Pushing the Boundaries of Photography with Wolfgang Tillmans

Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans. Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza, 2012. © Wolfgang Tillmans.

“On thinks technically photography is simple, ne?” German artist Wolfgang Tillmans observed in an interview with The Guardian in 2014, musing upon the public’s perception of the medium versus the artist’s private reality, continuing: “But the complexity of this space, from here to the Caulfield print, and all the objects in between—the brain can compute what goes on because of stereovision and the processing power that’s at work in real time. But to make that re-experiencable via paper is very, very hard. That’s my driving force, the question: is it possible? Can I take a picture of this?”

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We find ourselves in an increasingly visual world, where ideas and emotions are reduced to memes more often than not. In the space where most people have the technological tools to create photographs at virtually no cost, Tillman’s philosophical questions underscore the role of the artist in this brave new world. Now, a new exhibition at the Tate Modern, London reflects on the artist’s career since 2003, using the Iraqi War and the anti-war demonstrations as the point of departure for study.

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

Wolfgang Tillmans, currently on view through June 11, 2017, presents a selection of intimate portraits, landscapes, and still lifes as well as a selection of abstract artworks that are both sculptural installations and immersive soundscapes, creating a three-dimensional sensory experience of life inside the artist’s realm.

Born in 1968, Tillmans rose to prominence in the 1990s while documenting London’s club and gay scenes. His work appeared in cutting-edge magazines including i-D, Interview, Index, Spex, and Butt-Magazine. By 1997, he was shooting Kate Moss for US Vogue, making it to the top of the commercial scene—but still wanting more.

Wolfgang Tillmans. Collum, 2011. © Wolfgang Tillmans

“I take pictures in order to see the world,” Tillmans told an audience gathered at the International Center of Photography in 2010, revealing his growth as an artist paralleling that of his own personal journey. His works from the 1990s reveal a predisposition for the fine art of photography, using the camera to reflect of the realities of life in the same way a painter would.

Tillmans considers 2003 his year of political awakening, telling The Guardian, “The decision to go to war with Iraq despite all the evidence and the huge anti-war protest march in London, was a definite turning point. That was when things started fermenting that led to me rethinking where I was going with my work. It also—I can see now—led to me becoming more of a high-profile activist last year.”

Wolfgang Tillmans. astro crusto, a, 2012 © Wolfgang Tillmans

In a post-Brexit, post-Trump world, many artists have sensed the need to do more than simply create: they feel compelled to use their work to take a stand. Tillmans’ work does just this, using the photograph to question the very nature of the construction of the media. Among the show’s many treasures are his “truth study centers” that present a look at the media as it is: word and images that require constant vigilance. In a landscape rife with fake news, buyer beware.

Tillmans has always used the photograph to push beyond the limitations of the genre as a whole, effortlessly subverting traditions, paradigms, and expectations providing a new perspective by which we might approach the act of looking, of capturing, of representation itself. It all goes back to the central tenet at the core of his practice: “Can I take a picture of this?”

Wolfgang Tillmans, Iguazu, 2010. © Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans allows viewers to answer that question themselves, to discover what resonates, what unnerves, what pleases, what repels. The nature of an iconoclast is to move us outside our comfort zones, always challenging the realms of the known.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.