Wolfgang Tillmans: The Photographer We Should All Know

Wolfgang Tillmans is a German photographer, perhaps best known for his large, abstracted photographs and his candid portraits featured in a variety of major magazines including i-D, Spex, Interview, Attitude and Butt.

With a career spanning three decades, he’s become a prominent figure in both the London and Berlin art scenes. His photographs are generally straightforward, some might say banal, but have a peculiar beauty. “I take pictures,” he’s explains, “in order to see the world.”

Some of his earlier successes are depictions of the London gay scene of the ‘90s – and he’s since portrayed various queer scenes around the world. “NICE HERE. but ever been to KYRGYZSTAN? Free Gender-Expression WORLDWIDE” reads the banner held in a photograph of the same name from 2006.

His portraits of the St Petersburg queer scene for i-D in 2014 are stark and deeply moving. He had been in the city for an arts festival and he was planning to go to the Pride festival, but this was cancelled under the law banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality to minors’. “I felt bad that I didn’t get this connection with the community there during Manifesta,” he explained, “so I got in touch with Amnesty International to arrange to do these portraits, to meet and talk with people.”

Tillmans work spans the personal and the political, the specific and the universal. He had met fellow German artist Jochen Klein in New York in 1994 and they began a relationship. The pair lived together in London until 1997 when Klein died of AIDS-related complications. He later won the 2001 competition to design the Munich AIDS memorial.

His understated blue pillar was erected the following year at Sendlinger Tor and reads, “AIDS – for the decedents – for persons with HIV – for their friends – for their families – 1981 till today.”

In 2000, he became the first non-British artist and the first photographer to win the Turner Prize. He’s spent extended periods of time in London, serving as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

His new show at the Tate, inventively titled Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, is a must-see for anyone interested in contemporary photography. He’s been hugely involved in its curation, carefully arranging the works in each room to create cohesive installations exploring different contemporary themes. Some artworks invite and entrap the gaze: hypnotic abstractions spiral and whirl, dominating the viewer. Politics is impossible to ignore: he repeatedly photographs airports and signifiers of regulation, which gain an added significance in light of Trump’s new travel restrictions.

He presents a new iteration of his Truth Study Center, which again has a particular potency in the ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’. And he isn’t afraid to provoke: sensual studies of the body and the incredibly emotive portraits of Frank Ocean, for example, which he used for his latest album cover, contrast with large nudes (a candid shot of a man’s buttocks and testicles from below and behind) and a tangle of arms, legs, groins.

Tillmans is elusive, ever-changing and exploring the very nature of representation – in both its artistic and political dimensions. “I love people precisely because we all face the dilemma of how we define our self image. By proposing alternatives to those self images already in mainstream circulation, I hope to contribute to a climate of possibility,” he explained. “It’s not about adolescent uncertainty but about a certain kind of self-knowledge, about feeling at one with one’s identity within image.”

This is epitomised in a self-portrait in the exhibition, taken in Reading Prison as part of an exhibition there last year that celebrated the life and legacy of former inmate Oscar Wilde. It is, essentially, a mirror selfie – but it is warped, almost beyond recognition, by the cracked and twisted surface of the mirror. Tillmans becomes the prisoner, trapped, denied his self-image, his very selfhood: who is he? What has he become?

More information can be found on his exhibition here.

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