On first sight, Wolfgang Tillmans’ east London studio has a relaxed feel, verging on the messy. But look closer and you notice the meticulously organised files of invoices, alongside boxes of letters and out-of-date films. The objects around this studio are often the subject of his photographs, and in many respects it helps explain his work.
With their informal aesthetic and seemingly loose approach to subject matter, Tillmans’ photographs have been mistaken for casual snapshots. Don’t be fooled. He has deliberately abandoned “the language of importance”, but his images are carefully thought out and are often partly staged. “I guess there is a tendency for any artist in any field to want their work to be noticed,” he laughs. “But the artists who are a little bit more interesting go beyond that and realise that of course it’s much cooler to make it all look effortless.”
Despite the apparent ease of style, Tillmans’ work is instantly recognisable, and he’s become one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. A decade ago he was the youngest person to ever collect the Turner Prize, as well as the first photographer, and he has the rare distinction (for a photographer) of having been given a solo at Tate Britain in 2003 and at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
Tillmans didn’t get into photography until he was 20. Born in 1968 in Remscheid, a small town close to Cologne where the work of the Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) photographers such as August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher was “in the water”, as he puts it, his first exhibition was a collection of images photocopied on a Canon laser printer.
“It probably seemed a little mad to people that I had this drive and this belief that the work was good and that it mattered,” he told Fantastic Man magazine recently. “And that somehow if this mattered to me, there might be some relevance in it to the outside world… I have always felt a sense of purpose, that I had something to say and that I wanted to say it.”
He showed the work in various venues in Hamburg, where he lived for three years after finishing school, then moved to Berlin during the tumultuous months of 1989, when the city’s wall divide was spectacularly torn down and the party began. Yet just a few months after arriving, he moved again, this time to a seaside town on the south coast of England best known for elderly sunseekers. He’d read that Nick Knight, who’d made his name blurring the boundaries between fashion and documentary with shots of skinheads and youth culture, had studied photography at Bournemouth School of Art and Design, and applied to go there himself.
His sheer drive marked him out early on, say his former tutors. “I was interested, and knew what I was interested in,” he says. “Or not even that – I was passionate.”
Primarily influenced by artists who worked with photographic images, such as Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Robert Rauschenberg, Tillmans had every confidence in photography as an art form. But he found his signature style when he stripped away the accoutrements of art, shooting apparently unglamorous subjects with simple flashlight bounced off the walls.
“I saw all the students, including myself, try out interesting lighting techniques, and it was the heyday of cross-processing and lith-toning and wide-angle lenses,” he says. “It dawned on me, ‘Why are these images not really looking like what I see, what I feel with my eye?’
“So I embarked on looking for ways to approximate what my eye sees and came up with these portraits that I then became known for, including this realistic palette and normal light and normal lenses, but also this unaffected gaze. A lot of people in the early days found that almost hostile or rejecting because, I guess, a lot of pictures when I was growing up were of young people smiling or being funny or acting as if they excused themselves for that phase they were in. Whereas I saw myself and my contemporaries as serious, complex human beings, and that was enough.”
These images, such as Julia (1991), showed casually posed friends and associates, often in homely domestic spaces. Many of these acquaintances were involved in the 1990s techno scene, though, and Tillmans also documented London’s Chemistry Club and shot stories for i-D (one of his best-known images, Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, was shot for the style magazine). These images, and publications, seemingly confused some when Tillmans was nominated for the Turner Prize, with critic Matthew Collings telling The Observer he had “no idea why Tillmans is supposed to be an artist. If he wins, the message will be the Tate… wants to get down and boogie in an embarrassing way with the youthful airheads who read The Face”.
Collings’ comments were inaccurate – Tillmans has never shot for The Face – and the photographer still finds the subculture tag slightly frustrating. He’s stated he “never set out to be a photographer of the 1990s, the techno generation”, he just shot the people he had access to. But he’s also said he shot the ecstasy generation because he felt closest to them, and that the portraits he most values are of the people he loves. This, combined with his still lifes of everyday objects such as fruit and half-empty milk bottles, have led some to further confuse his work as primarily diaristic – another misinterpretation, he says, although he admits that after 25 years in photography he can see some of his own history in his work.
“I have a very varied subject matter, but it is actually not everything,” he says. “It’s not every plate I’ve eaten off – it’s a particular plate maybe once a year. It’s not like I’ve photographed every seat I’ve sat in, every bed I’ve slept in… There are different reasons for portraits. There are those of the friends I’m close to, others I’ve made because I think that person is important, or does something important that I want to amplify.
“Others I see almost literally as an exercise in flexibility. There are two or three magazines that can approach me about portraiture, because I generally like what they do, and then it’s a random thing. A person suddenly gets proposed and you have to deal with them, sometimes in 20 minutes in a hotel room. They don’t have any idea of who I am or the status I might have in my world, so I just have to function on this one-to-one human level. There’s no safety net.”
