Andreas Gursky on the photograph that changed everything: ‘It was pure intuition’
It went against all he had been taught. But this image of Salerno harbour was a turning point for the great photographer, paving the way to his epic landscapes
It was 1990 and I was out driving with my family, sightseeing in and around Naples. Late in the afternoon, we came across this view over the harbour of Salerno. The sun was setting over the city so I had to hurry. I set up my tripod and my 4×5 inch camera, then took four frames. There was no time to weigh up whether it was worth it or not.
Visually, everything was completely at odds with what I had been taught. My teachers, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, had told me to avoid photographing with sunlight, blue sky or strong shadows. But I thought the warm sunlight here made for something quite kitsch. Also, up until this point, human beings had been the focus of my work – but here there were none in sight. Yet I was overwhelmed by what I saw: the complexity of the image, the accumulation of goods, the cars, the containers. I hadn’t been sure the photograph would work. I just felt compelled. It was pure intuition.
Only when I got back home and put together the first contact sheet did I realise what I had. I saw immediately that pattern, that pictorial density, that industrial aesthetic. This image became an important piece for me, a turning point. It opened up a new sense of possibility, stylistically and thematically. I tried photographing other ports, but I realised that wasn’t what had made the Salerno image work. It was the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail.
These are things I went on to develop. That same year, I made an almost monochrome view of innumerable men in black suits and white shirts on the trading floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. This was followed by a similarly large-scale image of the Siemens factory in Karlsruhe, Germany, with workers obscured by countless cables, boxes and things. Salerno, with its flattened composition and repetitions, made both those images possible.
After that, I homed in on airports and supermarkets, oceans and rivers, such as the Rhine [the subject of Rhine II which sold for a record-breaking $4.3m in 2011]. In the early 1990s, I began to work digitally, combining shots, excising certain details, repeating others. The final works were no longer simple straightforward shots, like Salerno, but constructed images. My focus is on the expanse rather than the detail. Critics talk about me always capturing scenes from a raised perspective, but my ceiling images were taken from below, and my Formula 1 work from straight on.
Distance is also an important factor, which is something else I inherited from the Bechers. If a photojournalist was commissioned to document a scene, they would get much closer. But by always keeping a distance, I allow the viewer to come up with their own opinion. While my images are all comprised of many details – which you can explore in depth because of the high resolution – that’s not what they are about. Each one is always a world of its own, created.
These days, I no longer go places without a plan, hoping to simply discover things. My process is much more conceptual and research-based. You don’t travel to North Korea – as I did in 2007 for my Pyongyang series – without working ideas out in advance. Similarly my Tulip series from 2015, taken from a helicopter, started with images I’d seen in a magazine.
That said, I do still stumble across things by accident. As I’m always telling my students: you won’t get anywhere sitting at a table thinking. You learn by doing. That’s how you move forward. And even if you do something wrong, the result may be much more interesting than what you went looking for.
Recently, I’ve been working with unsharpness. I was on a road trip with my wife, driving to Utah. Like any tourist, I was impressed by the landscape. One day I took pictures with my iPhone as we drove. I liked them. When we arrived at the hotel , I said to my wife: “OK, tomorrow you drive and I’ll try to get similar images at a higher resolution with my professional equipment.” The resulting image – of a flat, dry landscape with mountains in the distance – is mostly out of focus, though the resolution is high. It has a completely different perspective to my earlier works, which are sharp throughout.
I decided to try the same thing in Tokyo, shooting from a Shinkansen high-speed train. I spent three days there, alone, and took about 2,000 images. From the raised perspective of the train, I captured the miniature architecture, the density and irregularity of the buildings.
I’ve always been fascinated by Tokyo’s residential neighbourhoods. In Germany, my home country, everything is standardised: window openings, door sizes, they’re always the same. But in Tokyo, there is so much variation, you end up thinking something has gone wrong with the actual scene. That sort of “mistake” within a strict structure is what makes a picture interesting. The fields in my Tulip series have bits missing, colours missing. It’s like the printer malfunctioned.
Les Mées is a recent work that I relate back to Salerno. I’d heard about this photovoltaic plant near Marseille in France. Often, places like that aren’t very interesting, since everything is so rectangular. But here, the panels become part of the landscape. I also liked the fact that you could see the old world in the background, the mountains – and the modern world, the plant, up front.
All my landscapes are manmade. My interest lies in people, civilisation, human presence and activity. I couldn’t imagine taking a photograph of a mountain just by itself, though it is of course possible. One day I might.
Andreas Gursky’s CV
Born: Leipzig, Germany, 1955.
Trained: Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.
Influences: Hilla and Bernd Becher, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.
Top tip: “One sometimes unconsciously makes the right decision.”