Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer whose work is renowned across the world. Born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, Tillmans’ career began modestly. He started by taking photographs of friends and working for fashion magazines. He has since risen to global fame and has recently had a retrospective in MoMA. He was the first photographer and non-British artist to win the Turner Prize in 2000. Tillmans’ artistic practice includes portraiture, abstract photography, and installations, amongst many other forms of expression.
The Early Years of Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans developed an interest in photography from an early age, and he spent much of his spare time in his early teens visiting art galleries in Dusseldorf and Cologne, admiring works by artists such as Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol.
In 1988 Tillmans refused a mandatory stint in the military and opted instead to do community service, working for a social services helpline. During this time, Tillmans kept a collection of found photographs, which he experimented with using a photocopier that he discovered at work. After playing around with the photocopier for a year or so, Tillmans finally bought his first camera. He spent the final years of the 1980s immersed in the rave and club scene in Hamburg, taking intimate photographs of this underground world. In 1990, he moved to England and studied for 2 years at Arts University Bournemouth, and continued to engage in the alternative scenes of both England and Germany.
Tillmans submitted photographs to fashion and culture magazines such as i-D and Prinz and steadily developed a name for himself as a photographer. It was his photograph Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, exhibited at an art fair in Cologne in 1993, which in many ways launched his career.
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Lutz & Alex is a perfect example of Tillmans’ unique vision. Technically a fashion shoot, the models are wearing next to nothing with their naked bodies clad only in loosely fitting raincoats. Perched in a tree, the duo is presented as wildly different—he’s quiet and brooding, she’s curious and open. Yet they are bound together by an inherent playful nature and, perhaps, innocence. In Tillmans’ camera, these figures become symbols of youthful rebellion, hope, and beauty. The freedom captured in this photograph is an important element of Tillmans’ work from this early period.
Speaking on rave and LGBT+ culture, Tillmans noted that he was always aware that this freedom was only possible because people were not as afraid as they used to be. The Europe of the late 1980s moving into the 1990s became much more liberal and open. Arkadia_I shows three men, arms wrapped around each other in a warm embrace. Their heads are cast down, and one has his eyes closed, suggesting deep comfort and a sense of safety. Photographing and displaying close male bonds has always been important in Tillmans’ practice. The sense of youthful camaraderie and physical closeness is typical of Tillmans’ photographs of youth, rave culture, and LGBT+.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ abstract photography
In the early 2000s, Tillmans began a series of works titled Freischwimmer. These works are cameraless photographs, created by exposing photo-sensitive paper to light. The title Freischwimmer translates literally as free swimmer, and refers to the badge received by children when they pass a swimming test. It can also mean: learning to stand on one’s own two feet. This poetic element of the series invites the viewer to use their imagination when looking for the meaning in the abstract works.
Tillmans’ abstract works challenge the conventional understanding of photography as a strictly representational medium. Tillmans stated that his abstract works are: trying to challenge people’s assumptions that every photograph is reality, by presenting abstract forms that somehow look figurative. In Freischwimmer 117 (and in many others from the series) there is something in the image which seems organic. It is something that looks like it’s moving across the composition, something microscopic, or liquid, perhaps. Many of the compositions seem to hover between representation and abstraction, calling our attention to the uncertainty of the photographic medium, suggesting, perhaps, that all photographs occupy a space between reality and fiction. In his Freischwimmer series, Tillmans attempts to expand the possibilities of what a photograph can be. These abstract compositions possess a poetic quality, encouraging viewers to contemplate the mysteries and complexities of the world.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ Still-Life Photographs
Another important group of Tillmans’ works includes still-lifes. Still Life, New York (2001) shows a windowsill littered with apples, vegetables, orange peel, a cassette, and other miscellaneous objects. Through the window, we can see the iconic yellow taxis of New York, the forms of which mirror the fruit and vegetables crowded on the sill.
Tillmans’ still lifes are often understood as contemporary re-imaginings of the famous 17th-century Dutch still lifes, also known as vanitas. What appears at first glance to be a quick snapshot of some random items on a windowsill is in fact a carefully controlled composition. The mirroring of forms and colors inside and outside the window, as well as the use of negative space in the center of the image, are no accident. Tillmans has noted that there are still many misconceptions about what he does do. The artists knows that some people think that his images are random when they are actually the opposite. In the artist’s opinion, they are calls to attentiveness. Through this carefully constructed composition, Tillmans draws our attention to the beauty which is present in our everyday lives.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ Political Side
Tillmans’ work has arguably always been somewhat political. Many of his photographs call attention to oppressed or misunderstood groups (for example the LGBT+ community). However the political element in his photographs is usually implicit, it is subtle, and it is not the main focus of the work. As his career progressed he began to create some works which are explicitly political.
In 2005 Tillmans created his first Truth Study Centre—an installation that he has recreated many times since. The installation consists of multiple texts and images, from news stories to scientific reports and photographs. The aim of having so many different forms of sometimes contradictory information was to explore the many versions of truth and facts that are present in our world. Truth Study Centre asks the viewer to observe and absorb a myriad of information, and to be open to the reality of conflicting information.
Another political aspect of Tillmans’ practice can be seen in the posters he produced in response to the 2016 Brexit campaign. These posters featured his own images along with slogans such as No man is an island, no country by itself or What is lost is lost forever. These posters served as both a call to action, urging people to vote, and a call to introspection, asking people to reflect on their core values. Tillmans not only displayed these images publicly but also made them available for free download on his website so that anyone could share them.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ Installations
Tillmans has a unique and unusual installation practice that places seemingly unrelated images in relation to each other, creating interesting conversations between works. In some ways, taking photographs is only part of the work since each piece is completed only when it is installed in a gallery. Some works are framed, whereas others are pinned directly to the wall. Large ink-jet prints are in direct conversation with small snap-shots, undermining conventional display methods and opting for something far more democratic. This intuitive installation approach allows the viewer to make fascinating and illuminating connections between works.
Wolfgang Tillmans has had a long and prolific career and has gained global respect for his work. Perhaps what stands out the most in his practice is his ability to connect with every aspect of the human experience through tender portraits, curious abstraction, beautiful observations, and political questions. His art touches upon every corner of life.
By Lara CurranMA Contemporary Art, BA Fine Art, BA Art History & English Lit. Lara is a writer and researcher with a passion for arts, literature, and culture. Born and raised in Ireland, she currently lives in Lisbon, Portugal, where she works with local galleries and creatives. Her professional experience in Contemporary Art, Art History, and English Literature compliment each other perfectly, and Lara enjoys pulling together the threads of these disciplines in her writing. Her professional practice involves working closely with artists, institutions, and collectives on developing research projects, exhibitions, and publications.