From the Archives: Wolfgang Tillmans’s Deceptively Casual Photography

Wolfgang Tillmans Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza, 2012. ©WOLFGANG TILLMANS

Wolfgang Tillmans, Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza, 2012.


He’s taken some of i-D magazine’s most famous photographs, he’s won the Turner Prize, he’s pioneered what some call “abstract photography,” and he’s even designed posters opposing Brexit and directed a Frank Ocean visual album. Now Wolfgang Tillmans has an exhibition at Tate Modern in London. This week, the museum opened the survey show of the New York-, Berlin-, and London-based photographer and musician, who, over the past 20 years, has shot everything from alcohol-soaked parties to Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Known for his crowded salon-style exhibitions, Tillmans is prolific. Below are excerpts from the ARTnews archives about his vast, seemingly simple, remarkably complex output. —Alex Greenberger

“Turner Prize 2000 at Tate Britain, London”
By William Feaver
February 2001

A controversy, some sort of controversy—any sort of controversy—is key to the success of each Turner Prize contest. [. . .]

The predicament with Tillmans is pervasive: photographs deployed like so many items of clothing in a boutique.

The winner, in a dull year, was Tillmans. He alone appeared to have the capacity to fill a room with a fetching variety of images, some small, some vast, all touching on present-day concerns. Like the trawlers in the North Atlantic, the Turner Prize jurors are facing increasing difficulty in coming up with sizable catches. Stocks of cod are running low and drastic steps to conserve young cod and enable them o survive to maturity have been proposed. But the hype and publicity generated by the prize make such efforts unlikely.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Collum, 2011. ©WOLFGANG TILLMANS

Wolfgang Tillmans, Collum, 2011.


“Shooting from the Hip”
By Hilarie M. Sheets
October 2007

Whether photographing friends or cultural figures such as musician Annie Lennox, model Kate Moss, or filmmaker John Waters, Tillmans says, “I try to approach that person simply as an interesting creature, a vulnerable creature like myself.” The pictures are marked by an informality and offhandedness that belie how precisely lit, colored, and composed they are. Tillmans uses either available light or a flashgun that he directs in such a way as to produce even lighting that lends clarity to the subject without excessive drama. He has avoided digital cameras, too, in favor of his 35-millimeter one, which he feels best approximates the sharpness of what the eye sees. “I try to reduce the visibility of the medium,” he says of his photographs. “I want them to look easy, to make the viewer not think about me first.”

While his pictures of people—which have influenced a generation of younger artists—are what Tillmans is best known for, the current museum survey [at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.] attests to his breadth of subjects and styles. His still lifes, for example, have captured a lived-in hotel room, a bunch of socks shaking down a hallway, and sheets of curling photographic paper that take on sculptural qualities.

The extent to which he stages an image or intervenes in it varies from not at all to 100 percent. His landscapes range from a straightforward grid of 56 small, shifting views of the Concorde flitting through the sky to an oversize print of trees and foliage tinged acid yellow with hallucinatory blotches of red raining down. Tillmans titled this last image Icestorm (2001). It is one of what he considers his “intervention pieces,” in which the figuration on the negative is combined with abstract elements he introduces on the printing paper in the darkroom.

Wolfgang Tillmans, paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse, 2014. ©WOLFGANG TILLMANS

Wolfgang Tillmans, paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse, 2014.


“Wolfgang Tillmans at Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin”
By Alicia Reuter
January 2011

The more than five dozen photographs in this thoughtful exhibition highlighted Wolfgang Tillmans’s deceptively casual mix of visuals. Provocative sexual and war-related imagery was absent, but on display were most of his familiar motifs—informal portraits, pure abstractions, and easily overlooked vignettes in both urban and rural settings.

Among the strongest works, the “Lighter” series of abstractions offered the clarity and saturation of Color Field paintings. The works, folded or crimpled photographic paper framed in Plexiglas boxes, aren’t so much photographs as monochromatic objects. Works from the series were staggered throughout the exhibition, creating both a rhythm and a resting place for the eye. The other works were presented with nonchalance. Some reached floor to ceiling, hung with clips, while others were taped directly to the wall, often clustered in groups so that the eye took in several at the same time.

Wolfgang Tillmans, astro crusto,a, 2012. ©WOLFGANG TILLMANS/COURTESY THE ARTIST

Wolfgang Tillmans, astro crusto,a, 2012.


“ ‘These Pictures Would Not Have Been Possible Ten Years Ago’: Wolfgang Tillmans on His New Show at David Zwirner”
By Alex Greenberger
September 21, 2015

Who knows whether “PCR” [at David Zwirner gallery in New York] is an exhibition good enough to go down in history? Tillmans certainly doesn’t. At this very moment in time, however, it’s a stunning show, filled with images that are tough to forget.

In one, the camera is turned on its head to mirror the point-of-view of a baby, who is being dangled upside-down by a man. In another, Tillmans shows us his desk, which overflows with tchotchkes and screens. And, in yet another, a man’s hairy ass and scrotum are unflinchingly pointed straight at the camera. (“We all look like that, probably, at a certain angle. It’s nothing to be afraid of,” Tillman said of that last one.)

If it is possible to draw any connection between the 100-plus works in “PCR,” it’s that each image feels like it has more information in it than what meets the eye. For one work in the show, Tillmans ran photo paper through the rollers of a printing machine and allowed nitrates to build up on the surface, creating silvery streaks. He then scanned that image and blew it up to gargantuan proportions. In the blow-up process, you lose the physical nitrates, Tillmans said, yet you also begin to have “infinite information, but it is absolutely flat, and it doesn’t have this material quality.

“So they both are completely rich,” he said, “even though they are missing a component. Often people want just one black-and-white answer, but the reality of life is that it is not black and white.”

These photographs, Tillmans added, are just two of many that he’s made without a camera in the past decade in response to the abundance of photography, thanks to iPhones and Instagram. “Now everyone’s walking around with a small camera,” Tillmans said.

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