In fact, he says the possibility of failure is at the heart of any good portrait. If you go into a situation with a preconceived idea, he argues, you’ll get a picture with that idea; if you go into it with an arrogant or dismissive attitude, you’ll get bad results. He’s fond of saying that although photography always lies about what’s in front of the camera, it never lies about what’s behind it, and he adds that photography is “an incredibly true medium in regards to the intentions that are behind the camera”.
“You could say these are just pictures of clubs, but you know thousands of people take pictures of clubs and none of them look just exactly like mine,” he says. “That’s a proof – not of how brilliant I am, but of how specific photography is, how truly psychological.”
Tillmans has described the eyes as subversive because “they are free when used freely” – that is, they ascribe value to what’s seen in front of them, no matter how expensive or banal the subject. But although many of his still lifes show ostensibly everyday scenes, in fact many are staged, and if they’re not, they’ve acquired meaning for him over a long time before shooting. The title of his 2003 Tate Britain show, If one thing matters everything matters, has been misinterpreted as meaning that everything is equally important, he says. He didn’t mean that every milk bottle is of equal value to him, nor is he taking a straight inventory of the objects around him. He meant that any object has the potential be a worthy subject, nothing is per se excluded from consideration.
“I don’t think, ‘Oh this normal apple is actually quite beautiful’, that wouldn’t cross my mind,” he says. “There isn’t a programme saying, ‘Hey let’s make something normal look good’. I genuinely think it’s good. And that doesn’t exclude a precious object either. I might take pictures of very inexpensive things, but I’m also interested in the special [he’s shot gold bars, for example]. It’s almost that I transfer the special in the everyday and the everyday into the special.”
His constant question to himself, he adds, is “Can I make a picture out of this?” The titles of his images sometimes function in the same way – sometimes he’ll pick out a seemingly incidental aspect of the image, in an attempt to sharpen the viewers’ senses. “It’s again in keeping with my approach, you know – don’t be so sure about what you think you see, be open, look twice,” he says.
This emphasis on the image runs through Tillmans’ abstract experimentations too. Although he’s always shot abstracts, after the 1990s he started working on process-driven pieces too, for example the Blushes, Peaches, Starstruck, and Freischwimmer series. These images are often talked about as fragments of hair or skin, which Tillmans puts down to the sheer fact they’re photographic if they were paintings, he argues, viewers wouldn’t try to read them in terms of reality. They draw attention to the materiality of photography, he says, and the fact that images don’t simply depict reality, “something that is not really well understood by the general public”. Beyond that, he says, they’re not so different to his other work. He’s a picture-maker, and “anything goes”.
“Photography is matter, or it was matter before digital, and they [photographs] are objects,” he explains. “They are an embodied image, which is a picture, and the abstract works pronounce that more, even though the concern for me is the same if I take a picture of a stained t-shirt and put it on the wall.”
He always shows his abstract images alongside figurative work in the pin-up, installation-style exhibitions for which he’s become known. Selecting a large number of pictures, in some installations even including photographs culled from newspapers as well as his own, he prints them out as inkjets, then tacks them to the walls, or (as in the Truth Study Center project) lays them flat on crude, wooden tables.
Abandoning glass mounts and frames is another bid to reject “the language of importance” and “the reek of mimicking painting”, but it also leaves the images free to “battle it out” he says; he doesn’t want to promote one image above another, just as he doesn’t want to prejudge his subjects because “the world is so full of interesting things”. What matters is being open-minded enough to really look, and what’s special about photography is that it can point towards what you actually see, he argues. “I chose the medium because I can say what I want to say with it,” he states. “Photography allows me to make very expressive things but keep them still related to and grounded in reality.”
That reality, of course, is shared with other people, and Tillmans told Influence magazine in 2004 that he liked the fact that photographs join him to the world and connect him with others. “I can get in touch with somebody when they recognise the feeling, ‘Oh, I felt like that before, I remember jeans hanging on the banister, even though I’ve never seen that exact pair’,” he said. “It’s this universality that interests me, how this individual’s experience relates to a shared universal experience,” he adds.
It’s a position not a million miles away from Kant’s Critique of Judgement, which argues that each individual, subjective response is universally shared by all, but, typically, Tillmans has a much more egalitarian reference point – the loss of ego implicit in clubbing, and in losing the self to a mass of people and music. It’s this sense of fellow feeling and communication that makes it all worthwhile, he says, not his spectacular success in the art world.
“Regularly, people tell me how they see the world differently because of my pictures, that they somehow see things in their own life that they take a picture of in their mind’s eye,” he says. “I find that super, such a reaction is really rewarding. That is real success – not the price that my pictures go for, but actually affecting a fellow human to see something with open eyes.”
Wolfgang Tillmans will be on show at Tate Modern from 15 February to 11 June 2017, with ticket prices starting at £10 for students. Visit tate.org.uk for more information.