Andreas Gursky is best known for his large-format photographs, which he began taking in the 1980s. They are often reminiscent of children’s books because of their wide-format and high-angle perspective along with surprise objects within the frame. Motifs from nature and various forms of landscapes are an integral part of Gursky’s work. Since the 1990s he has been using electronic image processing to intensify the composition of his pictures. At times these image manipulations are obvious at first glance, but sometimes the subsequent processing has a more subtle effect that you only become aware of at second glance. Andreas Gursky’s landscapes are marked by the fact that there is always a trace of human beings in them. He thematizes natural phenomena, artificial and instrumentalized nature.
Man in nature
Some of Andreas Gursky’s landscape paintings show motifs that radiate sublimity such as massive rock formations (Klausenpass, 1984, Dolomites, cable car, 1987 or Engadin I, 1995 and Engadin II, 2006) and rushing waterfalls (Niagara Falls, 1989). These images of massive natural phenomena are scattered or lined up one after the other like ants – making the viewer put humanity’s minuscule size into perspective. One could almost overlook the human presence in some pictures; in Dolomites, Gondola lift (1987), for example, there is a small spot that turns out to be a Gondola lift. Once the viewer realizes the human presence, one is tempted to interpret them as being the center of attention in the piece, even in this vast landscape veiled by fog. Due to the chosen format, people appear tiny, set into the landscape like toy figures. Even beyond showing the insignificance of tiny people in comparison to the enormous nature, the pictures show one thing above all: the conquest of nature by man. The photographs make us realize that there is no spot on earth that has gone untouched, explored or degraded by the presence of man. These pictures also show that sublime nature has become a backdrop for vacation pictures; it has become a consumer product.
In addition to these landscape photographs, there are a number of pictures that at first glance seem almost abstract and that also addresses our relationship with nature. In a certain way, these are also “landscape” pictures. They show an abstracted depiction of nature that has been artificially rearranged by man. Examples of these pictures include Rhine II (1999), Beelitz (2007), the tulip and hyacinth fields (Untitled XVIII-XXI, 2015-2016) as well as Bahrain I (2005) and Bahrain II (2007) and the pictures of the artificial island groups in Dubai (Dubai World I, 2007 and Dubai World II, 2008). The digitally processed photograph Beelitz from 2007 appears to be an abstract work, but on closer inspection, we see that it is an asparagus field. The abstract line construction, which is formed from black plastic coverings and the gray-brown of sandy soil is interrupted in places where we see individual harvesters appear. The tulip field photographs (e.g. Untitled XVIII, 2015) function similarly in composition but Gursky here does not include people in the picture, making the abstraction all the more surprising. The high degree of abstraction makes the photographs feel more akin to painting. Here the emphasis on vertical lines and the choice of color is reminiscent of Mark Rothko‘s painting, color field. This is also the case with the Bahrain pictures (Bahrain II, 2007) where the borders of the streets and the advertising space somewhat hide the fact that they are asphalt and desert sand. Even the subsequently digitally processed Rhine pictures (Rhine II, 1999), which actually consist only of vertical lines and alternating green and gray surfaces, are reminiscent of works of hard-edge painting. The artificiality of supposedly “natural” landscapes and the violence with which man intervenes in the course of nature (for example, in the straightening of rivers) become apparent here. These “landscapes” no longer have anything in common with our everyday idea of beautiful nature or landscape. They appear utterly artificial, yet they have something aesthetically appealing about them. In a rather subtle way, Andreas Gursky’s landscape paintings use abstraction to make the viewer aware of our complete alienation from nature.
Instrumentalization of nature
Gursky examines humankind’s relationship with nature in a striking way. Greeley (2002) and Fukuyama (2004) deal with the enormous toll that factory farming is taking on the earth; works such as Untitled XIII (2002) and El Ejido (2017) denounce environmental pollution. The instrumentalization and appropriation of natural spaces are also evident in the 2016 work Les Mées, which shows a hilly landscape in the south of France on which we see an almost filled frame of photovoltaic panels. Only the mountain range in the background is reminiscent of a seemingly idyllic bygone era. Photography can subvert expectations – whether framing this installation as a blight on nature or a necessary and welcome step towards clean energy sources. In these images, we witness the efforts of mankind that have plagued nature. Despite their obvious indictment, even these images correspond to the aesthetics typical of Gursky. Their clear composition, the format borrowed from landscape photographs, harmonious color concepts and the richness of detail make even these motifs interesting and pleasant to look at.
The interaction of humans in nature
In Andreas Gursky’s landscape paintings there is an immanent thematization of his own medium. His photographs, some of which are obviously digitally processed, question the truthfulness of the medium of photography. At the same time, the motifs he chooses address man’s relationship with nature. His pictures seem to capture a gloomy and industrialized consumer-oriented society, which, due to the hidden object character or the abstract beauty of the photographs, is veiled in a peculiar cheerfulness. What we see is instrumentalized, highly artificial nature – reminiscent of the striking Dubai Islands – or rather, maltreated nature.