“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.”
By Russell Ferguson
Wolfgang Tillmans has consistently pushed back against whatever perceptions of his work seem most current. If he is thought of as a casual, snapshot photographer, he produces a book of formal portraits. If he is thought of as a photographer of people, he works on View from Above, 2003, with no people visible at all. Or he will make abstractions. Sometimes he will mix all the work together. At other times he will carefully divide it up. His recent book Truth Study Center, 2005, is sorted by category, he says, “but in a non-systematic way.”2 There are undeclared categories, non-categories. The flow from one to another is continuous.
Portraits, however, are something of a constant. As he said in 2001,
“All of last year I took more portraits again and it’s something I guess I won’t ever really tire of—sometimes I don’t feel I have anything to contribute to portraiture, and then, suddenly, after a year or two, I find I have a renewed, refreshed interest in people. Growing tired of people in general would be a terrible thing to happen to me. Making a portrait is a fundamental artistic act—and the process of it is a very direct human exchange, which is what I find interesting about it. . . . The actual dynamics of vulnerability and exposure and embarrassment and honesty do not change, ever.”3
Who does he photograph? The answer he gives is “people that I love in some way, that I want to embrace.” This sense of intimacy is perhaps most evident in the photographs of Tillmans’s late partner, Jochen Klein. Jochen taking a bath, 1997, for example, is a quintessential Tillmans photograph, combining personal intimacy with a casual elegance of composition. But Tillmans’s portraits also radiate out from this one-to-one intimacy, documenting friendship and love between other people in his circle, as in his extended series of photographs of his friends Alex and Lutz, and further out to include public figures about whom he feels fascination or curiosity: an eclectic group that includes, for example, the actress Irm Hermann, the architect Rem Koolhaas, and the rock singer Morrissey. And, of course, these categories themselves are somewhat fluid. Aphex Twin and Moby are famous musicians now, but they were not when Tillmans first photographed them.
Although many of his portraits are highly memorable, even iconic—such as Corinne, 1993; Suzanne & Lutz, 1993; or Supergrass II, 1997—they remain fundamentally untheatrical and rooted in a social context. It is important to remember that when Tillmans began making portraits, the dominant form of photographic portrait was the intensely theatrical work of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, whose subjects were routinely isolated and in a sense removed from the world. As Benjamin Buchloh has written disdainfully of this work,
“Their emphasis on the persistence of the photographic and pictorial category of the portrait is as desperate as that of the depicted “subjects” themselves, whom they retrieve in the desperate forms of eccentricity and transform into spectacle as freaks and the victims of their own attempt to shore up traditional bourgeois conceptions of originality and individuality.”4
Tillmans’s subjects—although they do often make an extreme assertion of their “individuality”—are always social subjects. His portraits blur the distinctions between public and private people, public and private situations, but his subjects are never removed from the specificity of their milieu. Whether other people are present or not, they are always implied. There is always another petal on the bough. This rootedness in a social context can result in confusion about Tillmans’s aims. He is not a documentarian of subcultures, for example. “I never set out to be the photographer of the nineties, the techno generation,” he says, “but these were the people I felt close to.” The documentary aspect of his work is a secondary effect of the pursuit of emotional responses, but those responses take place in a specific social context.
If Tillmans rejects the ostentatiously stagy quality of portraits by Avedon and Penn, it is not necessarily a given that he is striving, instead, for some kind of completely unmediated record. He is not naïve enough to believe fully in that possibility. Tillmans’s portraits actually blur the question of authenticity, complicating the widespread assumption that an apparently straightforward photograph of someone is a record of them “as they really are.” He works instead at various points along a hypothetical line between a totally found image and a totally staged one. Many of his portraits are conceptual works executed in collaboration with his sitters, and they play with the relationship between constructed and so-called authentic identities, and how these are intertwined. Most represent their subject in a relatively straightforward way, but some of these people are to a certain extent acting a part; both aspects can be present at the same time. This is particularly clear in a number of photographs made in the mid-1990s, including Felix outside The Lure, Gillian, Bernadette Corporation, Smokin’ Jo, Rachel Auburn, all 1995, Nan reclining, 1996, and the photographs of Kate Moss from 1996.
Of course, the people he represents are individuals, with their own styles, their own vulnerabilities, their own self-confidence and sense of how they want to present themselves. But they are also components of a larger picture. Their images become part of a mobile network, constantly rotating, shifting, recontextualizing, and generating new meanings from new juxtapositions. Tillmans’s distinctive installations reinforce this idea of a kaleidoscope of images. The photographs can be experienced like a conversation between friends, shifting focus all the time, but also returning to certain themes, to certain faces.
