When ArtReview visited Wolfgang Tillmans recently in his labyrinthine studio in Kreuzberg, Berlin, we found an artist toggling between looking forward and looking back. On the one hand, Tillmans – first photographic artist to win the Turner Prize, nonpareil expander of his medium’s horizons and reach in recent years, etc – was fresh from the triumph of Neue Welt. This years-in-the-making project (showcased both in a 2012 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich and a lavish Taschen book) serves as a surgical inquiry into how, in diverse ways, the world has changed, 20 years after Tillmans began photographing it: cue, for him, a global itinerary of lightning trips, toting a newly adopted digital camera, to everywhere from basement garages in Tasmania to bustling Indian streets, silvery Far Eastern malls to titanic rubbish dumps. On the other hand, he was preparing – alongside a museum exhibition in Lima – his current large show for K21 in Düsseldorf. In an office filled with a big model of that space, its size necessary for the artist to perfect the intricate scalar shifts of his installs, Tillmans talked about his recent past and a more distant one – starting with his plans to include, at K21, some illuminating work from his teenage years…MARTIN HERBERTWhen did you first get a camera of your own?WOLFGANG TILLMANS: Not until I was twenty. I come from a family of avid amateur photographers – my father, my grandparents – and so that medium felt completely precluded for me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t initially put my photographs directly on the wall and only explored found photos, mechanical pictures. Look at these [points out Edinburgh Builders a, b and c (1987) on worktable]. With my mother’s little Rangefinder camera, I photographed a builder working on the opposite house – so the queer gaze is subtly already there [laughs] – and progressively enlarged it across several photocopies so it becomes just a distribution of surface pattern. It’s a kind of noise, but it comes across as super-specific. I still don’t know what this random-or-not information means, but it’s always been of great interest to me. The lucky thing was that I discovered these photocopies as ‘originals’. They had the aura of finished work, yet I didn’t have to paint or draw it. Maybe that was in keeping with me liking electronic music, too – the idea that you can do something expressive without an expressive hand, I was fortunate to have that at an early age. A photocopy is just a sheet of paper, but something happens and it becomes of value, of aesthetic charge.This issue of transformation has never gone away in your work, has it?WT: I’m always interested in the question of when something becomes something, or not, and how do we know? I observe it all the time. One person becomes a dear friend, the other not; this pair of old jeans your mother thinks is rubbish and wants to throw away, and to you it’s your favourite piece of clothing. There’s different attributions of value at different times and stages in one’s life, different people have different vantage points – and this is what Truth Study Center [his ongoing installation project, first shown at Maureen Paley, London, in 2005, intermingling astral photography, newspaper clippings emphasising various types of intolerance, and much more] was concerned with. All of these people claiming to know ‘what it is’, and almost, one could say, an immodesty in assessing value – in not asking ‘where did my evaluation come from, and when did I start thinking about that?’ And I would also like to know what things are, but I also want always to acknowledge that even though I want clear answers, they always evolve over time.And so now you’ve just looked back over 20 years, comparing then and now, for Neue Welt. How did this start? WT: Part of what determined the locations was an interest in borders. At the end of 2008 I went to [the Sicilian island of] Lampedusa and a month later to Israel and travelled all over the borders of Israel, and then on the same trip – though not directly, of course, to Tunisia, to go to the other side of Lampedusa. As so often happens, though, when you backtrack, the seeds of the work lie further back. There’s one photograph in Neue Welt called Growth and that’s from 2004. I had an interest in going against the aesthetic that I’ve become known for, and at first – for a show at Andrea Rosen in 2007 – I thought of making deliberately ugly pictures, but that isn’t an interesting pursuit in itself. Only two years after I started Neue Welt did it become clear that this was the biggest thing I’ve been working on since the Abstract Pictures.When you gathered those together in a book, you also included works like Edinburgh Builders: again, the starting point was earlier – your work doesn’t divide neatly into sections. But from 1998 you did spend a decade focusing on abstraction – the galaxial scanned-and-enlarged darkroom luminograms Freischswimmer and Blushes; the lysergic lumino- and photogram Mental