A letter-by-letter guide to the photographer’s career – from his first coffee shop exhibition in 80s Hamburg to an upcoming retrospective at London’s Tate Modern
Born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, Wolfgang Tillmans held his first exhibition – a series of large distorted photocopies – in a café in Hamburg while undertaking community service. After moving to London in 1990, he became infamous for his candid portraits of LGBT youth, club culture, friends, lovers and political protests. Published in magazines like Dazed, i-D, Interview, Purple, Spex and The Face, alongside internationally exhibiting in galleries and museums, Tillmans’ innovative practice soon shot to fame, winning the Turner Prize in 2000. He was also awarded Kulturpreis der Deutschen Gesellschaft fur Photographie in 2009 and the Hasselblad Award in 2015.
A photographic polymath, Tillmans is known for his diverse range of subject matters and the democratic use of materiality, often resulting in site-specific installations. He is also engaged with the processes of photography, pioneering digital printing technology, and using chemical processes in the darkroom to create evocative abstract works. The following is a 26-point guide to the quintessential ‘lens-meister of the zeitgeist’.
A IS FOR ABSTRACTION
In 1998, Tillmans published his first set of abstracts – a series of sixty unique prints on colour negative photographic paper – in collaboration with the art journal Parkett Art. The signed and numbered edition corresponded to Parkett 53. The images were darkroom accidents, experiments and interventions, that Tillmans had been collecting since he began colour printing in 1990. Intrigued by the semi-abstract images, he began working with exposure in a more controlled manner, moving away from his figurative representational works into a more uncertain form of visual language - as if he was drawing with light. In later series produced in the 2000s, such as Blushes (2000) or Freischwimmer (2003), Tillmans plays with abstract gestures, using flashlights and lasers to create sweeping washes of soft colour.
B IS FOR BETWEEN BRIDGES
Tillmans founded his non-profit exhibition space Between Bridges in East London in 2006. Situated on the ground floor of his studio in Bethnal Green, the gallery opened with an exhibition of work by David Wojnarowicz – the artist and Aids activist. The ethos of Tillmans’ curatorial programme was generated around showcasing political artists who had been marginalised by the establishment due to controversy, artists who had died without much recognition, or those who weren’t commercially viable to the art market. Other exhibitions included the work of Sister Corita Kent, and Jenny Holzer’s Truisms. Between Bridges closed in London in 2011, but re-opened in January 2014 in Tillmans’ current home – Berlin. Last spring, Tillmans announced that he wanted to dedicate the space to addressing the ongoing European migrant crisis, in order to organise political activity from within the art community.
C IS FOR CLUB CULTURE
Tillmans has always been a great champion of the acid house and techno clubbing scenes – his large format photographs of male and female genitalia currently hang in Panorama Bar in Berlin’s infamous Berghain. In the 2002 Phaidon monograph about the artist, he comments in an interview with Peter Halley that in 1988, while living in Hamburg, he “started to go out tons and take ecstasy and that became this all-encompassing experience (he) wanted to communicate (about) how exciting Hamburg was at the time”. Tillmans bought a flash for his camera, went out clubbing, and sent the photographs to i-D magazine. These images ended up being the first photographs that Tillmans had published. Soon after, a local magazine called Prinz commissioned him to take club pictures. Similar stories ran in Berlin’s iconic Spex magazine. In 1991, Tillmans produced another i-D story with former editor and cultural writer Matthew Colin. Titled ‘Techno is the sound of Europe’, it featured the varying scenes in Belgium, Ghent, Frankfurt and London.
D IS FOR DEGREE ZERO
Jan Verwoert, the Berlin-based art critic and cultural theorist, has discussed Tillmans’ style through the ‘degree zero’ of photography - one lens, no retouching, no special lights; he just points and shoots. The photograph is also a functional record and document of a moment, rather than purely a significant aesthetic object in it’s own right. In his essay ‘Picture Possible Lives: The Work of Wolfgang Tillmans’, Verwoert writes, “through the deliberate reduction of his photographic style to a basic economy of means – one type of camera, one type of lens, no theatrical light effects – Tillmans approximates a ‘degree zero’ of photography. His work aims at the point where a photo is taken and an image emerges.”