While any particular photograph can be taken as an individual work, most compelling is the larger dialectic between the image as a document and as evidence of Tillmans’s own specific aesthetic. I hesitate to describe any artist’s work as poetic, but the accumulation of apparently neutral and straightforward images in the end inescapably suggests a very precise way of looking at the world. In early twentieth-century poetry, the imagist movement rejected the sentimental tone and elaborate vocabulary of the Victorians in favor of precise images and straightforward language. Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams were among the best-known poets associated with the movement. Tillmans, comparably, rejects a self-conscious aestheticism and makes the claim that a direct vision can be as powerful. His deceptively straightforward images, often mistakenly thought of as casual, work in this tradition, inviting their audience to accept direct communication, and at the same time to take it seriously as art. Like Pound’s faces in the subway, “Petals on a wet, black bough,” each person who appears in Tillmans’s photographs might or might not have a striking individual presence, but they also form part of a larger composition. Any single image might seem slight, quotidian. In the accumulation of details, however, a highly specific vision emerges.
In the end, the portraits are not easily separable from the rest of his work. Is a
photograph of an unknown person seen for an instant in a nightclub a portrait? Is it a portrait if you can’t see the person’s face? Is Socks on radiator, 1998, a kind of portrait? Anyone who has seen one of his installations knows that portraits are often to be found mixed with landscapes, still lifes, abstractions, and every other potential genre. As Tillmans accounts for this, When we see a person, we don’t think “portrait”; when I look at my window-sill I see fruit in a bowl and light and respond to them, I don’t first see “still life.”
That’s how I want to convey my subject matter to the viewer, not through the recognition of predetermined art historical image categories but through enabling
them to see with the immediacy that I felt in that situation.5 This is not to say that the categories are meaningless. It means, rather, that we must see the portraits as part of a much more extensive set of relationships. As Tillmans has said of his work in general, “I am interested not in individual readings, but in constructing networks of images and meanings capable of reflecting the complexity of the subject.”6 The portraits, thus, not only represent a set of relationships among the various people depicted; they also form part of a dialogue with Tillmans’s work as a whole, and with the various connections that individual viewers may bring to any given image. It is possible to see all of Tillmans’s photographs as a kind of ongoing, extended self-portrait, a record of his passage through the world.
“Within me it is all one continuum,” he says, although he insists at the same time
that the photographs are not in any way random. “I’m not just drifting around, taking
a picture here and there. Each type of work is carefully considered in its own right. On the other hand, the great advantage is my liberty to do all these things.” In the background of Tillmans’s portrait of the techno DJ Richie Hawtin (Richie Hawtin, home, sitting, 1994) at his parents’ home, we can see the board game Scattergories lying next to him. The name seems apposite, suggesting categories that exist, but which can nevertheless be scattered randomly around. And, of course, Tillmans does not typically make a body of work in one category, and then move on. Lines of inquiry are picked up, put down, and taken up again later, over many years. And whatever categories might seem to exist are always subject to reexamination and fragmentation.
One category that has been a consistent source of confusion about Tillmans’s work is its relationship to fashion photography. There is a persistent and widespread misconception that Tillmans began as a commercial fashion photographer and somehow rossed over into the world of art. Remarkable as it is that such a characterization
could still be held against anyone who did in fact follow that trajectory, in this case it is not even accurate. True, some of Tillmans’s work has appeared in a fashion context. Some of his early photographs appeared as fashion features, but this work was initiated by Tillmans himself, not commissioned. Rather, its publication in that context reflects an openness on the part of publications such as i-D to publish work that was difficult to categorize, in some ways paradoxically offering Tillmans more autonomy than the art context of the period.
Tillmans has never had anything resembling a conventional career as a fashion
photographer. He has never shot for any advertising campaign, and he does not allow his work to be used for advertising. His subjects are rarely wearing high profile logos or brands, except perhaps the ubiquitous and inescapable Levis and Adidas. While style and a consciousness of style, sometimes high style, are widely present in his work, specific purchasable items are not. Tillmans knows that trying to preserve this distinction leaves him open to criticism and misunderstanding, but he insists on it nonetheless. Although it is true that his photographs themselves have become commodities of a sort, a resistance to commodification is nevertheless a leitmotif of his work overall. His recurrent themes—quiet observation of nature and everyday things; hanging out with friends; sex; political activism; dancing—are all free. None of them involves buying or selling.
This does not mean, however, that he avoids the fashion context altogether. That would be to play into the assumption that work done in that context is inherently inferior to other photography, which would completely contradict the antihierarchical impulse that runs throughout his work. And in any case it would be futile to deny the penetration of a fashion consciousness into everyday life. A case in point is a photograph from 1995, Michael Bergin & fan holding flag. Bergin, a Calvin Klein underwear model, was approached by a young woman on the street—herself wearing a CK T-shirt—who told him she had a poster of him in her room. The whole encounter between the two is entirely framed by the blended commodification of product, image, and identity. Both Bergin and his fan pose like models for Tillmans, yet the resulting photograph seems anything but staged.
In 1996 Tillmans quite consciously cut against the “countercultural” tendency in his work by agreeing to make a series of photographs for American Vogue. He accepted on the condition that he could work with Kate Moss, “the only Vogue-class model that I felt enough about.” Although these photographs were the result of a single sitting, they are among Tillmans’s best-known photographs and have contributed to the ongoing misunderstanding of his work. Any such assignment for a glossy fashion magazine, of course, ran the risk of undercutting Tillmans’s credibility as someone resistant to the world of consumerism, and instead marking him as vulnerable to the blandishments of a world that is always in search of a borrowed sense of authenticity. Yet it was in part the very counterintuitive nature of this project, and Tillmans’s desire not to limit himself in any way, that led him to accept it. In using Tillmans, Vogue no doubt expected photographs that appeared casual, bohemian, or spontaneous. But while Moss does appear relaxed, the photographs are quite formal, even classical. There is also an extended pun in them, since in this portrait “sitting” Moss is literally sitting in every shot. Of the five photographs from this session that Tillmans considers works of his, Vogue used only one.