Pictures; bent and crumpled Lighter photo-objects; the series of photographs of curling photographic paper, Paper Drop, to name but a few. WT: Dealing with materiality was a way of dealing with changed contexts in the photographic world. At the end of the 1990s what I felt was needed was this slowdown of picture consumption – which of course seems funny to think about back then, because now there’s an insane speed of picture consumption. But I already felt people were getting careless with it. I wanted to go against that and mess with expectations of what one would see and how one would read this piece of photographic paper. Since 1998, this talking about the photograph as an object has been such a strong focus for me. I’m doing what I do for myself, but of course I’m always doing it in the context of the world it exists in, so if I feel there isn’t enough of something, then that, in a way, constitutes the reason for me to do something about it.For Neue Welt you began using a digital camera for the first time, and set out on deliberately short trips around the world, to these border zones. It’s a project full of rocketing contrasts: in one section of the book, we zoom between car headlights – that you’ve identified as having a new cruelly sharklike design template – to a creamy abstraction, to a boy running down a shantytown street, to a pin-sharp night sky. In a conversation with Beatrix Ruf published in the book, you said, ‘essentially this is about humanism’. What did you mean?
WT: It’s a big word, but I guess what I meant with it is that I don’t want to create a distance between myself and the world that I depict and the viewer. With this triangle one can so easily put up distance and gaps and steps between the three; I find a low threshold of approachability between them more interesting than to build in distance or difference. At the same time, and this is crucial, I’m fully aware that there is difference, that there are huge differences in access, wealth… The difficulty with Neue Welt – which in itself I couldn’t write down as the agenda – was to be open-ended but at the same time come up with specific results that speak about specificity in the most non-prescribed, unplanned way, because if you go somewhere with an idea in mind, you will only find that idea. And if you make drifting the subject, then you also maybe end up with just that, without focus. So there are specific interests [in it]. I’m always reading and following what goes on, and there are certain markers that I find are significant and telling points.
WT: Yes, or all sorts of things to do with markets and marketing and the transfer of goods.
And you feel like a lot of this is available on the surface? Because it seems this project is tied to surfaces: you’re deliberately skimming the surface of a place, and leaving when it becomes familiar, and what you’re picking up are articulate surfaces.
WT: Yes. Content inscribes itself into surfaces so eloquently, because a surface that is not purely made by nature is usually the result of layers of many people’s interactions with it. With architecture, cityscapes, I’m always fascinated by the layering of different architects, generations of what they thought is right; and with shop displays, what that shop assistant thought in conjunction with the display that was made by that design office – all those wishes and desires to design.
How does a project like this relate, then, to, say, ethnography?
WT: I guess an ethnographer identifies a subject to study, and they want internal coherence and it’s led by an external demonstration of difference. And I wasn’t led by pure expectation of difference, but nor was I led by a romantic longing for what all this human family shares. I guess that was the biggest personal human growth I got from this: learning to accept the similarity and, at the same time, total different-ness of people and places. On the one hand we’re extremely the same, and at the same time we are insurmountably different.
You said in one previous conversation, ‘this is actually really like a laboratory for studying the world in many of its facets and visual manifestations’. I’m slightly uncertain how much emphasis to put on the idea of ‘the world as subject’ in your work. Neue Welt would suggest there’s that kind of whole-grasping ambition at work. Is that the kind of scale you think on?
WT: Undeniably yes, but with a huge disclaimer attached: that it’s an impossible task, and if taken too seriously it could be laden with hubris. But it would also be coy if I said, oh, I’m not dealing with it. I am, because how could I not – because that would mean my fascination would drop off at a point, and my fascination is kind of limitless. It’s not greedy, it’s not trying to piss on every territory, but I mean – economics and economic activity, for example: how important is that to what goes on in almost every aspect of human life?
As you’ve made this marker of 20 years of work, do you feel your vision – your actual ability to look – has changed in that time?
