Jeff WallThere is a distinction to be made between what I will call the “manner” of photographing for advertising and most magazine work and that which we usually accept as a way of photographing that conforms to the criteria and attitudes of pictorial art. Not only a distinction but a conﬂict. You can always tell when a photographer is working in the spirit of publicity, even when he or she appears to be making something serious, or trying to. This is a complicated matter because there are really no rules, and things that can appear very commercial and even objectionable turn out to be artistically really good—for example, some of Roe Ethridge’s work. This line has been blurred ever since Pop art emerged. But even keeping this large complication in mind, and knowing that there are no set guidelines, we always have to deal with this distinction. Because you began where you began, you must have had to deal with this right from the start.
Andreas GurskyI wasn’t just forced to deal with this difference, I had to completely free the way I saw from this old commissioned-photography aesthetic. As artists, it’s our job to see images liberated from existing known or acquired aesthetic standards.
I discovered how hard this was to do when I began to work digitally and started constructing my images. When I started out, I needed weeks, months to find an image.
Ethridge and [Christopher] Williams take an interesting approach to subtly frustrating the subject of commercial photography. This concept can only take one so far, though, and I find the original images they have created more interesting.
JWIt’s become pretty much conventional now to say that the kind of photograph you and I were making in 1995 or so is something no longer current—that is, the large-scale color image, possibly involving digital construction, in my case involving some form of “cinematography,” meant to establish a new scale and identity for photography closer to that of the other pictorial arts. It’s clear that younger artists feel that they have to go elsewhere—toward more overtly visible and mannered digital work, smaller scale, studio work involving various kinds of hand crafting, and of course dealing with the online image-trafﬁc question. I get the feeling that younger artists are turned off by the prospects of working at a large scale, with all the attendant problems—that they see it as too involved with cultural spectacle and the whole ’90s upsurge of photography as a “museum art.” There’s a feeling of resistance to all that, probably also because of the market aspect. Nevertheless I feel quite akin to much of the newer work and have the feeling that the artists have gotten something positive from what we’ve been trying to do. It’s interesting also how much of this work takes it quite easy in terms of any distinction between photography and other things, like painting or collage. That’s a different attitude from the one that insisted on the total distinctness of photography from everything else, the one I grew up with. What do you think? Since you’re teaching, you’re likely to be closer to the situation than I am.
AGYou’ve touched on a range of issues about which there is a lot to say. I understand your self-critical doubt, which also plagues me sometimes, but the fact that we appear less often in the contemporary discourse, or in the countless biennales, doesn’t mean in any way that our old works are no longer relevant. I’m thinking, for instance, of The Storyteller (1986), one of many of your works that haven’t lost any of their impact over the last thirty years. The idea that with purely photographic means one could engender a painterly impetus that connects so seamlessly with so many things I’d seen in art history—it really blew me away and inspired me in a very decisive way. And then there was the overwhelming size, the clarity of the formal composition, and your concept of using the familiar medium of advertising photography to allow something to not immediately look like art—a criterion that I often recommend to my students and one that hasn’t lost a shred of its currency. The introduction of the light box was an ingenious move and will always remain an unmistakable signature of your work.
I find it interesting, in the first instance, that you talk about our work. However different our works might appear to be individually, I see a great affinity between them. Yes, of course, you talk about ﬁlmic characteristics, and sometimes the subjects have a literary background or art-historical references. At a narrative level, I try to avoid these kinds of references—my most recent pictures are perhaps a little drier, a little more analytical. One could perhaps say that they function, societally speaking, as surrogates for physical states. I’m thinking, for instance, of Amazon , the tulip pictures, or Les Mées . I see the essential commonality behind that which is depicted. The subject seems to be just a pretext for our interest in and concern with the way the world is constituted. The eye of the camera stands in for the position of the novice, who questions the world and who cannot construe things that are supposedly self-evident. I’m thinking here, for instance, of [your photograph of] the dismantled engine block carried by two men . Compared to the compositions of your masterworks, it looks almost unﬁnished, and yet it remains ﬁrmly ﬁxed in my memory, in terms of what I was just talking about. In certain ways, it is perhaps paradoxical to want to say something about the way the world is constituted, while at the same time insisting on the visible in all its clarity and detail—an extension, so to speak, of textual speech and cognitive thinking. That probably sounds very theoretical and I’ve deviated rather from your questions, but ultimately it is also simply the pure joy of seeing and the fascination with it that constantly drives us to make new pictures.