Magazine work of all kinds, however, not just fashion, continues to be a productive catalyst for Tillmans, offering access to unexpected new situations that may or may not lead to photographs that he will consider his own. Thus we have portraits of people such as Tony Blair, Richard Branson, Goldie, or Jude Law. He photographed Blair for the English gay magazine Attitude. While in many contexts Tillmans is now recognizable as a well-known figure in his own right, for the prime minister he was simply the photographer who came with the interviewer. Such anonymity can be productive and would not be possible without the cover of the magazine assignment. “I have every intention,” Tillmans says, “of keeping the ‘photographer’ role.” His magazine work, whether for The Big Issue, Butt, or i-D, is one way of projecting his work beyond the confines of the art world and reaching people who have never set foot in a gallery.
The overlapping of bodies of work that Tillmans has made over lengthy periods, combined with the apparently casual, spontaneous feel of many of the photographs, has largely obscured the degree to which he is quite consciously pursuing certain ideas. “It’s not that I get a visual tickle and then press the shutter,” he says with some frustration. “I have certain things that I’m looking for.” His lack of a showy, signature style also contributes to the sense that his images simply fall into place by chance. He has also become among the most imitated of photographers. Traces of his style can be seen everywhere. Yet somehow we can tell almost instantly that a photograph is by Tillmans, despite his legion of imitators. It can be hard to articulate just why that is, given his resistance to a conventional signature. Part of the answer is technical: the lighting of his photographs. His lighting is antitheatrical; indeed it is all but invisible, but it is very important. He generally keeps it flat, most often by bouncing a hand flashgun intuitively into the room, preferably off a white wall somewhere. This technique largely eliminates shadows, thus giving the picture a clarity and a directness that is understated but unmistakable. We tend to edit out shadows from our consciousness of what we see in daily life. Tillmans keeps them mostly out of his photographs, too. Paradoxically, they thus seem all the more immediate. This low-key formal technique was developed as early as 1991, with the portraits he made of his classmates at Bournemouth College of Art and friends from Germany. These photographs, such as Adam, or Julia, he considers his first successful portraits.
I got rid of everything that’s artistic in portraiture: interesting lighting, recognizably “special” techniques, and all the different styles that divide us from the subject and are usually considered to be enhancements of the subject or the picture. I found a way of indirect lighting that looks like the absence of artificial light. That’s often been misunderstood as a lack of formality, and dismissed as the dreaded “snapshot aesthetic.” I know what people are referring to when they say that—the immediacy they feel from my pictures—but what’s mistaken about the term is the lack of composition and consideration that it implies.7 The compositional simplicity of the 1991 photographs came from a reconsideration of what it was that he really wanted to achieve with them: “Before that I tried to make interesting portraits.” But then, in a kind of breakthrough that was personal as well as artistic, Tillmans realized that he did not have to demonstrate that he and his friends were interesting. He began, that is, to take himself seriously, and realized that his own circle offered more than enough material for him to work with without theatricalizing it. His developing confidence in his own aesthetic judgment also went along with a growing sense of the legitimacy of selfrepresentation. To the extent that he felt that others did not properly represent him and his generation, and that he would take it upon himself to rectify that, we can see a connection to the identity politics of self-assertion that were already well established in the eighties. Tillmans wanted to give a certain dignity to the friends that he was photographing, and thus his antitheatrical lighting and apparently casual composition went hand-in-hand with a respect for the integrity of his subjects. “ For me,” he says, “a good portrait shows the fragility and humility of the person, and at the same time a strength, a resting in themselves.”
I suggested earlier that one way of looking at Tillmans’s work is as an extended self-portrait, in which a portrait, a landscape, a still life all become part of a larger body of work, united through Tillmans’s own sensibility and biography. Thus an ecstatic scene in a nightclub can take its place alongside the tranquil contemplation of nature in a Shaker village. There is a humanist simplicity and a clarity of vision that runs through everything he does that makes it unequivocally a single body of work.
Having begun with one imagist poet, Ezra Pound, I want to end with another, William Carlos Williams, in whose poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” each apparently inconsequential detail gradually takes on a crystalline significance:
“so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white”
In Williams’s poetry, as in Tillmans’s photographs, the desired effect is produced in large part through an accumulation of details. Each element depends on and enables the next, whether in a farmyard or nightclub, in a portrait or landscape, and in the end informs the totality of the work. Each image communicates an existence at once singular and connected, an individual in a moment, an entire body of work over time.
Russell Ferguson is Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs, and Chief Curator, at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.
Download the essay as a PDF:
ASX CHANNEL: Wolfgang Tillmans
(© Russell Ferguson, 2005. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)