E IS FOR EUROPE
Motivated by the contentious EU referendum debate that raged across the United Kingdom, Tillmans designed a series of posters that backed the ‘Remain’ campaign. On his website, he explained, “The reasons why I felt compelled to get involved in the UK-EU referendum are personal – my lifelong involvement with the UK, my love for the UK and its culture, music and people, my career’s groundedness in Britain and the always warm welcome I felt here as a German. I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.” Tillmans created a free zip file of posters, which were available to be downloaded, printed at home or at work, shared on social media, or made into t-shirts. Tillmans himself handed out these t-shirts, encouraged people to wear them, and almost exclusively posted content relating to the campaign on his social media channels. He was also notable for using both the Remain and Leave hashtags – in order to bombard the Remain campaign with positive posts. As a result, the striking visual campaign was readily picked up beyond the art community, and quickly became iconic symbols of the ‘STRONGER IN’ movement.
Read an interview with Dazed founder, Jefferson Hack, and Tillmans here
F IS FOR FRAGILE
Fragile is the name of Tillmans’ music project and alter ego, in collaboration with band members Juan Pablo Echeverri, Jay Pluck, Kyle Combs, Tom Roach and Daniel Pearce. The EP 2016/1986 was released first, followed by Device Control (which featured on Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless), and That’s Desire/Here We Are came out at the end of the year. As part of That’s Desire/Here We Are, Tillmans also directed, shot, and released a visual album in which starred Hari Nef and Karis Wilde, among others. The 2016/1986 EP in particular exemplifies how important music is to Tillmans. This record features on its B-side three songs recorded in 1986 in his hometown of Remscheid, whereas the A-side features two pieces recorded in 2015-16.
G IS FOR GRIDS
The use of grids are a reocurring theme in Tillmans’ work. For his commission at London’s Chisenhale Gallery in 1997, Tillmans created a series of 56 colour photographs of equal dimensions, which he arranged in a grid four rows high and fourteen columns wide. Titled Concorde Grid, the images recorded the daily passing of the Concorde aeroplane, and were shot in a wide range of locations, including private gardens, parks, railway tracks, and the fence around Heathrow airport. In 1998 Tillmans created another grid work – Total Solar Eclipse Grid – which documented 21 photographs of an eclipse. Snow/Ice Grid (1999) was conceived from multiple images of trampled and melting ice and snow.
H IS FOR HAMBURG
After finishing school in 1987, Tillmans moved from his hometown of Remscheid to Hamburg to carry out 20 months of community service. The draft still existed in Germany and in order to avoid military service, one had to stake their position as a conscientious objector and carry out community service instead. As Berlin wasn’t yet part of west Germany, Tillmans moved to the next biggest city – Hamburg. After ten months working for a mobile social health service, Tillmans moved to operating the switchboard of a different charitable organisation. Here, he began to utilise the office photocopier to create large zoomed in or distorted photocopies of images from newspapers or other sources. After approaching the owner of a small gay café, Tillmans displayed these works on their walls in triptychs of A3 photocopies. This marked his first exhibition.
I IS FOR INSTALLATION PRACTICE
Tillmans’ practice of hanging the work, often unframed, with tape, nails, and bulldog clips, has become an iconic and recognisable part of his oeuvre. He expanded on his practice in conversation with Peter Halley in the 2002 Phaidon monograph, “I’d never pin a photograph, because when you pin it you pierce the corner. So I found this tape with which I can tape a picture to the wall without it even touching the surface of the emulsion, and I can remove the tape afterwards and the print is totally untouched. I pin the magazine pages with steel needles, because if you tape a magazine page, you can never safely remove the tape, it always tears. I use this made-up logic in terms of how I present the stuff, how I fix it to the walls”. Tillmans is interested in the vulnerability of the photographs, and how that affects the visual experience – each object should be treated on individual terms due to its size, shape, or texture. He tends to work on an installation over the course of week in night and day shifts; “I’ll work on it, then leave, then come back fresh, have a new angle on it, change the whole thing, and so on, until the installation settles into a shape that gives me the sense that I can’t add to it or change it; only then do I feel it’s finished.”
