Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans is a Berlin and London photographer. The basis of his photographer is the observation of surroundings and the ongoing investigation of photographic mediums and their foundations. Young Wolfgang Tillmans never dreamed of being a photographer, however he felt the intention no record anything in order to remember it, and so avidly filmed family holidays.

The image reiterates: life doesn’t stop at the edge of the picture. It’s where it begins. – Frieze

Tillmans work is experimental – he found that he always had a thing for newspapers, and collected a scrap book of photos. He has always had a fascination with recording, especially detail, and often detail that people take for granted or ‘forget’ to look at, and the intimacy between things, which can be both comforting and disturbing. He has been driven throughout his photography to find venues so that he could show them to other people, and would photocopy and use triptychs for them. One large inspiration was an exhbinition in Hamburg, “D&S” which included General Idea, David Robbins, Alan Belcher, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Laurie Anderson. After living in England for two years in the 80s to work for fashion magazines, he came back to the German culture as an outsider and insider to both participate as part of an not part of the local situation.

Tillmans’ combination of different formulas of image production might appear at first as a strategy to avoid the pitfalls of stagnancy and dead-ends often inherent in successful art productions. But with his strong theoretical awareness of social and productive systems, he seeks to influence his own creation of a system with these diverse patterns and waves of information. (Tillmans, 2010)

Another large inspiration that sparked a change in Tillmans photography was the death of his lover, Jochen (1997). He has never explicitly said what the pictures from that time were, however, it certainly affected his photography style. One experimental work that bought his work to the forefront was photographs of seemingly casual studies of friends and lovers, often interacting in ways initially shocking i.e. urinating on a chair, examining each others genitals, looking up skirts and climbing trees. These, however, were often tender, and evoked the complexities of modern life with the lightest and most elegant of touches. The relationships are lifeblood of pictures between humans, humans and relied upon objects, and also what these say about us.

Against the backdrop of toxic governments everywhere cheerleading for isolationism, Tillmans’s photographs, which survey the experience of being together and the domestic minutiae that make home possible, feel more melancholy than ever. – Frieze

Wolfgang Tillmans has a style of how to display his artwork at exhibitions. He rarely uses frames, but prefers to stick pieces to the walls, sometimes taking away the limited-edition-ness by sticking a magazine or postcard related to the subject next to it on the wall. He has explicitly told exhibitionists that he never pins his pieces to the walls as this ruins the edges. Sometimes, such as in his exhibition ‘2017’, the exhibition is arranged in an unstoppable sprawl which is juxtapositioned throughout the space. His exhibition style and set up depends on Tillmans mood and what he feels like at the time.


Above: A selection of pages from Tillmans’ books including: Wolfgang TillmansIf one thing matters, everything mattersWhat’s wrong with redistribution? and Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017. Throughout these books, table and exhibition plans are shown (What’s wrong with redistribution?), and If one thing matters, everything matters gives a full catalogue of his works from 1978 to 2003.
One of his most known works, Summer Still Life, is a casual scene which includes an all manner of things including: plate of cherries, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, tomato, peach, pile of magazine, newspaper, lighter, bottle with a twig in it, small pot plant, all balanced on a narrow grubby shelf by a window. The photograph itself contains soft, clear lighting, along with a soft weariness about it. This photograph is carefully composed, especially with its colours, which includes a bright red tomato, spinning at the centre of a cosmos full of pinks, greens, and deep purples. This closely follows the inspiration of Tillman’s that life may be made of real surfaces but abstraction liberated and also illuminated the innate enigma of components.

But photography is in many ways only the beginning of Tillmans’ art. Indeed, over the last decade, he has made an important body of abstract works that are ‘not made with camera’ (the artist’s phrase), yet are still directly related in process to photography. In both a practical and philosophical sense, therefore, Tillmans engages and works with the photographic image on every conceivable level: as a consumer and reader of images, a producer of images, an editor of images, as their printer, replicator, publisher, arranger, curator, installer, and also as their mechanic, anatomist, politician, sculptor, technicial, connoisseur and philosopher-scientist. He is thus the creator and director of an encyclopaedic lexicon of images, examining and exploring every aspect of their form, in terms of both medium and object. (Tillmans, 2010)

His works are the reflection that he cannot control everything in his life, and in many ways, this is also an inspiration for him. The installations themselves show this division between wanting to control everything and the acceptance of what it actually is. The non-definitive answer is also shown in the materials and physical developing process: The methods of translating and developing include exposing to different coloured light sources, folding, made in reverse, and the suggestion of a fold. Photographs, much like the real world are always in a state of fluctuation, and this inspires the different angles that appear within the materiality of the photograph, and the way in which these are pointed against each other in Tillmans works.

