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I first came across Andreas Gursky’s work when I saw two of his photographs at the Constructing Worlds exhibition at the Barbican in 2014. Before I even read the caption of “Montparnasse” (left in the image below) which explained how the picture was processed, I knew it had undergone some sort of digital manipulation. Both the human eye and the camera lens distort the image at the ends therefore the building could never be seen as perfectly square as it looks. Later on I read that one of Gursky’s firm beliefs is that: “Reality can only be shown by constructing it, montage and manipulation paradoxically bring us “closer to the truth”.

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The philosophical question that inevitably comes right after is: what is truth? How do we define it and, ultimately is it really that important.

Bear with me in this seemingly unrelated mention of the Acropolis, or to be more precise the Parthenon in Athens, which has been pronounced the most perfect temple ever built since ancient times. This is mainly because of the optical corrections that the ancients invented when they realised that the eye naturally distorts what it sees, therefore no line can be seen as straight. Except if it is not straight.

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In fact if the distortion is inverted, and the line is bent the opposite way of how our eyes capture it, the brain is tricked into thinking it is straight. The Parthenon looks perfect because it has no straight lines and all its components are slightly distorted. In other words perfection is achieved through deceit.

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Because of my architectural training this is how I read the way that Andreas Gursky chooses to focus his interests. And it is rather obvious that I really like his pictures.

Of course their large scale which invokes a sense of awe to the viewer also plays a part. Regardless of what the curators of this exhibition say about Gursky’s work “challenging our ideas of how photography represents reality”, even if we do not choose to work our brains hard on philosophical questions, these photographs are also simply spectacular to look at.

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And they do sum up in a straightforward visual manner, many issues that have to do with the environment, architecture, the concept of collective existence, art and fashion. They also deal with more politically charged issues that have to do with capitalism, mass production, pollution and deterioration of natural resources.

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Finally there are images that seem more cryptic, like the ceiling of an airport or the blow-up of a grey carpet. One wonders if these photographs have been created in appreciation of geometry and texture or if they are a quasi-philosophical exploration with zen nuances.

One thing is certain: that Gursky’s pictures are very appealing because of both their scale and their themes that fluctuate between absolute simplicity and obscure abstraction.

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One may choose a secondary reading into them or just enjoy their visual qualities. However architecture is very present in the majority of these photographs. Which proves the way that the man-made environment and architecture provide much more than a backdrop for life.

Through many of these pictures is clear that architecture is a product of the politics that create it and in its turn it affects deeply the people whose lives unfold within it.

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Gursky has said about photography that it is not just a way to document the world, but rather a way to represent his own ideas about it. His sceptical position against impartial documentation (if there is such a thing) is proven by his very personal view of what he sees around him. A view that we are also invited to share by observing his pictures. But somehow, this very subjective view of things touches a chord in many people. It is not clear to me if this is because most people see its importance similar to what happens with classical music for example, or if it is because it speaks an easy language that is clear to most, in a way that pop culture does. Both or neither, this is an exhibition not to be missed.

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The exhibition will be on until the 22nd of April 2018

Visit Hayward Gallery’s website here

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Architecture has been a favourite subject for artists throughout history. One of the obvious reasons is that it is very static and geometric but I find this to be too shallow of an explanation. Anything that qualifies as architecture constitutes the man-made part of our environment and as such it materializes its social structures and politics. However it also carries multiple layers of symbolism referring to the human condition. Still -as the curators of Constructing Worlds exhibition Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone have eloquently mentioned- it is extremely challenging to translate its material and sensorial aspects in a two dimensional image. This collection of images demonstrates with an interesting variety of styles of photography how this obstacle can be overturned into an asset. The very personal and ultimately subjective point of view of each photographer, highlights qualities that make up for the loss of the third dimension.

Left: Berenice Abbott Night view, New York City, 1932 © Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of Ron Kurtz and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Right : Berenice Abbott Rockefeller Center, New York City, 1932 © Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of Ron Kurtz and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Left: Berenice Abbott Night view, New York City, 1932 © Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of Ron Kurtz and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. Right : Berenice Abbott Rockefeller Center, New York City, 1932 © Berenice Abbott, Courtesy of Ron Kurtz and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

The photos on display at the first floor where the exhibit begins are more or less objective in documenting their era. Downstairs on the contrary the photographs are more subjective and artistic. The images are organised in a chronological order so the first artist one comes across is Berenice Abbott who is famous for her breathtaking 1930’s New York photos. This old-school depiction of the city which architects will always be fascinated with, is spectacular. Artistically and compositionally, the photos are perfectly balanced but most importantly they somehow manage to capture the frenzy of innovation that New York embodied at that time. Its aspiration for expansion and the hope of a new world are encompassed in them and therefore they are eternally modern.