WT: Maybe what I would call the ability to name and discern what my vision records, that has possibly improved. I hope so. Because there is what we choose to see and what we are able to see, and then there’s a lot of things that people don’t choose not to see, but simply aren’t able to see. I hope I’ve stayed attentive. This term, attentive, is the most crucial in my life, in a way. The way we look, that is how we decide to act in this world, and that is then also how society as a whole acts, if you see societies always as an addition, an accumulation of individuals.
How much of a difference has working digitally made to you?
WT: My photography began through using the first digital photocopier, which you saw in those Xeroxes. I happened to come across that in 1986, and understood the possibilities it allowed for making pictures. And then I bought, obviously, an analogue camera and then in 1992 used a large-format Canon copier to make the large-format inkjet prints. So I stayed purely analogue, technically, until 2009 in regard to how the image generation is made, where the image dots come from. That’s always been onto film, and in a way I’m still analogue now because I use the [digital camera’s] sensor really as a film, and I never move pixels around. And I think that’s important because people nowadays just expect that something has been altered in pictures. I find that a bit disturbing.
So this is about truth…
WT: Yes. In my work various ways of transfer, meaning printing, are possible, because this is how an idea becomes form, in a way. But the world as it passes through the lens and is projected onto film or sensor – I find that shouldn’t be tampered with. Because the world already allows for so much absurdity, so many wild conjunctions of events and objects, it would be crazy to think that’s not enough. By not doing retouching additions in my work, I insist that what you see somehow was in front of the lens. I want people to trust this as a basic given. That makes it somehow more powerful than all the pixels I can move around.
So the attraction of digital is on the level of resolution?
WT: Yes. I had found my photographic truth in the grain and information level of 100 ASA fine-grain film. Which I read somewhere carries as much information as a 14-megapixel sensor. So until there were digital portable light cameras that could have 14 megapixels, I thought the idea of going digital was stupid anyway. My approach to photography as a medium has always been that I wanted to approximate what it feels like to look through my eyes, and that seemed very much achieved with 35mm. What was attractive to me about digital cameras of this full-format generation is the extreme variety in speed: that you can set it from 100 ASA to, now, 25,000 ASA. And it really makes certain pictures possible that were impossible before.
WT: The starry skies. They seem not of a particular time, but if you are in the know, you know this picture is very improbable. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have been able to take this picture, without manipulation. Because after five, seven, eight seconds, stars show up as a line, because of the earth’s rotation. So you’d have to out the camera on a counter-movement, but then the ground would be blurry. For me to take a picture of the northern sky, an astro-photograph, from a flying aircraft, with no movement, that’s such a crazy idea. So I’m glad I went to digital of my own free will, because then a year later Fuji discontinued the fine-grain film that I used.
It seems you’re also more interested in issues of scale now. In the sense that you have these really large enlargements that are pin-sharp as well…
WT: The scale-shift issue has been going on since my first show at Daniel Buchholz, 20 years ago, but what has changed, and really been a challenge for me, is that you can look as close at the large pictures as you want and there’s no dissolution. And that I find is of huge significance – in cultural history, possibly. I don’t want to sound immodest because it’s also something that was given to me by the camera maker, but some of these new pictures – or all of them, in a way – contain more information than the mind can possibly remember. So any super-fine paintings from 1500 with fur that looks super-real, they are still not as fine as these pictures, which are at the same time photographed from the vantage point of my eye, which is always interested in the non-hierarchical point of view. So whereas in the past a 10 x 8 photograph always somehow had to be taken from a privileged point of view, there is somehow a coming together of, on the one hand, this very human perspective and glance, with this precision. It’s something I find personally still perplexing, like: what is going on here? It’s a bit scary. And interestingly, now I’ve gone digital, there’s no digital medium that can show these pictures in their full quality.
So it’s still analogue in the end: you still have to go to the one-off, the print…
WT: There’s no screen that has the depth of information. And so it becomes very much about standing in front of this print, and having the spatial relation and movement around it. So I kind of have great faith in the picture: it hasn’t gone away. Fortunately.
