).
The guiding hands of the Bechers have provided the art world with a new creative force, a group of now mature artists taking photographic art to new heights and in new directions. They are not without criticism; an oft quoted article in Professional Photographer asks “Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?” (Scott 2011). There is some truth in this statement, the risk is ever present that young or aspiring photographers will slavishly create similar imagery, but devoid of emotion and containing oppressive visual complexity. I feel this is always the case in art; leaders influence followers who try in vain to reach the same heights, then another leader comes along and the crowd changes direction. Critically for student, emulating, but not aping the work of the greats is an essential way to develop one’s own practice. The key is selectivity, take elements that drive individual progress, but do not simply recreate existing work. In examining Gursky’s 30 years of work it is his attention to detail and working ethos that influence me, not the subject matter nor even his visual style, much as I admire both.
Returning to the rhetorical question that opened this essay, is Rhein II worth $4.3M? Of course it is: two reasons! Firstly the art market operates as any other market does; value is determined by balancing scarcity with demand. Gursky is highly popular, but works at a relatively slow pace, so demand is high yet few works enter the market; values subsequently rise. This is, however, a facile answer to the question posed. Of far more importance is the fact that Gursky’s work bridges the gap between photography and the historically accepted view of what constitutes fine art. His photographs present unique views of our modern world using the visual language of painting but drawing upon the unique ability of a photograph to capture detail. They are no less complex and take no less time to complete, than masterpieces of oil or watercolour. Each is a unique and special object.
Perhaps a better question to pose would be: “Is Rhein II a photograph?”
Shaun Clarke, 2012
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