J IS FOR JOCHEN KLEIN
Tillmans lived in New York briefly in the 1990s. It was where he met and fell in love with fellow German artist Jochen Klein in 1994. Tragically, Klein, who didn't even know he was HIV positive, fell ill with Aids-related pneumonia and died suddenly in 1997. There are prevalent political messages about sexuality intertwined in Tillmans’ imagery. In conversation with Peter Halley, Tillmans rationalised, “All my work has been made with the knowledge of possible death, because since 1983 I’ve had an acute awareness that this disease, Aids, affects me. In 1985, after my first few sexual encounters, when I was 17, I had this big Aids fear. That’s actually crazy, when you think of a 17-year-old schoolboy lying in bed thinking he’s going to die … The threat of Aids has been with me for all my active sexual life”. The death of Klein marked one of the darkest periods in Tillmans’ life, but he continued to work. “The pictures from that time, I never explicitly said what they were about … for example Untitled (La Gomera) (1997) or pictures in Munich, some still lifes, our hands clutching on the day he died. There’s a self-portrait, when I’m starting to ask, ‘Why am I here?’ There’s a still life of the food that we took on the plane from the last hotel night back to hospital.” In 2001, Tillmans won a competition to design the Munich Aids Memorial, which is inaugurated the following year. He also edited a book, Why We Must Provide HIV Treatment Information (2006), in collaboration with London’s HIV-iBase and the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa.
K IS FOR KUNSTHALLE ZURICH
Kunsthalle Zurich hosted Tillmans’ first institutional solo show in 1995. The exhibition combined black and white portraits of youth culture, with landscapes, city scenes, and clippings from books, magazines and newspapers. In 2012, Tillmans returned with a new series of work, titled Neue Welt (New World), exhibited at the gallery’s new premises at the Löwenbräukunst. Tillmans’ collaboration with friend and fellow artist Isa Genzken, Science fiction/hier und jetzt zufrieden sein, was also installed at Kunsthalle Zurich in 2003. In an engaging install, Genzken’s mirror glass wall units stood alongside his large-scale photographs.
L IS FOR LUTZ AND ALEX
In 1992, Tillmans took a series of photographs of his two best friends, Lutz and Alex. These images, particularly Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, have become some of his most revered and recognisable. In the autumn of 1992, the gallerist Maureen Paley decided to take a large inkjet print of Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees to Cologne’s unofficial art fair: the Unfair. Tillmans accompanied her in order to install it and was introduced to the German gallerist Daniel Buchloz. On the strength of that photographer and the others in the series, Tillmans was invited to do a show at Buchholz & Buchholz in Cologne in 1993.
M IS FOR TATE MODERN
Tillmans’ first exhibition at Tate Modern opens on the February 11. The chronology of the exhibition will start in 2003, representing for the artist ‘the moment the world changed’, due to the invasion of Iraq and the international anti-war demonstrations. The survey show will play to host to a rich variety of media – photographs, video, digital slide projections, publications, and recorded music. In tandem, Tillmans has also been invited to take over the vast performative environment of the Tanks for ten days in March. An immersive new installation featuring his recent work in music and video, interspersed with live collaborative events, will explore the capabilities of the sound system and the acoustic qualities of the space.
N IS FOR NON HIERARCHY
In the sixth edition of his ‘The Conversation Series’ books (published in 2008), curator Hans Ulrich Obrist referred to Tillmans as part of “a generation of artists who looked for new ways of distribution in times of a severely depressed art market”. Many critics have misunderstood Tillmans relationship with magazines, often thinking that he worked as a ‘commercial photographer’ and then became an artist off the back of that. Rather, Tillmans has always been an artist, but used magazines as ways to distribute his work, as he found them an equally valid artistic medium. This non-hierarchy also trickles down into his exhibitions; magazine pages will be shown alongside original photographs. This was particularly apparent in the 1993 Buchholz & Buchholz exhibition (see L), which was re-staged as part of the The Nineties exhibition at Frieze London 2016. The original installation consisted of over 60 unframed c-prints, photocopies and magazine pages. In a lecture at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2011, Tillmans explained that the use of different materials and means of reproduction was to “show the equivalents between a hand-printed fine photographic print that I made with my own hands, and a magazine page which has been printed for 30,000 copies, but which had been laid out and designed by me.”
