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The Rheine – Andreas Gursky

How much did you pay for that photograph?

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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or “Arghh!! For St Ansel’s sake, please tell me why!”The Rheine - Andreas Gursky

I was on holiday in Glencoe when the news of Gursky’s record breaking picture hit the headlines. I must admit to not paying much attention to it, bandwidth being low and my interest being more in the context than the image itself. Once I returned I realised what a visceral reaction it had stirred up in many photographers and, with the help of Alistair Haimes, I set about looking at the picture and the reason for it’s price.

The first thing that I think most pundits got wrong was to judge the picture in terms of beauty. In my admittedly limited understanding, innate beauty is not an essential part of the fine art genre and I find myself agreeing with this more and more as I progress as a photographer. Great art should portray ideas and/or emotions and pleasure/satisfaction/love/etc are only one part of the gamut of human response.

So what emotion/idea is the picture intending to portray? Well it helps a little if you know a bit about the artist and the artistic context in the same way that it helps to know a bit about Van Gogh and his life to appreciate his work or, probably a better example, Mark Rothko. Without understanding his background and reason for producing his abstract expressionist work it would be a lot harder to understand his multiform paintings (example shown below) and the work probably needs to be seen in it’s original (very large) form in order to get the required effect (Rothko even left instructions on how far away the viewer should stand!).

This particular photograph owes more than a passing debt to Rothko and other abstract impressionists and also plays with the central horizon meme that seems to be overwhelming in much contemporary photography. The theme is quintessentially Gursky though, that of globalisation communicated through the taming of the river, synthetic grass and all. Even Gursky’s digital manipulation of the river is done with the goal of creating a proto-urban river that recalls all harnessed waterways.

The other thing that most people are missing is that purchases of art at this level are either because they form a part of a narrative of photography that museums may wish to purchase or that they are simply investments, in this case potentially the money retreating away from the floundering commodity markets. And $4.3m is hardly a great sum of money when compared with other art purchases. Christies and Sotheby’s regularly trade over a billion dollars per season in fine art sales and typical ‘headline’ prices are around the hundred million dollar mark (for Picasso’s for instance and $140 for Klimt) whereas a second rate Monet (one of the art communities unpopular whipping boys) trades hands for $20 million and an unpopular graffiti artist from New York still sold for just under $10m. Put in this perspective, the pinnacle of photography’s financial returns looks pretty sad indeed.

The other sad fact (depending on your point of view) is that the chances are that the piece won’t get to see the light of day, probably ending up in an air conditioned vault of some investment bank. And investment is the key, as seen in the ‘investments’ link above, there are derivatives based on fine art trading and there are various investment funds with industry advisors (seems like insider trading to me) that will take your money and potentially offer double digit year on year returns. This type of investment is notoriously risk averse and hence purchases are nearly always based on the pedigree of the artist and the perceived future influence the artist may have - hence with Gursky’s bloodline coming from the Becher’s Dussledorf school, his referencing of many fine art memes and his sublime brand management he really is a no brainer. But why the Rhine? Well I imagine it shows photographic pedigree with many previous photographers and artists having worked the location and it also fits in with modern art motifs. It also has the potential for big gains - photography is rapidly making gains on paintings and sculpture (although it isn’t even in the same ballpark yet).

What about the picture though? Well, personally I’m ambivalent. I can see the reasons for its popularity but its message seems a little ‘sixth form’ to me. Perhaps I could appreciate it more if I saw it ‘in person’ but if I’m Gursky’ing I’ll stick to his more complex, aesthetically pleasing or intriguing work such as ‘Niagra Falls’, ‘Bundestag Bonn’, ‘Bahrain’ or my personal favourite ‘Cathedral’.

What does this have to say about landscape photography? Bugger all really...

Alistair Haimes also sent me an email with his opinion of the piece and if you want a good critique of the picture, visit this Tate page (oh and that Telegraph review was embarrassing!)

Alistair Haimes

Out of interest: even looking at the small image on this page, be aware of how long your eye wanders around it; I suspect, regardless of your visceral reaction, a while. Perhaps the eye hunts for detail when the graphic structure is so stark, the tonal balance so even, the textures so rich? A badge of its quality is the extent to which it holds attention: it mesmerises.

There are classic Gursky hallmarks: technically precise, abstract, graphic; flat-lit, depthless, texturally detailed; unremitting, insistent. Cold, meticulous, odd. Gursky is the superstar of the contemporary photography scene, and this is his favourite image: "It says a lot using the most minimal means … for me it is an allegorical picture about how things are...about the emptiness and the fullness".

Many think it achingly pretentious: wiseguys dismiss it as “rich man’s art”. Oddly enough, the people most stridently against this work seem to be other photographers, landscape photographers in particular. Why should this be?

Perhaps because of what it isn’t? Look in the pages of any photography magazine for what is deemed the proper province of our craft. Coasts, heaths, mountains, colourful dawns; arresting arrangements of natural features and details, archetypes of seasons and weather. Surely, the whole point of all this is documentary? At the very least, for heaven’s sake, representation?