I think that we have created an intrinsic visual system that believes in the possibility of depicting reality, and through it creating knowledge. We will probably never abandon this territory, and preserving this tradition doesn’t make any sense to the younger generation. Or they see very few possibilities in inheriting and developing it, because the ﬁeld has already been ploughed and the whole subject has, as we so charmingly say in German, been gobbled up for breakfast. I completely agree that the younger generation have persuasively developed other approaches and have calmly disregarded concepts like authenticity. Concepts that, in certain ways, seem sacred to us. Wade Guyton comes to mind, who has broken new ground with his montage and destruction techniques and who bridges different disciplines convincingly. I think he is the big ﬁgure that the younger generation are identifying with at the moment.
JwYou and your colleagues who were at the [Kunstakademie Düsseldorf] with [Bernd and Hilla Becher] accepted the basic premise that photography, whatever else it might be, was specially rooted in the process of giving an account of the visible, of “things as they are,” or at least as they appear. In the ’80s and ’90s, your work was popularly seen as different from that, as part of a new kind of photography, but now it looks much more to be an extension, a “later phase” of classic modern photography, perhaps of German modern photography.
AgThe classic Becher students followed Bernd’s doctrine of typologically breaking down the phenomenology of the visible world and exploring a subject arising from that process, like a scientist dissecting their area of interest beneath a microscope. The tool used was generally the large-format camera with tripod, which offered the best basis for this. The generally accepted credo was as follows: life tells the best stories and one must simply help it to tell them. In this sense, we didn’t try to psychoanalyze, but kept our distance and picked light conditions that allowed for as much information and richness of detail as possible. A working method that was more focused on interpretation and subjectivity would have missed the target. The world was meant to appear as it actually is—it was for the viewer to come to any conclusions about it.
The ﬁrst generation of the Düsseldorf School was able to proﬁt from this approach and to develop important, individual artistic concepts. For instance, Thomas Struth, with his views of streets and architecture, and Thomas Ruff, with his prosaic architectural images and scientiﬁcally oriented pictures of stars, but primarily with his radical portraits. These images adhere to a certain mercilessness. Finally Candida Höfer created interiors with a wonderful lightness and poetry, which were grainy and not very sharp, but it didn’t do them any harm. She was the only one who worked with a small-format camera, showing that it could also be done differently. Despite this, she didn’t deviate a single centimeter from implementing her idiosyncratic interiors. She sometimes accompanied her father during his stays in the sanatorium and created completely unique images there.
But for the second generation, the concept was already starting to crumble and one tried to ﬁnd new and unexplored areas to conquer. Both Jörg Sasse and I can be placed in the intersection between the ﬁrst and the second generations. I saw straight away that our forebears had already covered most of the ground available and that the playing ﬁeld was getting smaller and smaller.
To begin with, I put my plate camera in the cellar and tried my luck with a 6 × 7 Plaubel handheld camera, a compromise between the Leica M and Nikon F2 cameras common at the Folkwang [Folkwang Universität der Künste, where Gursky studied between 1978 and 1981] and the Linhofs and Plaubels that were common in the Düsseldorf School. This camera creates passable, sharp pictures, but, most important, doesn’t require a tripod and allows for a more spontaneous way of working, which would have a decisive effect on my visual language. Bernd grumbled that, yes, these early landscapes had a certain something, but that if I’d used a large-format camera they would have been much sharper, that is to say better. I didn’t feel like Bernd understood me enough during this period and listened more to Kasper König, who called these pictures “Sunday pictures.”
In retrospect, I can now say that the inﬂuence of the Bechers was completely seminal for me, but that it wasn’t the only foundation for the artistic position I hold today. It probably has something to do with the structure of my personality, that I can allow very different, sometimes contradictory archetypes and inﬂuences to coexist without them actually contradicting one another.
Unless otherwise noted, artwork © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2018; interview published in full in Andreas Gursky (Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2018)