O IS FOR OBSERVING CAUSE AND EFFECT
In Phaidon’s ‘Ten Questions for Wolfgang Tillmans’ in 2008, he was asked if he had a description of his work that felt “close to his heart”. Tillmans answered: “it’s an ongoing process of observing cause and effect, a locked and unsolvable coexistence of intentions and results … The moment I put a camera between my eye and the sitter something happens in the cheeks of the sitter, maybe the mouth makes a certain move. And that’s exactly what I observe. If you take a picture of a window you observe what happens with the reflection when you move. Is my presence getting in the way of an experience? Or am I making an experience possible? I think if we all paid attention to what causes what it would be a much greater world.”
P IS FOR POLITICS AND PRINTED MATTER
Tillmans is also known for his ‘table-top installations’, which use cuttings from the media and hoarded ephemera to comment on political issues. He has collected newspapers since he was a child but only started incorporating them into his work in 1999 with the Soldiers series. The publication featured multiple photographs of soldiers in order to press the spectator into considering ‘Why are we looking at them? And why are we being fed photographs of soldiers doing nothing?’ Tillmans’ Truth Study Center was first exhibited at Maureen Paley’s gallery in 2005. Photographs, cuttings from newspapers and magazines, pamphlets and flyers were exhibited under glass on custom-made wooden tables. The exhibition sought to draw attention to political ideologies, religious disputes, etc. Images ranged from nude studies, to candid personal portraits of Tony Blair, to astronomical views of planet Venus passing over the disc of the sun. The Truth Study Center project travelled to various international institutions, the content changing slightly with it each time.
Q IS FOR QUEER CULTURE
In a 2010 issue of Dazed Magazine, Tillmans candidly discussed formative moments for him growing up as a young gay man; “I came to London for the first time in 1983 on a language trip and saw Culture Club play. I think that was a lucky moment to grow up as a latently gay boy, in a time where the whole of pop music was about sexual ambiguity. It wasn’t called ‘gay’, it was just stylish. It was all about making clothes and putting on make-up – I wore a hat made from perspex melted in my mother’s oven … The first love of my life was the keyboard player of Bronski Beat. I guess I was some kind of groupie. We had a night of romance in Cologne when I was 16.” In 1990, Tillmans moved to London with Lutz and Alex, going on demonstrations about the Criminal Justice Bill or the Anti-Nazi League; “It felt as if hedonism and activism were not exclusive – that was my strong personal belief.” This fluid relationship between hedonism and activism is relevant to Tillmans’ approach to documenting queer culture. Alongside representing his lovers, friends, and the ecstasy of clubbing, he has also produced work exploring the complexities of LGBT life in Russia, or documenting protests both here and abroad (eg. NICE HERE, but ever been to KYRGYZSTAN? Free Gender-Expression WORLDWIDE, 2006.)
R IS FOR THE ROYAL ACADEMY
The Royal Academy in London is steered by a committee of nominated artists and architects. Known as the Royal Academicians, they are all creative practitioners who help support the vision of the institution. Tillmans was elected as a Royal Academician on 11 December 2013. All Academicians are classed as architects, painters or sculptors. Like fellow photographer Gillian Wearing or the filmmaker Tacita Dean, Tillmans holds membership under the expanded category of ‘painter’.
S IS FOR SUBCULTURE AND SUBJECTIVITY
In his essay, ‘Picture Possible Lives: The Work of Wolfgang Tillmans’, author Jan Verwoert considers how the ‘self’ is tied up with the social environment: Instead of only looking at how society shapes the individual, it seemed productive also to explore how, on the level of the everyday, personal lifestyles are organised as modes of resistance in the midst of a normative capitalist society. Tillmans is an artist who is fascinated in the relation between the different facets of people’s lives – how people concurrently exist politically, sexually, spiritually, and so on. Tillmans is often reserved when discussing the ‘meaning’ of his works. The nature of his photography encourages the viewer to feel closer to their own experiences by looking at images of others, rather than trying to get inside the vision of the artist. “I want the pictures to be working in both directions,” the artist once said. “I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience.”