What intrigues me is the tension of the two key qualities of a photograph: the promise of it being a perfect, controlled object, and the reality of a photographic image being mechanically quite unsophisticated. It creases or buckles when it’s too dry, curls in humidity, becomes rigid and vulnerable when it’s mounted, and for that reason, loses its flexibility. I choose to reconcile all this and don’t try to pretend that it isn’t happening. I’ve made all of that part of the beauty of the visual experience. The fact that photographs aren’t permanent is like a reminder of our condition; showing their vulnerability protects one from the disappointment of seeing them fade. The inkjet prints have this built in as a concept: their impermanence is clearly imaginable yet the owner also has the original master print and can reprint the inkjet print when they feel it’s necessary. – ArtSpace

The King of ‘Hypertronix’ was Wolfgang Tillmans himself, who, ‘in a world of increasing Anglo-hegemony and pre-packaged sex – skilfully reinvents the forms of publicity favoured by contemporary art (Frieze).’  This is shown throughout his photography works. Many of his works mixes up the classical genres of both photography and painting including landscape, portrait, still life and abstraction. He puts all of these back together again as sub-group in a hanging or a layout (Frieze)’. He also adds to this to themes of melting and blending of bodies as the idea of being together, and of fusion. In a Frieze interview, he mentions that ‘the experience of something in real life doesn’t automatically make for a good work.’ This is in relation to the translation process that much of his work and practice uses, and that he can only photograph that what he relates to. ‘I trust that, if I study something carefully enough, a greater essence or truth might be revealed without having a prescribed meaning.’ Much of his work concentrates on mining exhausted genres because of an unlimited capacity to move people. They are still photographs, and they are vivid snapshots of a certain moment in time, which is a key characteristic of his photography.

During further exploration of his work, one finds a differentiated world exposed from different angles, sometimes even incorporated as modes of perception in his own personal methods of observation. (Tillmans, 2010)

One of his most recent works is a non-profit exhibition space Between Bridges. This exhibition spread his pro-EU post campaign, gathering widespread attention. These are online for free, for anyone to download.

Digital has its rigid ways but also makes new pictures possible – not by way of predictable photoshopping but by its own ways of translating light into a two-dimensional picture. – Frieze

Wolfgang Tillmans’ full biography can be found here, along with his full bibliography here. His website with all this information included can be found here, along with his exhibition calendar. The home of his artworks and the centre of his exhibition are at Maureen Paley Gallery. Press releases to exhibitions include Wolfgang Tillmans, Regen Projects and The Nineties, Buchholz.


Artspace. (2015). Wolfgang Tillmans Opens Up on His Art, His Influences, and His Personal Tragedy. [online] Available at: http://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/book_report/wolfgang-tillmans-peter-halley-interview-53106 [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Dercon, C., Sainsbury, H., Tillmans, W., Godfrey, M. and Holert, T. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans 2017. London: Tate Publishing.
Frieze.com. (2013). Still Lifes. [online] Available at: https://frieze.com/article/still-lifes [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Frieze.com. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans. [online] Available at: https://frieze.com/article/wolfgang-tillmans-2 [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Lange, C. (2017). Crossing Over. [online] Frieze.com. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/crossing-over [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Maureenpaley.com. (2017). Maureen Paley | Wolfgang Tillmans. [online] Available at: http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/wolfgang-tillmans?image=1 [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Ostgut Ton | Zehn, c. (2017). Home. [online] Tillmans.co.uk. Available at: http://tillmans.co.uk/ [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Tillmans, W. (2011). Wolfgang Tillmans: Darkroom. [online] Frieze.com. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/wolfgang-tillmans-darkroom [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Tillmans, W. (2015). Wolfgang Tillmans. What’s wrong with redistribution?. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König.
Tillmans, W., Donlon, C. and Stahl, V. (2003). If one thing matters, everything matters. London: Tate Publishing.
Tillmans, W., O’Brien, S. and Larner, M. (2010). Wolfgang Tillmans. London: Serpentine Gallery.
Tillmans.co.uk. (2016). Bibliography (english/deutsch). [online] Available at: http://tillmans.co.uk/biographybibliography-menu3-6-sp-1609089096/6-bibliography-englishdeutsch [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].
Vicenta Aliaga, J. (1999). Hypertronix. [online] Frieze.com. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/hypertronix [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017].

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