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Life through a lens

Three great new photography books

Andreas Gursky, El Ejido (2017) © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

BY Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

In Books

A suspicion lingers around photography and how much of it can be defined as art. It’s only in the past few decades that the work of photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Massimo Vitali has become a mainstay of Contemporary art galleries. This month three books address the camera’s ability to create a distinct palette and find beauty in the ephemeral.


The Bigger Picture

It’s a mark of the present elevated status of photography that, following two years of renovation, the Hayward Gallery in London chose to dedicate its first exhibition upon reopening to Andreas Gursky (until 22 April). The first Gursky retrospective in London, it is accompanied by a catalogue produced by the pope” of photography publishing, Gerhard Steidl.

One can project as much or as little meaning on Gursky’s works as one wishes: they impress because of their sheer scale and grandeur and their visual rhythms, but also function as a commentary on rampant capitalism.

Andreas Gursky includes major works from 1982 to the present. The Hayward director Ralph Rugoff describes them as “landscapes and cityscapes, massive man-made structures and multitudes of people”. The monumental sites in this volume include a Montparnasse housing estate and an Amazon warehouse, along with various stock exchanges and road systems.

Andreas Gursky, Amazon (2016) © Andreas Gursky/DACS, 2017. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

Gursky’s interest in “collective existence” is kept at a cool remove. Instead, he provides evidence of the impersonal results of grand human endeavors. Nature is often shown as diminished and manipulated: Gursky’s well-known images of the Rhine turn the river into a barcode of green and grey, after the digital removal of the often-ugly architectural features that line the riverbank in reality.

Following the trajectory of Gursky’s images, delivered chronologically here, one sees a gradual pulling away from the relatively intimate and specific (desk attendants and Sunday walkers in Düsseldorf during the 1980s) to recent, more omniscient and clinical images taken from great distances (from birds-eye views of the exotic locations used in James Bond films for the series “James Bond Island”, to the Tour de France or Madonna concerts). Images of local German scenes gradually give way to views worthy of Google Earth. It’s a testament to Steidl that such a large narrative can be compressed into such a refined book.

Andreas Gursky is published by Steidl


Wonderfully Widescreen

Film and photography have always overlapped. Following in the wake of Wim Wenders’ celebrated polaroids (recently exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery, London), comes a collection of photographs by the late actor Dennis Hopper that is far more than a celebrity scrapbook.

There are photographers who are technically engaged and those who use the camera much like a pencil and pad, as an aide-memoire. If Gursky is the ultimate example of the former, then Hopper is a good example of the latter. Like Cecil Beaton—who, one contemporary observed, needed help with his shutter—Hopper was a photographer of his social set.

During the 1960s, Hopper was seldom separated from his camera. It accompanied him on film shoots, to Malibu parties and Manhattan galleries, to beach happenings and political protests. Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967 presents a long-lost cache of his shots that were only rediscovered following his death in 2010.

Dennis Hopper, Edward Ruscha (1964) © 2018 The Dennis Hopper Trust

His was an insider’s eye on Hollywood: he captured John Wayne, Dean Martin and Peter Fonda on location; took portraits of David McCallum and Paul Newman in repose; and caught Tuesday Weld driving around town and Jane Fonda practising archery.

Hopper was, however, equally at home in the art worlds of New York and Los Angeles as he was on film sets. He met and befriended many of the pioneers of Pop art and observed that New York had “the big galleries, the big buyers” and artists were treated as stars, while in Los Angeles the artists were broke and “doing it entirely for the art’s sake”.

At The Factory he snapped Andy Warhol (and Warhol snapped him). He photographed Robert Rauschenberg getting his tongue stamped by Claes Oldenburg and Jasper Johns cracking jokes with the art dealer Irving Blum. Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney and Ed Ruscha all peered into his lens. “I had some idea that what I was documenting was important,” recalled Hopper, “so I collected the art and I connected myself to the artists through the photography.”

When Hopper’s pictures were exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 2014, they were presented in their original small-scale prints. Taschen’s large-format book, however, often reproduces them fully bled to the paper’s edge, emphasizing their cinematic qualities. This is Hopper, shown wonderfully widescreen.

Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967 is published by Taschen


Street Life to Still Life

Joel Meyerowitz, New York City (1963) © Joel Meyerowitz. Courtesy Joel Meyerowitz

Around the time that Hopper found inspiration on the cultural and political fringes, Joel Meyerowitz discovered it in the theatre of New York’s sidewalks. Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective provides an exhaustive survey of some 60 years’ work, beginning in the early 1960s when Meyerowitz walked Manhattan with his friend and kindred spirit Garry Winogrand. Their cameras danced to the “jazzy riff of the street”. Later Meyerowitz would find his muse in the trauma of Ground Zero, the calm of Cape Cod and the stillness of certain objects. And, like William Eggleston and Saul Leiter, he proved that color photography could be as effective as monochrome.

Joel Meyerowitz, Rust Bottle, from Morandi’s Objects (2015) © Joel Meyerowitz. Courtesy Joel Meyerowitz

Meyerowitz’s street scenes capture both the prosaic and bizarre aspects of city life. And although he says that a photograph should work “content free of context”, his shots from the hip—couples arguing, cinema booths, crowds at parades and in parks—focus on the accidents and incidents that occur when people mingle. 

He began with black and white film but, by the late 1960s, his frames were punctuated with the colorful fashions of the era. His most famous series, compiled in the 1978 book Cape Light: Color Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz, made his name as a colorist, delivering a sequence of contemplative pictures of Provincetown, Massachusetts: pink skies over petrol pumps, swimming pools at dusk. Meyerowitz observed that shooting with an 8×10 large-format camera allowed for “a slower, more classical way of seeing”, a pensive pace that he maintained when he later moved to Italy.

In his sunset years, Meyerowitz has focused on artistic flotsam and jetsam, shooting still lives of the objects found in the studios of Giorgio Morandi and Paul Cézanne: pots in Bologna and skulls in Provence. This led to his own “Teatrino” series—pictures of assorted flea market finds, photographed on a stage made out of 19th-century linen. “How did I get here?” he asks. “Living on a farm in Tuscany. Nearly 80 years old, and once again the force of photography provokes me.”

Where I Find Myself: A Lifetime Retrospective is published by Laurence King


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