Wolfgang Tillmans' wandering eye

The German photographer philosophises on the democracy of travel and shares his #tripping stories

Photography Q+A
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Wolfgang Tillmans Karl Kolbitz

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on dazeddigital.com/tripping. Right now, we take a closer look at Wolfgang Tillmans' latest project.

Wolfgang TillmansNeue Welt (New World), published by Taschen, fearlessly leaps from glossy, infinity-stretching shots of the stars to smog-choked Chinese cityscapes; from close-ups of high-spec car headlights to portrait shots of wide-eyed tarsiers.

The Turner Prize award winner spent four years making short trips that criss-crossed the globe, gathering material for the series; it also marks the first time Tillmans used a digital camera. But Neue Welt isn't so much a travelogue or an ethnography as much as a photographic document of our times: the interior of a Jurys Inn hotel nestles next to a glossy starscape in a juxtaposition that feels, nevertheless, perfectly natural. We caught up with Tillmans at his signing at Taschen's London store to talk about avoiding cliché and his approach to digital. 

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Young man, Jeddah (2012) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

Dazed Digital: Neue Welt captures images from a diversity of cities and landscapes. What drove you to undertake such an adventure? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: After spending the decade from 1999 to 2009 working on abstract pictures and conceptual work, I felt really interested in looking at what the world looks like today, 20 years after I started making my pictures of it for the first time. I gradually began to look out into the world again, and it became more and more solidified to become this new project. Then I made deliberate travels for it and it became this four year project in the making.

DD: How did you go about choosing what kind of destinations you went to?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I choose mythical places from childhood memory like Papua New Guinea, or the furthest away fields like Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the most southern city in the world. But then also there’s Nottingham, there’s New York, there’s London. It wasn’t about exotic places per se; it was about looking at everything in a new way.

DD: You picked up a digital camera for the first time in this series. What made you decide to start using digital technology?

Wolfgang Tillmans: It came about when I realised that there was a portable lightweight SLR, which had a sensor the size of 35mm film. Before, sensors were much smaller and it just looked different optically. When I realised that the lens that I had on my 35mm camera would perform exactly the same way on the new digital camera, I realised that it would be nostalgic to stay with the old. I thought: "Let's learn on my own terms in my own time, how to speak this language."

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Jurys Inn (2010) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

DD: Did your approach to photography change with the technology? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: There isn’t a complete break – 15% of the photos in Neue Welt are still analogue. But I arrived at photography by first working with the first digital photocopier in 1986. Digital printing had always interested me, but film was always finer and sharper and so I never needed to change for that. It sounds weird to talk so much about technology, but it is a very exciting moment in history. New art and new music has happened because of technological developments, so it is actually needed for what is going on.

DD: One of the charges against conventional travel photographer per se is that it exotifies foreignness. How do you engage with that criticism? 

Wolfgang Tillmans: By being honest about the superficiality of the position that I’m coming from. The word 'superficiality' is usually used in a negative way, but it is a reality. Some things we can only experience on the surface, and that still is an experience, it doesn't make that nothing. There is no threshold when a critical depth can be achieved, you know? My next project at Maureen Paley, Central Nervous System, looks for five years at one person. It's a whole exhibition looking at one person, but at the end, what are we looking at? We are still looking at the surface of the world. 

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Tukan (2010) Wolfgang Tillmans Berlin/London

DD: The new issue of Dazed & Confused is themed around #tripping. What was the trip that stuck out most for you?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I went to Tanzania; I had never felt any desire to go and see safari animals. But that was also part of the approach that I had, to go and challenge yourself and challenge your own clichés. I was surprised how good it was to like be in this African landscape! All these places, the Iguazu Waterfalls in Brazil or the Sydney Opera House or a lion in Kilimanjaro, they are all real when you’re there. They are not clichés. You have to leave your own jadedness at home, which is hard, but you just go and try not to frown at all the other tourists. It’s democracy.

DD: So there’s not much different between you, and someone with a handheld camera…?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Well, we’re all humans, and we’re all guests on this planet, sometimes wandering about in wonder and amazement. That’s sort of democratic – well it’s not a democratic experience, not everybody can afford it – but looking at the world with open eyes, that is a democratic experience.

Neue Welt is now available on Taschen. More information available here: www.taschen.com

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