The recent sale of Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II for $4.3m (£2.7m) set a new world record for a photograph. What interests me most about this is not so much the price tag or the aesthetic value of the piece, but the fact that the photograph is, at least partly, a fictitious construction. Indeed, I am bothered by the knowledge that what I see is not what was viewed when the shot was taken, but instead, is a carefully and deliberately engineered scene.
Rhine II depicts the grey river Rhine under an equally grey sky. A bleak and minimalist image; its featurelessness is no accident. Gursky digitally removed any ‘intrusive’ elements: dog walkers, cyclists, a factory building.
The photograph is the artist’s personal favourite: ‘…for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are.’ Gursky’s digital manipulation of the photograph facilitated this reflection on humanity and its interaction with nature, allowing the photograph to become an allegorical tool. The very absence of humanity in the final product symbolically consolidates and communicates his message.
Thus, the photograph works, in a sense. It delivers what Gursky, who used a local perspective to create a global view, intended. ‘I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment’. It follows that the deliberate removal of mankind in Rhine II allowed for something more powerful, something that extended beyond the photograph itself.
Gursky believed that the view of the Rhine he wanted to present, a contemporary one, could not be obtained in situ, and that a ‘fictitious construction’ was needed to provide an ‘accurate image of a modern river.’ He cites an earlier experience, when he visited industrial companies, looking for visual proof of antiseptic industrial zones. Instead, he found an unexpected ‘socio-romantic air’. He concluded that photography was no longer credible, unable to capture the spirit he envisaged, and thus found it easier to justify digital processing.
In this view, digital manipulation of the photograph enhances the potential of the art form to extend beyond the boundaries of its frame. The photograph becomes not just a memory, a moment in time, but can convey the possibility of going beyond what is, to what was, or might be.
The revelation that Rhine II has been deliberately altered dispels head on the myth of a photographic truth, one we bought into when the new medium appeared, reassuring us that an objective truth might just be possible after all, seducing us into believing that what we see just might be true. The ‘truth’ is that the camera has always deceived. What has changed in recent times is that digital manipulation of the photograph no longer permits us to collude with a myth of our own making.
Yet, I remain bothered. Perhaps I am irrationally tied to that myth, the camera’s inherent promise, since it was first conceived, to give us something that is closer to a truth than a fiction. Yet, as photography today embraces contemporary technological and digital possibilities, this expectation may not only be irrational, but also unreasonable, and impossibly unrealistic.
Manipulation of photographs is not new. The recent exhibition at the V&A, Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism, explores how postmodernism began to explore both the uses and limitations of the art form. Central to the movement were issues of nature and artifice, and the creation of artificial scenes. The creative products of many of these artistic experiments appear unfinished, allowing for open-ended interpretations. The exhibition includes works such as Haywain with Cruise Missiles by Peter Kennard , where the artist has inserted cruise missiles into a photograph of John Constable’s The Hay Wain as a comment on plans to put missiles on mobile transporters. Also included is John Pfahl’s Airey Force, Lake District, England, 1995/7, from his ‘Permutations on the Picturesque’ series. The series contains photographs that have been digitally altered to recreate an 18th century landscape.
But, compared to Gursky, both Kennard’s and Pfahl’s work overtly inform the observer that the image has been digitally altered. We know that missiles could never have been part of Constable’s landscape, and Pfahl’s insertion of pixels into his photographs leaves us in no doubt that alterations have taken place. The subtlety of Gursky’s construction leaves one with the illusion that the photograph is ‘true’. He does not say it is so, but one assumes.
Digitalisation is now well established in the world of photography. The soon to be launched Lytro’s camera, for example, can capture the entire light field rather than a single plane. The sensor can thus pull in far more data about an image that has previously been possible, which allows the viewer to move through the picture after it has been taken, refocusing along the way.
There has been a backlash against such technological advances. Lomography is a contemporary movement inspired by the Russian ‘LOMO’ cameras. It stands for casual analogue photography taken with any ordinary camera, and encapsulates the act of photography without thinking, without manipulating.
Perhaps it is a hopelessly idealistic and romantic notion to need photographs to be a representation of reality, of time unfolding, like the now obsolete contact sheets, an archive of something tangibly true, a potentially lasting reality.
Allowing the ’intrusive elements’ to remain in Rhine II may have detracted from the message Gursky needed to convey, and yet I cannot help but imagine how it should have been. Instead, I feel cheated. If I had been that dog walker I would want to be there still, as reality intended, framed with the grey river and the grey sky, a placing of myself in the world, and proof that I once passed through.