Left: Walker Evans Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana, 1936 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008060-E] © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Right : Allie Mae Burroughs (Source Wikipedia)

Left: Walker Evans
Frame Houses. New Orleans, Louisiana, 1936
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF342-T01-008060-E]
© Walker Evans Archive,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Right : Walker Evans : Allie Mae Burroughs (Source Wikipedia)

While Abbott is known for zooming out and looking from afar Walker Evans is very famous for a series of pictures that he took to document the devastating effects of the Great Depression. In order to do so he zooms-into the lives of people in an almost voyeuristic way. He looks at every detail of their houses, in fact he looks close into every detail of their faces concentrating more on the personal aspect of architecture which reveals also a lot about the collective.

14.-Julius-Shulman,-Case-Study-House-#22,-Pierre-Koenig,-1959

Left : Julius Shulman Case Study House #22, 1960 (Architect: Pierre Koenig) © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10) / Right : Julius Shulman Case Study House #22, 1960 (Architect: Pierre Koenig) © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Those who have studied architecture or its history should be quite familiar with the Shulman photos than come up next in this exhibition. The legendary case study houses, naïve as they may seem in showing-off post war luxury and picture-perfect families, are considered historically important. The Eames and Koenig houses are design prototypes that haunted generations of architects who tried to follow their example.

8.-Lucien-Herve,-High-Court-of-Justice,-Chandigarh,-1955

Left :Lucien Hervé High Court of Justice, Chandigarh, 1955 Photograph by Lucien Hervé. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2002.R.41). © J. Paul Getty Trust With permission from Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris and Judith Elkan Hervé. / Right : Lucien Hervé High Court of Justice, Chandigarh, 1955 The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2002.R.41). © J. Paul Getty Trust With permission from Fondation Le Corbusier,

Lucien Hervé was not only admired for his unique talent but also for the opportunity he had to be Le Corbusier’s chosen photographer in documenting his iconic work. He travelled to Chandigarh to witness the construction of the High Court of Justice and the Secretarial Building. The images reveal the dramatic chiaroscuro that is created by the concrete and India’s sunlight and are works of art in their own right.

13.-Bernd-&-Hilla-Becher,-Constructing-Worlds-installation-images-©-Chris-Jackson_Getty-Images

Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Bernd & Hilla Becher installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Bernd and Hilla Becher have contributed the photographs of 21 water towers displayed in a rectangular grid formation. Sculptural and monolithic as their subjects are reveal the contradictory beauty of industrialisation that most contemporary architects are drawn to.

5.-Stephen-Shore,-Beverly-Boulevard-and-La-Brea-Avenue,-LosAngeles,-CA,-21-June-1974

Left : Stephen Shore Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California, June 21, 1974 Image courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers, London © 2014 Stephen Shore / Right : Stephen Shore Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts, July 13, 1974 Image courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York and Sprüth Magers, London © 2014 Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore’s photographs document the environment where pop culture occurred. They depict everyday spaces, back streets, garages and fire escapes but their vibrant technicolor palette along with examples of design like cars or characteristic fonts on street signs, unmask the very specific age that they derived from.

In the downstairs part of the exhibition where the work of more contemporary artists is displayed things get much more personal. In fact the images at times seem almost psychoanalytical revealing more about the actual photographers than about the buildings and their architects.This does not mean that architectural photographers of previous decades did not have a personal point of view. True to their time though their opinions were more subtle and sought to highlight the buildings more than their own perceptions of them. Contemporary photography is less detached and objective. It is actually the exact opposite: involved and engaging and by putting the photographer’s interpretation forth it speaks of an artist’s dreams or nightmares but also of politics, social structures and conflict.

18.-Hiroshi-Sugimoto,-World-Trade-Centre,-1997

Left : Hiroshi Sugimoto World Trade Centre (Minoru Yamasaki), 1997. Courtesy of Hiroshi Sugimoto / Middle: Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Hiroshi Sugimoto installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images / Right : Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Hiroshi Sugimoto installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images

One of the exhibits I liked the most was of Hiroshi Sugimoto. He chooses architectural icons such as Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum and Yamasaki’s Twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The photographs are out of focus and simple as this idea might be the effect is spectacular and the possible interpretations can vary. These buildings need no introductions they are historic lampposts and as such they hold actual or symbolic memories for most.

26.-Helene-Binet,-Jewish-Museum-Berlin,-Daniel-Libeskind,-Untitled-9,-1997

Left : Hélène Binet Jewish Museum Berlin, Daniel Libeskind, Untitled 9, July 1997. Courtesy of Hélène Binet / Right : Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Hélène Binet installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Hélène Binet has photographed Daniel Libeskind’s famous Jewish Museum in Berlin during construction. The play of light through the dramatic windows of a building that is considered a sculptural monument on its own, seem even more interesting as rough slits in the wall. Without glass panes and finishes weirdly imply that they could have remained like that, unfinished.

