This may be his first retrospective in the UK, but make no mistake, German photographer Andreas Gursky plays with the big boys. His huge prints recall the crushing scale of paintings by his compatriots Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. His work ‘Rhein II’ holds the record for the most expensive single photograph ever sold at auction (going for $4.3 million in 2011). His Düsseldorf studio was designed by Herzog & De Meuron, who were responsible for Tate Modern. He is – as you might say – ein große käse. His work is the focus of the Hayward Gallery's first show since it closed for refurbishment two years ago and should look spectacular in the gallery's concrete caverns, but what’s it all about?
1. It’s big
Gursky’s photographs stand out for their size, but he doesn’t do big just for the sake of it. In combination with his subjects – which are often mundane, such as this Amazon warehouse (2016, pictured) – the impact of his images is both massive and muted. Lacking an obvious focal point, they leave you disorientated and displaced. We take the name ‘Amazon’ for granted: Gursky reinvests it with awe and otherness. Maybe more so now than ever, since we’re all used to taking and viewing photos on tiny handheld devices, a ten-foot long photograph in which nothing is happening is quite a revelation.
2. It’s daunting
Gursky established his key theme of manmade environments in the 1990s. Stand out works include ‘Paris, Montparnasse’ (1993), a huge housing complex; ‘99 Cent’ (1999), a bargain store in LA; and ‘Rhein II’ (1999) , an unnaturally featureless stretch of the river Rhine near Düsseldorf. Although his works sometimes include people, Gursky is arguably a landscape photographer. He takes pictures of places you will probably never see, and makes you question if they could possibly exist.
3. It’s absurd
He started his career in the pre-digital age, but since the ’90s, Gursky has used computer manipulation to add or remove detail and to expand the scope of his images to bizarre effect. In a very deadpan, German way, his work is very funny. Is this what an Amazon warehouse really looks like? I mean, conceivably: Amazon is huge, isn’t it? The absurdity of Gursky’s work is intensified by its apparent seriousness and scale. The viewer always has the feeling that even if the image isn’t a literal representation of a real place, in terms of capturing the spirit of the contemporary world, it’s spot-on.
4. It’s political
Born in East Germany in 1955, Gursky moved to the West as a child, and there is a definite sense in his work that the environments in which we exist are political creations. His images often portray spaces created by man, but from which humans are absent, as though the economic infrastructure is more worthy of photographic record than people. Equally, his photos of teeming stock exchange trading floors suggest individuals reduced to the level of machine components by their surroundings. Either way, it’s a world we’re part of.