Work by Wolfgang Tillmans is on show at K21, Dusseldorf until 7July 2013 and at Museo de Arte (MALI), Lima, Peru until 16 June 2013. ‘Neue Welt’ is available in a limited portfolio edition (signed and numbered) from Taschen.
GIL BLANK INTERVIEW WITH WOLFGANG TILLMANS
For much of its history, photographic portraiture has somewhat pathetically echoed its precedents in painting, continuing to reflect the compromising relationship between patron and artist. Portraitists often go to confectionary extremes to pad a sitter’s chosen mythology, demonstrated most awkwardly by the work of photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, and Annie Liebovitz. Likewise, photographic dissent rarely extends beyond hijacking the presumed objectivity of the process to artificially (and negatively) hyperstimulate our perception of the subject, as demonstrated by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and most photojournalists. Both methods depend on and promote the fallacy of the clarifying gesture, the singular image that captures essences and reveals mystic truths. In fact, what photography has more consistently shown, despite its practitioners, is the opposite: the infinite ambiguity of the human experience, a flood of implication that by its elusive nature denies explicit understanding. Genuine portraiture reflects that continuum, rather than attempts to act as an isolated document superior to it.
The painter Gerhard Richter has said that the amateur’s family snapshot, as an unself-conscious and direct recording of information, is a more reliable method of depiction than the cleverly composed art photograph. In his formulation, both of those attempts at understanding human experience are doomed to frustration anyway, but the snapshot at least is uncontaminated by ridiculous delusions of grandeur. It is, in his words, “pure picture.” Maybe it’s a bit cynical to contend that any single snapshot, as an embodiment of careless resort, is more profound than a purposeful but vain attempt at establishing meaning. But there is great originality in the thought that a lifetime of such images, a compendium of them, the result of an ongoing, fractured, and subconscious but active routine of searching, comprises a more viable kind of compound “portrait” than any single image that teeters dangerously on the verge of propaganda. It’s not merely a matter of volume: Nan Goldin has an ample cache of solipsisms, but their sum never reaches a critical mass that can lift them above the weight of individual anecdotes. They become a foreseeable routine. What might instead render the quotidian as sublime is an approach from oblique angles, from the indirect and always limited information we more realistically know life to afford, so that the attempt at depiction itself reflects our finite capabilities and knowledge of experience. A viable portraiture then might serve not so much as a terminus or distillation, a “decisive moment,” but as a catalyst for reconsideration, and a point of departure rather than one of obviously false finality.
Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is an open-ended example of this kind of portraiture. If the most common criticism of his photography is that it lacks focus and resolve, that same sense of loss and existential capitulation grants his portraiture an anticlimactic fragility that’s nonetheless strong, convincingly intimate, and never once surrenders to patronizing homilies. No single Tillmans portrait fully coalesces or completes itself. No single portrait is ever a portrait. Rather, each gels by the same process as memory, through the unending accretion of multiple and imperfectly formed instances. In comibination, his photographs form a sythesis of glances, always incomplete and peripheral, constantly realigning our knowledge, as snow accumulating over a landscape dynamically and randomly defines the thing observed. There’s no question that Tillmans’ anarchic, threadbare style can be troubling to eyes more conditioned to photography in a mode of perfected majesty. It’s no help sinking to the contemporary indulgence of calling it “real”, but the work is honest, and gratifyingly upfront in its copious shortcomings. It makes no assumptions and, in a way that is exceedingly rare, never attempts to inform. The totality of Tillmans’ oeuvre, consisting of thousands of pictures of maddening variety, serves as a single, plainspoken document that paradoxically diffuses our knowledge and expectations. It contradicts all of the demands of historic portraiture, and so is uniquely photographic.
Gil Blank: What’s the basic motivation for your photographic portraiture? Is it at all distinct from the remarkably wide variety of other subjects you seek out?