T IS FOR THE TURNER PRIZE
In 2000, Tillmans became the first non-British artist to win the Turner Prize. It also marked the first time that an artist working in the medium of photography had won. The other artists shortlisted were Glenn Brown, Michael Raedecker and Tomoko Takahashi. The main work that Tillmans showed was Concorde Grid (1997) (see G). The jury praised the way in which Tillmans’ work “engages with different aspects of contemporary culture, while challenging conventional aesthetics, taking photography in new directions in both his methods of working and in the presentation of his work.” They were also impressed by “his ability to look at often unregarded aspects of the everyday and create striking images from them.”
U IS FOR USING A DIGITAL CAMERA
In 2009, after using an analogue 50mm Contax SLR camera for two decades, Tillmans began experimenting with digital photography. In 2012, he abandoned film altogether. In an interview with Dazed Digital in 2013, he explained, “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’.” According to Tillmans, the higher resolution of digital photographs correlates to “a transformation in the whole world … In recent years, everything has become HD, so I think it is inevitable that the overwhelming nature of this information density is reflected in my images. In this way, they again describe quite well my sense of perception today.”
V IS FOR VIDEO
In 1987, Tillmans began making videos. The technique is similar in many of them: the camera barely moves, the sound is direct, and the only cuts occur when the camera is turned on and off. Lights (Body) (2000–2002), was Tillmans’ first video installation. It featured static shots of the light effects inside an empty dance club, while the bass pulse of the “Hacker Remix” of “Don't be Light” by Air throbbed underneath. In 2002, Tillmans filmed a video clip for Pet Shop Boys’ single “Home and Dry”. The video was composed of shots documenting the mice and rats living in London’s Underground.
W IS FOR WORLD TRAVEL
“I take pictures in order to see the world”. In recent years, Tillmans has travelled outside of his dark room and the European bubble and travelled the world. The Neue Welt (New World) series saw him returning to a documentary style reminiscent of his output during the 1990s. After spending a decade from 1999-2009 working on abstract images and more conceptual projects, Tillmans was interested in what the world looked like20 years after he first started taking pictures. He described to Dazed in 2013, “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.”
X IS FOR GEN X
Generation X is the demographic cohort that follows the ‘Baby Boomers’. Although there are no precise dates for when this cohort starts or finishes, it is commonly agreed that they were born between 1966-76 and came of age between 1988-94. Tillmans is part of this generation. His work, alongside the work of other artists such as Corinne Day, Collier Schorr, or Ryan McGinley, can be seen to have captured the culture and spirit of the 1990s. The relationship between their real lives and the world depicted through their lenses were blurred, favouring grunge, tableaux, and representing passion and politics on an equal level.
Y IS FOR YOUTH
A genuine and refreshing image of youth culture is a prominent aspect of Tillmans’ work. Rather than using tired clichés, individuals or alternative scenes are shown in an honest light. Tillmans’ photographs will feature in the upcoming show – Eternal Youth – opening at MCA Chicago in March 2017. Alongside work by Larry Clark, Mona Hatoum, and Francesca Woodman, the exhibition considers how artists have representing youth since the twentieth century. Focusing predominantly on the 1990s onwards, how have images of youth in the western world ‘elicited both desire and fear, responding to social, cultural, and political shifts such as HIV awareness and gender bending transition … (examining) the different ways youth is portrayed – as simultaneously innocent and desirous – revealing the treatment of young bodies as sexualised, radical, and medicated objects.”
Z IS FOR ZEITGEIST
TASCHEN refer to Tillmans as “the lens-meister of the zeitgeist”. This is a word constantly attached to Tillmans’ work, perpetually capturing the spirit of the time through his photography. In a 2011 conversation with Bob Nickas in Interview Magazine, Tillmans discussed how these ‘iconic’ images can be misleading; “when, for example, you now look at pictures from 1968, they are hugely misleading in terms of standing in as an absolute image of the time. Because maybe two percent of the people looked the way that we now associate with that time … I made extraordinary things look not particularly staged or extraordinary. Two people sitting naked in a tree is hardly a documentary picture (Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, 1992), but it was somehow instantly seen as a picture of the zeitgeist, of the reality”. The advocacy of artistic social commentary – LGBT rights, homelessness, the refugee crisis – all filter into his mediation of the cultural zeitgeist. The reality of the world is reflected in his lens, Tillmans isn’t going anywhere soon.