Byline: Ben Luke
ANDREAS Gursky is a victim of his own success. As the contemporary-art bubble expands yet never seems to burst, Gursky's shimmering, epic photographs have become, like the works of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter, a must-have for the new art elite.
When the now 59-year-old German's 3.5m-wide photograph Rhein II reached $4.3 million at auction in 2011, it became the most expensive photograph ever sold, and it maintains that record today. Now, it's difficult for Gursky's work to escape the dollar signs.
This month gives us a chance to see beyond the bling. Two London exhibitions reflect very different aspects of his work -- early landscapes at the Spruth Magers gallery in Mayfair this week and recent works in the White Cube's cavernous Bermondsey space later this month.
It's a moment to relish: unlike the self-parodying Hirst and Koons, and in common with his fellow German Gerhard Richter, Gursky is one of the great artists of our time.
He has helped make it impossible to see photography as separate from high art: his sense of composition, colour, scale and tone are worthy of the Old Masters and his subjects are often the great themes of our age. But he remains an enigma: characteristically, he's not doing interviews to support the latest shows and prefers his works to speak for themselves rather than making grand pronouncements.
So who is Andreas Gursky and what's his work about? HE WAS BORN TO IT Given that both his grandfather and father were photographers (his dad had a successful career in advertising photography), Andreas Gursky seemed destined to pick up the camera himself. He once said that he initially "denied anything to do with photography" but eventually "thought I could express myself by doing it". Early on in his career he did some commercial shoots for Osram and Thomson, before pursuing art.
HE IS PART OF THE DUSSELDORF SCHOOL Along with Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth and Axel Hutte, Gursky is one of the Dusseldorf School, taught at the Kunstakademie by conceptual photographer Bernd Becher who, with wife Hilla, created beautiful, totemic images of industrial buildings. Gursky still lives with his wife and family in Dusseldorf, in an industrial substation converted by Tate Modern's architects, Herzog & de Meuron (Ruff also has an apartment and studio in the building). In using vibrant colour, varying his subjects and including human figures, Gursky couldn't be more different to the Bechers but he owes much to Bernd's insistence on rooting photography in a consistent, elevated viewpoint.
HIS FIRST PUBLISHED PHOTOGRAPH IS OF HIS GAS OVEN Today Gursky is thought of as the expansive photographer of grand, sublime scenes presented on a monumental scale but he began modestly, with the cooker in his Dusseldorf apartment. "I was cooking with it, and then after a while I saw it as an image," he has said. His methods today are less spontaneous but there are clues to his later work in the high vantage point, the evenness in tone and colour and precise composition.
HE WAS AN EARLY ADOPTER OF DIGITAL ART Gursky began as early as 1992 to make digital montages. He still shoots on a large-format film camera but the images are scanned and then painstakingly manipulated, often assembled from several photographs at once. As a result, he produces just a few finished works a year.
Sometimes the digital postproduction reinforces reality, as in Paris, Montparnasse (1993), where fusing two images allowed him to reflect the expanse of a modernist block, but in Rhein II he deleted details on the horizon to create a hard-edged, abstract image.
HIS SUBJECTS RANGE FROM CABLE CARS TO POLITICAL RALLIES TO BATMAN Early on, Gursky travelled in search of inspiration before settling on particular motifs, such as the cable car swallowed up in the majesty of the Dolomites in Dolomiten, Seilbahn (1987), in the Spruth Magers exhibition. …