Wolfgang Tillmans: When I began to define my portraiture, in 1990 to 1991, I wanted to communicate both the feelings I had for my contemporaries as well as the sense I often had of a single person. I wanted to communicate the complexity of that person in its entirety, that lack of a singular reading. I wanted to channel the multilayered character of a personality and its contradictions, the way it’s revealed in clothes, in styles, in attitudes, and the way a person lives. It’s the fractured reality of identity that fascinates me. I didn’t feel myself well represented in the late-eighties media as I was growing up. Perhaps I did in some magazines like i-D, but everything else depicted people making odd gestures, or acting crazily, or smiling. They were always apologizing for being the way they were, always giving a single reading of their mood, of what they were about. It took me a while to get my own photography of people in line with the way I saw people.
That happened around 1991, when I realized that I needed to strip all the pictorial devices away, so that the subjects wouldn’t have to apologize for who they were, and the picture wouldn’t have to justify its observation. It wouldn’t hint at being more of an artifice than necessary. 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.
GB: But why should that be considered a pejorative term, except in the shallowest reading? Obviously, the “snapshot” label is for some a lazy way of critiquing the aesthetic or formal value of the work, but I’m not so sure that the lack of consideration that it also implies is necessarily a bad thing. It goes directly to Richter’s idea of “pure picture,” of a direct, unmediated pictorial experience that doesn’t suffer from all kinds of overbearing artistic effect.
WT: It does release me from having to meditate on the picture. I take a picture to perceive the world, not to overthink what’s in front of me. Pictures are an incredibly efficient and economical way of visually absorbing the world. If I have an immediate feeling, then it’s actually a very good language for me to translate that into a picture. I agree with almost everything that is said about the positive side of the snapshot, but not with the conclusion that one could draw from that, that every snapshot is the same.
GB: Despite its apparent ease and immediacy in the short term, your working method requires a certain degree of counterintuitive thinking to be effectively turned into a meaningful life pursuit. It’s a complete abandonment of the patterns of identification that are most familiar to a photographer. For many photographers it’s easier to settle for the clichés of portraiture—the exquisite technique, the overly constituted moment, the conventional signs of an archetypal personality—then it is to forego that, to vacate one’s familiarity and create something that shows few overt signs of consideration. At this point, so much in your work revolves around the seemingly tangential moments, the synthesis of unexpected or apparently unimportant elements, that I wonder if it’s become a conscious part of your process to specifically avoid photographing subjects that are too ideally photographic. There are a few aspirationally iconic pieces—like Deer Hirsch and Untitled (La Gomera)—but is this kind of endowed single image something that you resist?
WT: A lot of them are just given to you when you make yourself open and vulnerable to the human exchange that takes place in the photographic situation. That’s how I try to negotiate a portrait. The desire to control the result, to come away with an interesting image, is simultaneous with the admission that I’m not in fact completely in control of it. Ultimately I have to be as weak as the subject, or as strong. If I go into the situation with a preconceived idea, then I’ll limit the human experience that I might be able to have. The outcome of such a situation is unknowable, and that’s something very hard to bear; people prefer to know that what they do will have a good result. I’ve possibly developed the faith or strength of letting myself fall each time. I risk not knowing what might come out and I also risk making an important work. That’s what I like about the magazine portraiture that I’ve been doing now for fifteen years. It always sends me back to the zero-point of human interaction, the point of not knowing. I know that I’m likely to make a printable picture, but I’m not forced to make an artwork. And I quite like that, that I have no responsibility to the sitter or anything beyond the act itself. That’s also why I never take commissions from private parties or collectors.
GB: That would make no sense at all, diverting the centrality of the interpersonal experience.
WT: The essential fragility of the outcome would be compromised; only a truly powerful outcome would be possible. There would be only that useless certainty.
GB: One of the fundamental impulses for any portraitist, especially apparent in your work, is to approach experience, to make sense of what we experience and the people in our lives. Photography, because it’s so accurate in its registration, always contains the implicit hope that we can somehow obtain a vestige of proof, of knowledge: this is how things are, this is what exists, what I know. We live in hope, but it’s an absurd hope, because as soon as you move toward that or try to build on it in pictures, you automatically begin to assert a control over the situation that prevents it from ever being anything beyond your own preconceived ideas. And so for you, it’s vital to maintain that position of vulnerability.
