One day in the summer of 1984, Andreas Gursky was on holiday in the Swiss Alps when he took a photograph of the Klausen Pass, showing an area of pasture below a jagged grey peak. It was only later, when he enlarged the image, that he spotted what else was there: a line of tiny walkers spread out below the mountain. The figures were either alone or in pairs and widely spaced across the landscape. They were unrelated people doing the same thing but on their own.
This picture opens a new retrospective of Gursky’s work at the Hayward Gallery in London, and exemplifies its strongest theme: uniformity. At the beginning the uniformity in question is gentle, even pastoral. The Swiss picture forms part of a series about landscape and leisure, his so-called “Sunday pictures”, shot in the 1980s and showing people cycling, walking, fishing and swimming. Using wide angles and high perspectives, Gursky captured groups of people all engaged in the same activity, whether lounging by the pool in the German town of Ratingen or fishing on the banks of the Ruhr.
But later, as Gursky began to travel, he turned his attention to the infrastructure of globalisation. He shot crowds of traders on the floors of stock exchanges in Tokyo and Chicago, neat ranks of cars and cargo containers waiting to be loaded onto ships at the port of Salerno, the interior of a store where everything from Reese’s Butter Cups to plastic furniture is priced at 99 cents (above), and the strictly gridded banks of black solar panels covering the landscape at a French solar farm. “I’m not interested in a particular place, but in what it says about the world today,” Gursky has said. The image of the world his pictures present is standardised, systematised and commodified.
Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, where his father ran a commercial photography studio specialising in advertising. In the early 1980s he enrolled at the Dusseldorf Kunstakadamie, where he studied photography with Bernd and Hilla Becher, a husband and wife duo who took austere pictures of industrial architecture – water towers, gas tanks, pitheads – often arranged in grids. While their pictures were black and white, Gursky has worked in high colour from the beginning; and while the Bechers restrained their choice of subject, Gursky has been wide-ranging. Yet he inherited their interest in regimentation and repetition of industrial society. It has made his work some of the most valuable in contemporary art.
“Rhine II” (1999, remastered 2015)
This picture, which shows the river bounded by flat grassy banks in a rigid composition of horizontal green and grey strips, hovers on the edge of abstraction. In 2011, “Rhine II” was sold at auction for $4.3m, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold.
“Bahrain 1” (2005)
In the early 2000s, Gursky made a series of pictures of Formula 1. There are two in the show. The first depicts cars at a pit stop with swarms of mechanics crawling all over them, while spectators look on from above. That image was digitally manipulated to add more mechanics than would be there in real life, adding to the sense of high-tech fetishism. This picture of the race track, shot from a helicopter, was also rearranged on a computer afterwards to heighten its abstraction and the alien quality of the dense black tangle of tarmac against the sand.
“Les Mées” (2016)
In Gursky’s earliest pictures of leisure, signs of modern infrastructure sometimes intruded on the landscape. “Krefeld” (1989) shows trees on a summer hillside, with a thin cable running horizontally across the scene. In “Ruhr Valley” (1989), a fabulously large photograph, a lone man in a green anorak and wellington boots stands in the countryside beneath a dark concrete overpass. In “Les Mées” shot at a solar farm in France, he takes the effect to a new extreme, the soft undulations of the rural landscape covered almost entirely in black panels.
This shows the inside of an Amazon warehouse, where the items awaiting delivery form a dense jumble of colour. Their arrangement, which makes no intuitive visual sense, has been designed by algorithms and is searched with digital scanners. If Gursky began with human uniformity, his later work feels post-human.
Andreas Gursky Hayward Gallery until April 22nd 2018