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Andreas Gursky’s “The Rhine II” Photography Essay

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Updated: Jun 1st, 2021

People may have different attitudes towards photography as some see it as a form of art while others focus on the natural and even scientific precision of the technique. Artists also tend to support one of these views to this or that extent. For instance, Andreas Gursky uses photography to reveal the image of a certain object in as much detail as possible. The photographer places the primary emphasis on naturalism and the modern look. His approach is nothing new as such renowned figures in the world of art as Charles Baudelaire and Peter Henry Emerson also claimed that art is and should be the tool to capture the natural complexity of the world through the lenses of contemporaneity.

Andreas Gursky created The Rhine II in 1999 that is actually a version of his earlier work. In The Rhine II, the photographer attempts to deliver “an accurate image of a modern river” and invites viewers to see the river enclosed in the deep-colored stripes of grass, concrete, and the clouded sky (see Figure 1). Ironically, in order to produce a picture as naturally as possible, the artist used digital tools as he had to remove a building.

Gursky’s vision is rather remarkable as he manages to provide a natural image that is perceived as something abstract and expressionist at the same time. The focus on texture is what helps the artist to create such an impression and draw a picture of a modern river.

Likewise, Charles Baudelaire praised naturalism and modernity in art. In his manifesto and his works published in the middle of the 20th century, he emphasized that it is essential to “understand the most recent, most modern expression of beauty.” Interestingly the art critic and poet believed that all forms of art had an element of “the absolute and the particular.” In this respect, the impact of Gursky’s work can be easily understood since it is detailed and it creates a mood. The reference to modernity in Gursky’s and Baudelaire’s works is remarkable as they both wanted to put modern or new worldviews to the fore. Importantly, they also concentrated on feelings rather than the exact form.

Gursky, The Rhine II.
Figure 1. Gursky, The Rhine II, 1999.

Emerson had quite a specific opinion regarding naturalism and the role it should play in photography. On the one hand, he denied the need to recreate natural images, but he also used people’s perception peculiarities, which made his photographs seem very naturalistic. He managed to create works that seemed to be accurate representations of the images people have in their minds (see Figure 2). The artist tried to use the advances in psychology and photography to deliver pictures that evoked feelings and created specific atmospheres. Similar to Gursky and Baudelaire, Emerson praised modernity without any nostalgia concerning past formal conventions.

Emerson, The Fetters of Winter.
Figure 2. Emerson, The Fetters of Winter, 1895.

On balance, it is necessary to note that photography evolved in the form of art that speaks to people’s emotions. Gursky’s The Rhine II is a detailed depiction of a landscape with its specific texture and mood. The photographer captures the modern look of the river and makes viewers feel rather than see it. Such approaches and perspectives have been employed since the 19th century as artists have tried to explore the way reality can affect people’s feelings. The photography in question creates a very specific mood as it makes people feel the way the hectic modern world can be in harmony with the changeable serenity of nature.

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