WT: Yes. And of course with friends, I’m like that much more naturally. In the end the pictures that matter to me most are of people that are close to me.
GB: And when you consider the sketch you made for your retrospective at the Tate, which functions like a diagram or flow chart of your working method, you put the “People” category at the very top. It’s quite disorienting, and I imagine purposely so, because you do break things down into large categories, but obscure that with the insertion of smaller and smaller notes, and cross-referencing paths and connections, so that there is no real separation. Everything is cross-contaminated.
WT: But you can separate, for instance, “Crowds/Strangers” from “Friends Sitting.” Then again, that can be extended into “Nightlife,” which gives you a big family of extended friends you don’t immediately know. The whole chart was made in the full knowledge of its own absurdity. Likewise, the catalog for the exhibition, If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters, which is an encyclopedic catalog of over two thousand images from the present back to when I began making pictures, is all about the audacity implicit in the attempt to make a map of my world, something that can never be drawn or defined. The thing that makes working this way both harder and much more interesting is that it’s also how I experience my life: there never are sharply circumscribed experiences or fields. I admire other artists that work in very strict patterns, but it’s interesting to note how that strictness or seriality is often associated with seriousness in our culture, with more thought and more depth. I find it more challenging to try to reconcile all those different fields that constitute experience as I live it day to day.
GB: And that’s what can be so difficult to accept about your work. For years, it was a constant source of aggravation for me. It requires a renunciation of the assumptions we have about photographic forms. A beloved motivation for photographers is the isolation of perfect meanings, singular visions. You’re adamantly seeking the same kind of reconciliation with experience that photographers have always attempted, but you’re doing so by abandoning the status of photographs as exceptional objects, and that naturally disturbs people who are conditioned to placing a high degree of value and faith in them.
WT: Or let’s say the language of them. Because truthfully I’m also after refinement and precision; I’m only abandoning the preferred language of that, the signifiers that give immediate value to something, such as the picture frame. First of all, I see an unframed photograph as an object of great beauty, in its purity as a thin sheet of paper, but I’m also resisting the statement that one image or object is more important than others. I want it to battle it out for itself. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in singular, great pictures, though. Some images function in different ways, some more or less loudly, but in terms of quality, I would never throw something in that I don’t believe has the potential, on its own, to be really good. The totality will always reflect more of what I think than any single picture can, but the single picture functions as the definitive version of the subject for me here and now.
GB: What? You really mean that?
WT: Yes! That feeling might change in a year’s time, when I have a different angle on the same subject matter. But take the Ecstasy and nightlife experience of early-nineties techno as an example. After ’92, I made very few pictures in nightclubs. Those shots are that feeling for me, that Ecstasy feeling. I wanted to have that and I got it; I’m satisfied that they’re a true reflection of what I felt and thought. I never have the desire to do more of them. Similarly, with the still life images, even though the genre is repeated over the course of thirteen years, I somehow always try to divine what the situation is for me now, in the best possible way, and not necessarily allow twenty variations of that.
GB: How, then, do you determine the overall arc of your picture-taking? If we are to take the pictures as a compendium, an articulated personal history, how, then, do you prioritize the meaningful events in your life?
WT: I quite like the term “quantification.” By observing the number of times I use a certain picture, by seeing how much it shows up in the installations, which ones become a postcard, which ones become featured in books. I know what’s significant in my actual life. Thinking backward I know what felt significant, and though perhaps in the here and now you can never fully face that, I don’t think there’s any need for it either.
GB: At first sight, your work can seem scattershot, and randomized. With more time and attention, connections and coincidences can emerge, with one photograph “activating” others, as you’ve put it. How much of that is planned and controlled, and how much is left open-ended, for the pictures themselves to spontaneously create a unique system of meaning?
