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You photograph what you love

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans talks to Dirk Peitz about the futile search for absolute truth

Recently, it seemed as if Wolfgang Tillmans was steering a wide berth around German museums. It's been more than five years since the Turner Prize winner's last solo exhibition in Germany, at the Hamburg Deichtorhallen. While the New York gallery P.S.1 did a show of his most recent work last year and a collection is currently touring the USA, from Chicago and Los Angeles to Washington, the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover opened a comprehensive Tillmans show this weekend. "Bali" runs until May 6. In it, the 38 year-old, one of the most significant photographers of his generation, shows for the first time in Germany the table installation of his "Truth Study Centre" as well as more recent works from his "Paper Drop" series. In addition, Walther König has recently published a new Tillmans book: "Manual".

paper drop (krishnamurti), 2006
© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

Süddeutsche Zeitung
: Mr. Tillmans, are you a photographer who's afraid to take photographs?

Wolfgang Tillmans
: Where does that come from?

Because in almost 15 years of creative output, you have constantly come up with new work elements that deviate from graphic photography but remain true to its materiality: Laser prints and blackroom experiments, used photo paper, the photographed photopaper of the "paper drops" series, most recently the table of the "truth study centre," where only the occasional photograph surfaces between the printed works under the glass...

I've been interested in vitrine-like presentation forms for a long time. They were to be seen in my Porticus exhibition in 1995 and my Turner Prize in 2000. The tables of the "truth study centre" became a way to think about perception and truth. I think people who claim absolute truth for themselves are the greatest problem of our time. Nobody wants to admit to not knowing. That applies to the creationists in the USA, to Aids and the policies of the South African government, which denied that HIV caused the Aids virus. The American claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, the Holocaust-deniers in the Middle East, the moral equivalence that's increasingly being drawn in Germany between the bombing of Dresden and the Nazi crimes. These are all things that worry me a lot, on which I collect material, often from newspapers.

When did you start collecting such material?

I've been cutting out newspaper articles and photos and pasting them in notebooks since childhood. Later, I started collecting entire newspapers or at least entire pages. I find it hard to throw newspapers away at the end of the day. I suppose I'm a bit of a clutterholic! I'm pleased that for the exhibition in Hanover, in the Kestnergesellschaft, I was able to dig up things from my parents' reserves, going back to 1979. I like ephemera like calendars, election pamphlets, magazines; things that are not considered valuable and are thrown away but that say a lot about their time.

Should this be understood as an extension of photography?

In my daily life, it all belongs together, but one doesn't always recognise that. In "Manual", my artists' book, which has just appeared, I tried to illustrate these daily processes. While working on the book, I was reminded of the year-long continuity of my interests. Old pieces from 1987 are shown, black and white laser copies which connect perfectly with my most recent work, like the large format pictures "Copenhagen" and "Berlin", based on photocopies, which are to be seen in Hanover. It's always about the combination between the objective and abstract representations. Unfortunately, however, when one talks about art, one is constantly being forced to build on opposites – the language demands it. For me, the abstract picture is already objective because it's a concrete object and represents itself: the paper on which the picture is printed is for me an object, there is no separating the picture from that which carries it. That's why I like to show photographs sometimes framed and sometimes not, just taped to the wall.

truth study centre© Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy MCA Chicago

Is it not that you want to present your pictures unadorned and directly?

No, for me it was maximum purity and this most simple of presentational forms was about directness of content as well as the vibrancy of a complex image on a simple piece of photgraph paper. It's rarely mentioned that these details can represent different even opposite things. But that's largely a semantic problem for me. Language looks for absolute clarity where art is often about graduations.

But the category "Photographer of youth" was less of a linguistic, more of a real problem in your career, not so?

I had no problem with the association with youth and subcultures, because it was in part true. What I didn't like was "fashion photographer." I associate that with commissioned work and a way of working that has nothing to do with my own. I spent two days of my life with Kate Moss. Out of them came five photographs which I still like today. They carry in them a power of recollection which distinguishes them from many of the other pictures that have been taken of Kate Moss in the last 15 years.

