Saturday, November 23, 2013

If your photographs aren't good enough, they're not big enough.

I've started looking at the size of photographs, in particular large photographs and their content.

Thomas Ruff, Untitled exhibition 
Andreas Gursky

Two artists that I will focus on are Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff. Both these artists studied at the Saattliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf under the tutoring of Bernd and Hilla Becher until 1897. Others in this class were Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, Axel Hutte and other photographers that have had very successful careers. The reasons I mention these photographers is that they have stayed within what I would call the conventional sizes of photographs yet were taught by the two Bechers. Although influenced by the Becher's linear black and white depictions of machinery and architecture, Ruff more so in terms of architectural photography, the two photographers went in an opposite directions. I hope to understand the significance of the large photograph through comparing Gursky and Ruff. Is conveying a meaning to the viewer something that small scale work cannot do?
Gursky moved into the world of humans and then removed himself as a 'photographer'. I know I’ve included him in the Becher School of photography but as Rupert Pfad puts it in his text for ‘Andreas Gursky’ that …’he has long since developed his own independent visual idiom… liberating him from the precepts of his teachers’. Themes in his works are hard to discern. Once he finds a subject that interests him, he chooses carefully how to portrait it rather than developing a theme or photographing a subject ad nauseam.

So far in my study of Gursky’s work three styles have emerged to me. These styles of photographs are merely vantage points over his intended subjects. One is where he is at a height above the subject, almost a birds-eye view. This allows the scene to be spread out above the picture plane and the horizon, that’s if there is a horizon. In these images Gursky is removed from the subject matter but there is always a hint that he is still on this world looking onward as in Bundetag. The second is where the subject is parallel to picture plane, spread right across the frame and has an indefinite quality to it. Examples that best describe this would be his Prada photographs that resemble an advertising style and Paris, Montparnasse where he depicts the regularity of design but also with great detail showing the modular differ due to human activity from apartment to apartment.

Gursky, Bundetag
 These two distinctive styles have been commented on by Lynne Cooke, in her text for ‘Andreas Gursky’, and are well noted. She also comments on a third group featuring diptychs and triptychs. I, however, feel that these are generally comprised of the first two styles. A third grouping which I feel is note worthy is in Gursky’s ‘Brasilia, General Assembly’ collection. The criterion here is a close up view of components where his motif of anywhere and everywhere comes through quite strongly. ‘Untitled III’ also fits this third group on for size. In its depiction of the gravel on the road seems monumental due to the low angle from the bottom right. The long shadows intensify the scale of the subject. I feel this third group might be a by-product of the large size which Gursky prints at.

Gursky, 'Brasilia, General Assembly II'

Thomas Ruff

In the work of Thomas Ruff, compared to Gursky, there are many themes to explore. However, I will not stray too far from the photographic themes which Ruff chooses to show in the larger scale.

Ruff has, again like Gursky, a different role in the Dusseldorf School when grouped with the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher. This largely due to his approach to subject matter and his predominate use of digital techniques.
In ‘stars’ we are shown romantic images of the universe but with further knowledge of the images the photographs have not been taken by Ruff. They have been taken by the European Southern Observatory in Chile and because these images are not his, he creates a radical abstraction from the enlarged prints.

Following this theme of the artist’s withdrawal from his work, two works of Ruff’s ‘Nudes’ and ‘jpegs’ offer us an insight as to why Ruff prints on a large scale. In these two series he intentionally uses freely available images sourced from the internet. The images are then distorted because of their enlargement. The larger they are the more distorted they are, this then gives rise to the subject matter of the image and a question; 

is the original subject lost, changed or still there?

Ruff, 'Jpegs'

Large Format

Together Gursky and Ruff have moved into the realm of the larger print at around the same time, late 80’s, this could be to do with the development of their works as they both came from the same class in the Dusseldorf school. Another reason might be due to technological advances in photograph and also in printing techniques. (This is an idea that with advances in technology we get advances in photography. A common theme amongst the two Germans and one which I would like to touch upon in my main essay.)
The issue, I have, regarding Gursky’s ‘Brasilia, General Assembly’ and ‘Untitled III’ and Ruff’s series of ‘Jpegs’ and ‘Stars’ is did these photograph develop into large format prints or did the subject matter inform them. In the case of Gursky going large comes from the search for more detail to be shown to the viewer. A mesmerizing level of detail that does not let the viewer focus on a particular subject. Ruff on the other hand uses the size of a print to reinforce his subject matter.

Going back to my original question of can the small scale represent the ideas of Gursky and Ruff? Would their work be that different if confined to postcard size? The title of this essay, from a Robert Cappa quote which he made with regards to being close to the action of the war, I feel, is why the large format does for Gursky and Ruff. The action that is, not the war. The monumental size says ‘look at me I am important’ yet both artists choose to convey typical scenes. Not surreal images as with the Pop art movement producing large prints, e.g. Warhol, Liechtenstein and Rosenquist. The large prints are an experience which unlike conventional photography is not about remembering the past or documenting an event but experiencing the present. This experience for the viewer is limited to the space where the prints are shown and thus is a main reason Photographers ‘print big’. It is for the viewer of the work to experience what the photographer intended.

 In the case of Gursky and Ruff this is usually to challenge the viewer. Even if this challenge is to the conventions of the viewer or not, there is no doubt the issue of the larger prints have more to them than just size.

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