Or perhaps people’s knees are jerked because of what the photo didn’t involve? Travel, an early rise, a one-off conjunction of light and weather: effort. Without being dismissive of the incredible art that a conjunction of these elements can produce, at the same time we must admit that you can find good examples of the individual elements by the thousand every day; appropriately, our eyes flickr over them to the next one, and on, and on.

Is it the degree of digital manipulation that grates? Sadly for Gursky, this image would fail the rules of “LPOTY”; he’ll live. But nothing more than Silvy did 150 years before, and more than this, if Gursky is out to make emotive art (rather than a documentary image), and if he felt that the emotional charge would be diminished without changes, isn’t there an obligation to make them?

In many ways, ‘Rhine II’ isn’t a landscape photograph in the same way as Rothko’s dark panels of the Fifties, which also shocked and fascinated, weren’t paintings. Yet their power to arrest and unsettle remains: you are moved as if by a current. Great art often runs counter to contemporary expectations of a craft, and is dangerous stuff. Within the canon of German landscape art, and in particular its portrayal of the sublime, we can say that the strain that reached an early high pitch with Friedrich has been bookended in our times by this image.

Obviously, I think it’s terrific. Compositionally, extraordinary: contempt for the rule never to divide a canvas into equal halves, and terrific play in viewpoint so that the presentation of the bottom half is equal narrow stripes of green and grey sandwiching equal broad strips in the same palette; the grass footer stitches the lower half back to the narrow grass strip above the sand-bar on the horizon.

Any more information in the sky would distract, any less would unbalance. A longer exposure would prevent the texture in the waves referring to the texture of the grass, and in another light, the tones of the tarmac, sky and grass would be thrown out of their precise equilibrium.

Any less information and it might lose the historical reference and sense-of-place that “landscape” implies, and might be dismissed as a Barnett Newman-style “zip” or a Misrach derivative, but it has too much information to be purely abstract. It is in a balanced zone between; it is, in its way, perfect.

That’s the mechanics of how the photo hangs together, but to see this photo within the cluttered scene that Gursky would have been confronted with, in an unremarkable place: that, to me, is approaching genius. The restraint in the presentation and processing is extraordinary.

and finally, Rob Hudson also added a commentary shown below... Thanks everyone!

Rob Hudson

Gursky’s Rhein II sells for a record-breaking amount of dollars and suddenly everyone is talking about it. Sad really! Perhaps it’s an indication of the true value of an image if it’s talked about widely before it sells for an astronomical sum? Maybe we should leave behind the vagaries of a bloated art market and just concentrate on what values it has intrinsically, why it is good, or bad art, or somewhere in between.

Firstly and the most important factor in its favour is what it is not. It is not yet another over romanticised vision of the Rhine, with mist shrouded fairytale castles, sunsets, ad infinitum! It is a far more personal vision than that, it relates to the loss of the natural landscape through the hand of man and that is certainly a preoccupation for many of my German landscape photography friends. It runs deep, the industrialisation of their land, the monocultural landscapes of mechanised agriculture and factory complexes, spreading urbanisation, create a profound sense of loss.

Gursky’s work is of course compared to abstract impressionism and particularly analogies are drawn to Mark Rothko for the similarities of simply dividing the canvas and using bold colour. There are perhaps better examples of this analogy in 99 Cent II Diptychon, and Chicago Board of Trade II,  which far more closely mirror the work of other abstract impressionists in their use of overwhelming complexity and detail. I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of actual Rothko paintings in the flesh and the memory of seeing them will stay with me for a long time. It really isn’t possible to appreciate them from a book or a web image, they are large images and I found myself becoming lost in a world of colour, patina, texture and tone. It was one of the most profound artistic experiences of my life. The one thing a Rothko is not (no matter how it looks from a distance) is simple.

Like most of you, I have only seen small versions of Rhein II and I could, of course, be doing it a disservice here (his prints are enormous), but I see little evidence of that detail that entrances, more of a highly simplified and geometric landscape. It is simplified to the extent of blandness, where is the - often referred - to the wonderful use of colour? It looks pretty straight for a grey day in central Germany to my eyes. I am far from a fan of sunsets and all that clichéd literally and metaphorically over saturated imagery us landscape photographers are supposed to do in the popular imagination. Neither am I particularly a fan of the over composed landscape image that fails to allow the eye’s to walk their own path, but Gursky’s image still fails to excite me. It is neither interesting geometrically, in colour or in message. It falls a bit flat to my mind, simplified to the point of tedium, the message isn’t particularly complex, the metaphors are ordinary and the image equals that mundanely. If I’m to be confronted by “challenging art” then I’d rather have something that I have to get my head around, something which generates a little more to and fro between image maker and viewer. I suppose I’m a bit of a Romantic at heart, but that doesn’t stop me appreciating much modern art if it is good art. This is at best suspect art.

Alex Boyd

Please check back later for Alex's comments



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