Andreas Gursky: Early Landscapes @ Sprüth Magers London

‘Early Landscapes’ is the solo show of renowned German photographer Andreas Gursky currently on show at Sprüth Magers gallery in London. Spanning the gallery’s ground floor and basement space visitors can see Gursky’s earlier works dating to the 1980s and 1990s. The exhibition coincides with another parallel one at White Cube gallery in Bermondsey incorporating recent and new works inspired by post-industrial landscapes, architecture and comic book heroes.

Gursky is somewhat of a legend in the world of contemporary photography and has succeeded in placing it next to other highly valued forms of art such as painting and sculpture. Back in November 2011, his photograph Rhine II (1999) fetched $4.34 million, setting a world record for a photograph sold at auction, followed by those of Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall.

Mostly known for his landscapes, cityscapes and countless urban locales, his oeuvre is permeated by an enigmatic anthropocentricism; humans and their footprints emerge in his chosen narratives.

The show at Sprüth Magers predominantly concentrates on natural and rural vistas that are captured from a distance and forcefully open up the perspective of the chosen topography. The large scale of his prints initiate an intensifying impact on the viewer. You instantly become a participant and an explorer, you are conveyed motionally and emotionally to a unique locus, time after time.

Photographing by using bird’s eye view methods such as cranes, helicopters and even satellite images is one of the main signature characteristics of Gursky, especially employed in his most recent works. Since the late 1990s he also engaged with digital manipulation practices to edit and augment his images.

In his earlier works on show at Sprüth Magers we are confronted with the grand scale of natural backdrops. Niagra Falls (1989) is an image full of dynamism. Here, natural phenomena dominate and pronounce the kinesis of the water element while concurrently the nevertheless idyllic backdrop is interrupted by the presence of a small vessel packed with people and appearing to be left to the mercy of nature. In a more tranquil scenery opposite (Alba 1999), we are taken by the vast scale of a river, its rocky banks and the neighbouring wild forest land. The occurrence of fishermen and some houses beyond the forests are virtually invisible within the grand and outbalancing panorama. The natural domain is almost unscathed by human intervention. The juxtaposition of human hypostasis against the monumental natural setting is again manifest in another image where a group of hikers is ultimately dwarfed by the nearby mountain range.

Gursky’s obsessive conscious representation of human ethos divulges his keen interest in the enduring affiliation between the latter and the surrounding environment. His photographs are balancing acts between the two omnipresent protagonists. While we certainly do not deal with a direct prosopography we eventually appreciate a transpiring physiognomy of landscapes.

The careful selection of the images presented at Sprüth Magers is a great representation of the evolution of his style, gradually concentrating more on man-made structures as well as enormous spaces bursting with crowds. Embracing an indirect psychoanalysis of the masses, Gursky’s photography acts as a sui generis chronicle documenting contemporary culture. And this is what has made him and his aesthetics so popular and desirable; the rigid dichotomy between human and natural world and simultaneously the concoction of all constituents into masterful works of art. Kostas Prapoglou