HE SPENT his childhood sitting on the sofa set in his father’s commercial photography studio. Immersed in the advertising aesthetic, and surrounded by “photographic equipment everywhere, bright red Agfa and yellow-orange Kodak cartons and a chemical smell”, Andreas Gursky says he used to rifle through the “treasure-trove of equipment” for “anything that looked like it might be fun to play with”. With a portrait photographer for a grandfather, too, it is unsurprising that Mr Gursky later stated that his vocation was “not a conscious decision”.

In the 1980s he studied at the renowned Düsseldorf Academy under Bernd and Hilla Becher. A German conceptual-art duo, they shot industrial buildings and arranged them into grids, like the kind of pictures you find scientifically categorising a plant species. These formative years encouraged a new perspective on the artistic subject, and Mr Gursky quickly became a master of the hyperreal. His works look like they document reality as it is, but instead use technical trickery and skill to cram in minute details—more than the human eye could possibly perceive in a single blink. “Rhein II” (1999, pictured last), the most expensive photograph sold at auction (for a cool $4.3m in 2011), is an obvious example. The slickly manipulated shot makes the German river look like an abstract painting, its multiple layers filled with vibrant colour. There are no errant dog-walkers to be seen; an unsightly power station is edited out of the shot.

This week a retrospective of the past four decades of Mr Gursky’s work opened at the Hayward Gallery in London, a brutalist building perched unapologetically on the banks of the Thames. It is the first exhibition to be hosted at the gallery since its refurbishment, an extensive project that saw the building closed for nearly two years. Some of the renovations have transformed the space, particularly the restoration of 66 pyramid lights in the roof. Designed by Henry Moore, a sculptor, the lights never functioned the way they were supposed to, languishing behind a dropped ceiling of ugly smoked plexiglass. Now light floods the galleries, the sparkling terrazzo floor has been restored to its former glory and the gallery’s concrete surfaces are pristine thanks to a special latex treatment Ralph Rugoff, the gallery’s director, says is “sort of like a leg wax”.

Many of Mr Gursky’s photographs fill entire walls of this slick new space. Works like “May Day IV” (2000), of people at a rave, and “Paris, Montparnasse” (1993), of an apartment block, span more than four metres. These huge images are often stitched together digitally from multiple shots, allowing for improbably high definition. 

And they swamp the viewer. In “99 Cent” (1999, pictured top), his iconic photo of a gleaming convenience store, the viewer’s eye flicks between perfectly packed KitKats, Almond Joys and Peppermint Patties, all neatly lined up like the stuff of a neat-freak’s dreams. A stray pack of bagels threatens to disrupt the perfection, but the eye quickly moves back to the flow of perfectly presented products, giving the photograph a meditative quality. Nothing is prioritised over anything else in the frame, so the act of looking at one of his pictures can loop perpetually. “Figuratively speaking what I create is a world without hierarchy,” says Mr Gursky. “All the pictorial elements are as important as each other.”

Critics have described Mr Gursky as an arbiter of something they call the “contemporary sublime”. In the late 18th and 19th century, the Romantic conception of the sublime took nature as it object, capable of inspiring astonishment and awe—“that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended”, according to Edmund Burke. The contemporary sublime instead takes technology and the capitalist-industrial system as its focus. Mr Gursky treats things like stock-exchanges, skyscrapers, a Formula One racing track, the interior of a Prada shop and an Amazon warehouse with the same reverence as a sweeping vista from a mountaintop. “He makes crowds of people look tiny and relentless...like a minute, leisurely colony of ants,” says Alix Ohlin, a writer.

“Untitled I” (1993), which zooms in on a patch of grey carpet, encourages that same feeling of awe, its wash of steady colour oddly impressive in its uniformity. It is unnervingly akin to the emotion evoked by the trio of J.M.W. Turner paintings Mr Gursky has captured in another photograph (cleverly hung in the same room of the exhibition, to allow for cross-referencing). Much of his work pushes for this kind of abstract expressionism, painterly in scale and epic in intention. 

The emotive power of Mr Gursky’s photographs will make the show a blockbuster—as it deserves to be. In both skill and subject, Mr Gursky is one of the most significant artists of the era. His work depicts the underlying and ever-unfurling patterns of our world as driven by the crowds that populate it: a fitting statement of intent by the Hayward.

“Andreas Gursky” is showing at the Hayward Gallery in London until April 22nd