Representing the creative future

Wolfgang Tillmans on the Art of Photography

The 46-year old Turner Prize winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans began shooting in the ’90s for i-D magazine, where he quickly became renowned for his honest, playful and sensible photographic style. The young Tillmans would shoot anything, from fashion models to cars, old friends and domestic objects – with a signature sensitivity and emotional approach to his subjects. “It’s about finding poetic potential in things and phenomena,” he reflected in front of a full lecture hall at London College of Communication, as he walked an anticipated audience through two decades of his work.


Contrary to much photography, Tillmans insists that his work is not serial. He considers themes in his work more as “things accumulating over time” – like shooting cars, buildings, abstract colours, or people in lots of different places over a long period of time. “To some, an image is only validated through its seriality,” he argued: “we must challenge that”. The challenge to exhibit and compartmentalise his vast oeuvre then becomes a matter of curation – and responding to themes as they emerge. For example, one of the motifs that he has kept returning to over the years is the headlight of cars. “It’s an underlying interest of mine. I like to study how they have changed their expression over the years.”


Although Tillmans began with traditional fashion photography and portraiture, he has spent his career conceptualising the photographic medium. He has even exhibited photographic images produced without a camera, as he approached the dark room and its technicalities as a method, medium and object of depiction. The result was a (non-serial) series of abstracted images of light, colour and substance – meditative, soothing or dramatic in their portrayal of the chemistry of the photographic medium. The meticulous experimenting with light manipulation in the dark room negotiates the abstract and concrete, and seem miles away from his documentary work – yet, going through the work of Tillmans, you understand how everything fits into a larger study of surface.


Rather than speaking a language of depth, Tillmans examines surfaces. “I believe we can read the nature of something through its surface – surface is all we have,” he reflected, as he went through some of his still-life photography. The study of surfaces runs as a red thread through his work, as he approaches everything from the naked male body to fragments of modernist architecture with the same, almost scientific attention. His decade-long documentation of car headlights ends up as a poignant portrait of the development of technology-fetishised aesthetics – and his seemingly random depiction of modernist and contemporary architecture ends up as a critique on the neoliberalisation of today’s urban spaces (his acclaimed work Book for Architects was presented at the Architecture Biennale of Venice). It is interesting to think about portraiture as a study of surface – what do we see in a portrait, and how is it the surface of something underlying?


Like many other photographers of his generation, Tillmans began his career shooting analogue, and remained sceptical as the new digital counterpart emerged in the ‘90s. As the quality of digital lenses not only met, but surpassed the standards of analogue, he experienced a minor crisis with his medium: “Suddenly, the camera showed you more than the eye could see, requiring a whole new vocabulary. It was terrifying.” Conscious of his desire to expand his practice, he began the journey of learning this new vocabulary – a journey that took him four years and brought him around the world, travelling and constantly taking pictures. The result was the book Neue Welt, which comprises over 200 pages with collected parts of the photography he took on his trip, from mundane images of abandoned streets to close ups of lovers.


One of the most crucial parts of a photographic practice is the consideration of the photographer’sengagement – his or her gaze and stake in the subject. “The camera always lies about what’s in front of it,” he said, “never about what’s behind it.” As we read an image, the photographed object or the image itself is open for interpretation and subject to projected meaning, yet the motivation of the photographer is just as important to consider. This goes for personal integrity, too: “when you only shoot an image to impress, it will show exactly that. And if you are genuinely interested, that will also show. Photography is scary like that: it really depicts truth.”


Tillmans is known for his compelling portraiture of youth and its subcultures, yet he is careful to conceptualise his work as being ‘about’ that. “I was not attempting to depict youth,” he recalls of his early work. “I was not trying to depict them as crazy or funny. I took them seriously, and depicted them as serious people who were aware of themselves.” His honesty extends to a self-criticality, and this awareness gives his portraits of young people (from the ‘90s until today) a certain timelessness to them – they are not ‘fashionable kids of their generation,’ rather actual individuals who live, think and love. Historicization and categorisation are two other pit-falls of photography – instead, Tillmans emphasises contemporaneity and shooting in the moment. “We shouldn’t be afraid to be of the time – of being here and now. I can only talk about what surrounds me today.” Tillmans is an aspiring practitioner for any artist or photographer, and a perfect example of how a unique practice can exceed such categorisation.