Clever meets Beauty on the Southbank

I finally got up to London last week to see the exhibition of photography by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward gallery on the Southbank.

Gursky hit the headlines a few years ago when one of his photographs sold for more money than any other in history, $4.3M. Pictures of the notorious photograph “Rhine II” flooded the photographic press. The apparent banality of the image left many people,  myself included, frankly bemused. A long-time sceptic of the increasingly ridiculous world of ‘fine art’, when I heard this exhibition was coming to London, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.

a visitor views Gursky’s “Rhein II” photograph which sold for 4.3M dollars

I arrived a tad early so I made a few pictures around the austere looking Hayward Gallery then I used up my remaining time in their bookshop. Passing on the opportunity to pay £35 for an exhibition book, I headed for the photography book section. I smiled when I saw the “Guide to William Eggleston” published by the Moma employee who gave Eggleston his big break back in the day when black and white was all the rage and colour was soooooo daring!!  This book accompanied the New York exhibition and contains some of the worst photographs ever published. When you consider these drab and dreary images to, for example, the enigmatic and hauntingly beautiful work of Saul Leiter, a far less celebrated photographer, you can maybe see why I have such a beef with the art world. As much as I disliked Mr Eggleston’s work, when his exhibition came to London a few years ago, I felt it was important to see it in the flesh, to see if it benefited from close viewing. It did not.

a couple debate Gursky’s photograph

I entered the gallery to view the Gursky exhibition and the first few rooms left me pretty cold, in fact there was little on that floor that I can even remember (and it was only 3 days ago!). I zeroed in on a particularly bad photograph of a piece of grey carpet. I read the text. 

This made me want to walk out the door but I noticed there were stairs leading up to a second floor of pictures so I thought I may as well see it all. I’m very glad I did venture on because I have to say, I really enjoyed the rest of the exhibition. The rest of the pictures depicted what he has become known for. Manipulated (though not obviously so) photographs on an enormous scale showing great detail. The images show scenes and places, the nature of which has been given greater emphasis by the skilful work he has done. I loved the asian straw workers and the factory scene. I visited a large bra-making factory in Jakarta about 7 years ago and Gursky’s picture completely nailed the incredible scale of industry going on in asia. 

Gursky’s work is undoubtedly clever and well executed, but to my surprise I found much of it to be quite beautiful also. The formula one pictures, the fashion models, and others were a delight to view. In general I dislike ‘clever’ photography, there’s a lot of it about. Beauty gets a bad rap in the world of modern photography. ‘Banal’ and ‘Mundane’ are in vogue these days. Alternatively, photography just ‘has’ to be pointing something out, underlining a condition, serving some sociological purpose. Its not enough for a photograph to just be beautiful. There’s nothing banal or mundane about these pictures. I am most surprised to say, I am a fan of the Gursky.

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