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Left : Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Andreas Gursky installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images / Right : Constructing Worlds: Architecture and Photography in the Modern Age Andreas Gursky installation images Barbican Art Gallery 25 Sept 2014 – 11 Jan 2015 © Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Andreas Gursky chooses to alter architecture through digital manipulation. This as a method is largely used in our days although the effect is not always so blatantly outspoken. In Gursky’s work the goal is to make a very specific social commentary about the way societies are structured and how these structures are reflected on the built environment.

21.-Bas-Princen,-'Mokattam-ridge'-(garbage-recycling-city),-2009

Left : Bas Princen ‘Mokattam Ridge’, (Garbage Recycling City), Cairo, 2009 Courtesy of Bas Princen / Right : Bas Princen Cooling Plant, Dubai, 2009. Courtesy of Bas Princen

Another photographer who creates truly haunting images is Bas Princen. His work is focusing on five cities Istanbul, Cairo, Amman, Beirut and Dubai. He is interested mostly in urbanity and the way that cities by expanding reveal a lot about the social fabric that creates them. I stayed quite a while in front of the photo of Mokattam (Cairo) where every inch of open space in the area depicted is covered with trash as the city’s economy is based on recycling. I felt similar awe by looking at the image of the cooling plant in Dubai. Sleek, megalithic and soul-less brought to my mind the black slate surrounded by apes at the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey.

17.-Guy-Tillim--DIPTYCH----Grande-Hotel,-Beira,-Mozambique,-2008

Guy Tillim Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 © Guy Tillim. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg (Diptych)

A similar feeling of abandonment is evoked in the photos of Guy Tilly. Late-modernist post colonial blocks in decay speak eloquently about the false promises that were given to Africans. Decay is also one of the central themes in Simon Norfolk’s photographs but this decay is inflicted suddenly on the cities that he visited because of war. Sadness but weirdly also irony is the message that he seems to convey, especially in the images of vibrant natural sunset colours.

25.-Simon-Norfolk,-A-secuirty-Guards-booth...,-Herat,-2010-2011.-Burke_Norfolk.-Courtesy-Simon-Norfolk

Left : Simon Norfolk A security guard’s booth at the newly restored Ikhtiaruddin citadel, Herat, 2010 – 2011. Courtesy of Simon Norfolk / Right : Simon Norfolk Former Soviet-era ‘Palace of Culture’, Kabul, 2001 – 02. Courtesy of Simon Norfolk

The large format pictures of Nadav Kander who has travelled in China to document activities and structures across the massive Yangtze River portray a country that is extremely contradictory. Traditional but modernised, communist but expanding with capitalist aggression. Vast but densely populated.

10.-Nadav-Kander,-Chongqing-XI,-Chongqing-Municipality,-2007

Left : Nadav Kander Chongqing XI, Chongqing Municipality, 2007 © Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery. / Right : Nadav Kander Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006 © Nadav Kander, courtesy Flowers Gallery.

Iwan Baan photographed Torre David, the Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Caracas, Venezuela. A huge tower block that due to the 1994 financial crisis was left unfinished and empty for a decade. Eventually it was squatted by no less than 3000 inhabitants that transformed it slowly but efficiently until it became habitable. Their apartments and communal activities are displayed in these images which document an impressive collective venture that seemed to have worked wonderfully for a number of years. The housing shortage which is a global problem and a possible solution are both mentioned here along with Torre David’s unfortunate ending when its residents were evicted in the summer of 2014.

1.-Iwan-Baan,-Torre-David-#2,-2011

Left : Iwan Baan Torre David #2, 2011 Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles. / Middle : Iwan Baan Torre David #10, 2012 Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles. / Right : Iwan Baan Torre David #1, 2011 Image courtesy of the artist and Perry Rubenstein Gallery, Los Angeles.

Architectural photography has changed a lot throughout the years and this exhibition follows its transition. The photographers portray the buildings and the history of the people who created them because undoubtedly in observing architecture closely one is actually looking at humanity and its ways of inhabiting the world. This collection of images reveals a lot about political history and art history as well. We see clearly how artists true to their time crossover from a hopeful but also clean-cut way of being to a deeper, quasi- psychoanalytical manner of looking at society and its material creations. Uncomfortable as it might be, our world seems to be getting increasingly unfriendly and with more conflict than ever and it is no coincidence that these artists choose to highlight that.

If you are in London until the 11th of January do not miss the chance to catch this exhibition.

Find the exhibition website here

Read more information about the photographers at the exhibition here

Find a podcast of curators Alona Pardo and Elias Redstone discussing the photographers’ work here

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