Are you surprised that some people understand your exhibiting rumpled, monochromatic photo paper as a form of denial?

I would call it a conscious slowing-down of seeing. Of course, the content of the picture itself is so strong and convincing that very few people are aware of its materiality. The public's reception generally hobbles way behind the self-perception of the artist. It seems to me that changing the course is about as difficult as it is for a huge tanker. My theory: it takes about seven years. I have always been happy to do the opposite of what was being written about me. When most attention was being paid to pictures of thousands of dancing people, I concentrated on the "drapery", pictures of hanging or lying pieces of clothing, or the "Concorde" series, picture groups that contain for me a unity of abstraction and objectivity.

Nonetheless, audiences was shocked when, in roughly 2000, you started producing abstract ink jet motifs that had been created completely without a camera.

That was a shock for some. I didn't really grasp that at the time, only recently have people been saying to me: "When you started getting into those blushes back in 2000, 2001, I was totally confused..." It's important not to forget the charm of play and curiosity. Novelty just for the sake of novelty is the fashion of the season. Art that I like speaks from its time about its time but it also possesses something enduring beyond its novelty.

You create pointless aesthetic events?

That's part of their quality. They don't necessarily have to make a particular statement. But their creation does have a point. I'm exploring the relationship between intention and coincidence while asking the question: what can I accomplish with the most simple means? This simplicity is important, in my paper drop work for example, where two- and three-dimensional objects are created through light and perspective. One senses that these images were not created with a lot of sophistication on the computer. If it had been technically sophisticated, it would have lost the effect. One doesn't want to see how hard it is to create art.

Why do you still work with photographic means?

I notice that my interest peaks with light-sensitive photographic paper, the analogue photo and the photocopy. And precisely in this moment, as our world stands before the final disembodiment of the image: with digital pictures, there are no negatives, no physical traces of the light. That's exciting. But if I were to take up this theme ten years from now, it would have a nostalgic tone.

Should your work not be nostalgic?

Definitely not. I just find that by looking at old things, we can draw conclusions about how we see things today. In the table project in Hanover, there are two election pamphlets from the Greens from the year 1985 in which they protest against the introduction of private television. It's interesting how right they were, which we can appreciate now with "Big Brother" and Rupert Murdoch, and at the same time, how unrealistic this was, because today we are, thanks to the Internet, much better informed than we were twenty years ago.

Gedser, 2004. © Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Köln

Are you less interested in the objective picture because digital photography with mobile phones and digicams has lead to an unfathomable multiplication and devaluation of pictures? We're photographing ourselves to death.

That's true but, although painting is very popular today, art is made with the means of the day and so I'm still very interested in the picture created through the lens. Nonetheless I have caught myself getting pretty pessimistic about this horrendous quantity of images. Photography has become a performative act: we photograph to be photographed and to see the other in the act of photographing. I see in that a subconscious gesture of control: I have power over the event, I don't have to get involved in the event itself. Seen positively, people take photographs of many things that they love, as you can see in the Net.

In reality, little happens in life that's worth documenting.

And there's not enough lifetime to look at all that's been photographed. Photography is really amazingly difficult. Because it's so easy as a medium and so democratic, it's hard to tease something special out of it.

So what's the enduring fascination for you?

Perception is a theme in all my work and in people in particular. Last year I was invited to South Africa by an Aids organisation that I support. I got really involved in portraits. The portrait is a constant challenge because what remains at the end is the meeting of two people. If I were to find that boring, then I would know that something was wrong with me. I can work out all other forms of work with myself and the audience but the portrait is always a direct encounter with one other person.

Your style of portraits have a certain visual language of coolness, you have made the unknown and the known even cooler with your pictures. Did the media resonance of your pictures ever bother you?

I ask myself again and again if I can still take pictures of people, why more pictures of people? Their meaning changes over time and also due in part to my own doing. The world doesn't need more of my pictures of people finding their identities in their clothing and environment. In the more recent portraits, I'm looking for facial expressions, little changes in the face and body position, that reflect my sense of this time.


"Bali" runs at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover until May 6.

This interview,
conducted by Dirk Peitz, originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 20, 2007.

Translation: nb - let's talk european