“Gursky’s digital manipulations are not artful fictions wilfully imposed upon the recalcitrant body of a passive realism. Marvellously inventive as they are, they are entirely continuous with the medium’s long tradition of fluid mendacity.” (P. Galassi, ‘Gursky’s World’, Andreas Gursky, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York 2001, pp. 40-41)
“I would compare the process to that of a writer. You take a train journey. You look out the window and get an impression, but when you write it down in the evening it will be what you imagine. In my case, I take lots of photographs, then, in the evening, bring them together. That seems unconventional, because somehow we are still fixed on ‘straight’ photography.” (A. Gursky, quoted in J. Ure-Smith, ‘Andreas Gursky goes on show in Berlin’, Financial Times, 23 April 2010)
“I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment.” (A. Gursky, ‘…I generally let things develop slowly’, Andreas Gursky Fotografien 1994-1998, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg 1998, p. viii)
Andreas Gursky’s Rimini (2003) is an awe-inspiring photographic vision. Dwarfing the viewer at over 6 feet tall, the scene is shot from a birds-eye view; thousands of parasols recede in scintillating ranks of bright color up the sandy beach of Rimini, a popular northern Italian resort. The town sprawls beyond a frontier of beachfront hotels. Except some scattered swimmers and the occasional sunbather, the bay is empty of people. Every detail near and far appears in crystal clarity, seized in one merciless (and seemingly impossible) depth of field. The parasols’ stark shadows in the blazing sun reinforce a glare of artifice that radiates from the composition. Like army encampments or territories shown on a map, the umbrellas advance all the way to the horizon; breakwaters near the shore, built to shift currents and shape coastlines, proclaim man’s physical command over nature. Sharp, vast and utterly absorbing, Gursky’s digitally manipulated pictures transcend what a camera or eye can capture. Exploiting the photograph’s capacity as an engine of image construction as much as a vehicle for truth, his works offer both thrilling visual spectacle and a composite mode for apprehending our complex contemporary reality. The tradition of the Romantic sublime is played off a chill neutrality of gaze; awe is conjured not from the grandeur of natural landscape but from the machinations of late capitalism, presented in dizzying, vertiginous splendour. To stand in front of a Gursky is to experience the pure delight of seeing, yet there is something terrifying in Rimini’s sparkling perfection. A jolt comes with the recognition that this is not just Gursky’s fiction, but the world we have created.
Alongside photographers including Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer, Gursky was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1980s. The Bechers’ impersonal, objective approach, whereby they would document types of industrial structure in grids of monochrome photographs shot from the same elevated angle, was hugely influential. Viewed in concert, each strict typological series–water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks–would reveal the unvarying functional form of which each example was a unique variant: a Platonic truth about reality was unlocked. Gursky’s work bears clear hallmarks of the Bechers’ tuition, as well as the influence of the advertising photography practised by his father. He always shoots from a distance, often at an almost extra-terrestrial remove from his subject: the perfect vantage point for an artist who declares that he is “never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment” (A. Gursky, ‘…I generally let things develop slowly,” Andreas Gursky Fotografien 1994-1998, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg 1998, p. viii). Rather than repeating related forms across multiple images, however, Gursky subsumes the seriality of the Bechers’ work into a single spectacular frame. Whether photographing assembly lines, supermarket shelves, stock exchanges or massed beach umbrellas, his widescreen method brings forth a giddying tension between the part and the whole, and between his creative composition and the human reality he documents.
By merging multiple photographs of the same scene into one fully-focused image, Gursky creates a compound vision that is fully as compelling up close as it is from a distance. The laborious post-production stage is essential to his work. “I would compare the process to that of a writer,” he says. “You take a train journey. You look out the window and get an impression, but when you write it down in the evening it will be what you imagine. In my case, I take lots of photographs, then, in the evening, bring them together. That seems unconventional, because somehow we are still fixed on ‘straight’ photography” (A. Gursky, quoted in J. Ure-Smith, “Andreas Gursky goes on show in Berlin,” Financial Times, 23 April 2010). This ‘unconventional’ way of seeing things can bring our world to a startling new light. In Rimini, the infinite garish parasols, multi-storey hotels and artificially maintained coast are brought together in a panoramic totality inaccessible to the naked eye, or to a traditional photograph. The iterated, grid-like picture that emerges makes coastal leisure look a lot like the systems that are imposed on people in the factories, supermarkets or North Korean crowd performances that Gursky has photographed elsewhere. From Gursky’s omniscient perspective, holidays, labour, commerce and exercises in propaganda all seem to be organised according to eerily similar principles.
Gursky freely admits his own inventive imposition upon his subjects. “A visual structure appears to dominate the real events shown in my pictures,” he explains. “I subjugate the real situation to my artistic concept of the picture … you never notice arbitrary details in my work. On a formal level, countless interrelated micro and macrostructures are woven together, determined by an overall organisational principle. A closed microcosm which, thanks to my distanced attitude towards my subject, allows the viewer to recognise the hinges that hold the system together” (A. Gursky, “…I generally let things develop slowly,” Andreas Gursky Fotografien 1994-1998, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Wolfsburg 1998, p. viii). The world is caught for study as though beneath a bell jar, with unwanted elements brushed out and others highlighted or heightened. A comparison with any ‘real’ aerial photograph of Rimini reveals that Gursky’s version alters little in terms of content. The beach really does bristle with countless regimented parasols, serving tourists to the town’s thousands of hotels, bars, restaurants and discos with a sterile slot of recreation. Reality can be uncanny. Gursky’s immense, captivating image does not merely reproduce the world, however, but creates it anew, its aggregate entirety opening our eyes to a sublime and disquieting truth.