Mr. Gursky began by explaining his recent output. “I’m just interested in making images,” he said. “And, of course, you have to reinvent yourself.” He pointed out that he made no more than eight images a year, and that they took time to produce.
The exhibition’s curator, Hayward’s director Ralph Rugoff (who was recently named as the artistic director of the 2019 Venice Biennale), said he chose to reopen the Hayward with Mr. Gursky because “he’s changed the language of photography in so many ways.” As examples, Mr. Rugoff mentioned “Review” and “Untitled XVI” (2008), in which the hivelike space in the picture was entirely fabricated using architectural software.
Those “completely constructed” works of recent years were among Mr. Gursky’s best, Mr. Rugoff said, because he was establishing a dialogue with abstract art and composing pictures the way a painter would.
From the very birth of the discipline, Mr. Rugoff said, “people were doing darkroom tricks and making things appear in photography that weren’t there.”
“This medium, which we, for official purposes like passports and school IDs, trust to be an accurate picture of the world, has always been something that can be lent to fiction as well as to fact,” he explained. “Andreas is not a journalist doing reportage.”
Other specialists expressed a preference for Mr. Gursky’s earlier work.
Quentin Bajac, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — where Mr. Gursky’s retrospective in 2001 gave the photographer a major career boost — said his signature pieces of the ’90s came “at a perfect moment,” just as globalization was gathering pace. Mr. Gursky represented the spread of multinationals and the explosion of financial markets, as they were striking “the right balance between something that is neither critical nor apologetic,” Mr. Bajac said. That “absence of narrative” mirrored the contemporary mood.
Mr. Gursky’s work also embodied the shift from analogue to digital, from “taking images” to “making images,” said Mr. Bajac — initially doing both but now doing more of the latter.
Mr. Gursky was born in Leipzig (then in East Germany) and left when he was 1 year old. His father set up a successful commercial photography studio in Düsseldorf, in the West, so the little boy grew up surrounded by a lab and camera equipment. Though initially determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, he ended up getting a photography degree from the Folkwang University of the Arts, in nearby Essen, because “to be honest, I didn’t know what I could do.”
In 1980, he enrolled at the Düsseldorf Art Academy to study with the pioneering teacher Bernd Becher, whose other disciples — Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer — also went on to become prominent photographers. While there, Mr. Gursky started taking color panoramas of mountains, camping sites and swimming pools featuring tiny human beings.
A switch to digital photography in the early ’90s allowed Mr. Gursky to take large-format photographs and to manipulate the images in digital postproduction — by “pumping up the color sometimes or combining several different images in order to get this really even perspective, where you can see everything and details that aren’t available from just one perspective are suddenly made available to you,” Mr. Rugoff explained.
The giant formats found a ready market. Photography had historically been black-and-white and small, and printed in large editions. Mr. Gursky blew it up, made full use of color and set out to “document the key themes that dominate our lives today, then produce these works in limited editions of between four and six,” said Francis Outred, the chairman and head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, one of the Hayward show’s sponsors. He created “a capsule of value” akin to a painting, Mr. Outred said.