Ralph Rugoff takes us around his Andreas Gursky show
The Hayward Gallery’s director on Gursky's old bedroom, his new techniques and never-ending visual insights
"Andreas Gursky’s works suit the newly refurbished Hayward Gallery for multiple reasons," said its director Ralph Rugoff during a private tour this morning. The galleries’ ceilings have been raised, and the original skylights – blocked off years ago because they leaked – are back in working order, giving greater space and light to display the German photographer’s massive 3x4 (9x12 feet) metre prints.
Those works are a good fit too for this beautiful Brutalist building, because Gursky’s works deal with architecture, said Rugoff, as well as other recurrent concerns.
The 63-year-old German photographer comes from a line of image makers. Both his father and his grandfather took photographs for a living, Rugoff explained and “his bedroom was the spare studio.”
The first room of early works at the Hayward brings to mind something of Martin Parr, with walkers and picnickers in the German countryside. Yet as Rugoff points out, both the figures and the landscape are out of sorts; the people are city dwellers and even the hills and valleys, with their pylons and airports, show “nature is no longer what it once was.”
Rugoff described Gursky’s later practice of shooting a number of images, initially on film, then later digitally, before compositing them together on his computer.
Technically, this enables him to create works with far greater resolution and depth-of-field than could be achieved with conventional photography. “There must be thousands of products in his photograph of an Amazon warehouse,” Rugoff said, “and you can make out the labels on almost all of them.”
Similarly, we can see every coloured board held by every faithful North Korean citizen in the background of Pyongyang VII, a scene Rugoff likened to a “North Korean Las Vegas.”
Critically, this approach precludes us from viewing Gursky as a straightforward documentary photographer. “I think he decided that very early on,” said Ruguff.
That’s not to say we can’t derive higher truths from Gursky’s pictures. No longer capturing what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment”, Gurksy’s huge, manipulated pictures show how, in his hands “photography no longer captures a single moment, but stretches that moment out into something more complex.”
For greater insight into Gursky’s place within fine-art photography get Art and Photography. For more wise words from Ralph buy our Paul McCarthy book; and to hear both Ralph and David discuss Gursky’s work at the Hayward on 12 February go here.