WT: I do leave it pretty open to the pictures. I know every one of them; I do have thoughts about them and that was another reason why I did If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. But the reassessing of pictures isn’t a process that goes on indefinitely. I wanted to wrap up all the pictures that meant something to me. Ultimately, though, they all stay free, and in an installation I never say how they should be read. There’s no narrative that binds them sequentially in the books, even though I know why I placed them as they are.
GB: In your installations, everything is incorporated into a heterogeneous mix: genres, sizes, wall placements, even print formats. But in that book, for the first time, every image was treated the same way: you made them all identical, placed them one after the other in a relentless stream.
WT: There’s a rigorous system of only a few sizes underlying the intended sense of heterogeneity. I’m certainly not embracing everything. Even though there are so many subjects in the work, there are also so many things that aren’t. I tried to show that in the flow chart. It is something specific that I’m looking at, and not everything. It’s not about trying to control the whole world through pictures, or to get the process of seeing and experiencing out of my system. It’s more that I’m trying to bear life, to bear the multiplicity of things, and that’s what people find very hard. They find it hard to bear the lack of answers, so they strive for simple solutions and concepts, for simple ideas. Letting things stand on their own is about giving up control over them, it’s the attempt to bear them. It’s finding the pleasure in that experience, but also giving witness to the fact that there are no simple answers. I do think the work is optimistic, but perhaps in the harder way that an existentialist might come around to that realization of freedom.
GB: Let me then come right out and ask the fundamental questions: What kind of faith do you place in photographs, and portraits in particular, as a way of helping us understand or access personal experience? Is there any hope, or help, or any need for either?
WT: I like the idea of the photograph as something that joins me to the world, that connects me to others, that I can share. I can get in touch with somebody when they recognize a feeling: “Oh, I felt like that before. I remember jeans hanging on the banister, even though I’ve never seen that exact pair. I’ve seen my oranges on a windowsill.” It’s the sense that “I’m not alone.” That’s the driving force behind sharing these things—that I want to find connections in people. I believe that every thought and idea has to be somehow rendered through personal experience, and then generalized.
GB: Can that kind of approach ever be completed? Or might it not actually doom itself, a restless desire to move and to know and to see that—because of the foregone conclusion of our own deaths—implies its own impossibility?
WT: Yes, but it is all impossible! Like the Eva Hesse quote I love: “Life doesn’t last, art doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter”!
WT: I mean that of course you have to give as much love as possible into your life and your art, not only despite the fact that none of it matters but precisely because of it. I don’t feel a restless desire at the core of my work. I feel it’s about stillness, about calmly looking at the here and now.
These are real issues, the biggest ones, and particularly in regard to portraiture: Why take pictures of others? It’s not the same as taking pictures of non-portrait subject matter. When you show a person to another person, why do you do that? Do you show a role model, do you show an ideal of beauty, or power? Why should somebody else regard someone they don’t know? Why is it necessary for me to circulate pictures of people in books and magazines and exhibitions? Isn’t that part of the omnipresent terror that we’re faced with merely by being alive and part of this non-stop normative process?
GB: Then is that the central affirmation of the work? It won’t rely on the pathetically heroic devices of traditional portraiture, so you force your subjects into a proxy war in which their portrait images “battle it out”, as you say, to somehow identify themselves within a tide of beauty and banality.
WT: I certainly feel a responsibility when using my power to utilize media of any sort, such as an exhibition. I’ve always felt very strongly that whatever I do involves using a position of privilege and power, because I’m the one that’s talking. But I’ve also thought that my point of view deserved to be heard, because I always felt that neither I nor the way that I look at the world was adequately represented. That of course changes, and we’re now living in a completely different image world than we were ten years ago.
GB: One in which there’s tremendous—and perhaps dubious—value placed on perceptions of authenticity and the authentically lived life, particularly in the representations that we fashion of each other. How do you react in your work to that dangerously hypocritical impulse?
WT: First of all, I never denounce it publicly, because we’re all part of the argument. You can’t possibly have an uncompromised relationship to authenticity. As soon as you represent something, it’s always a mediated, invented situation. What is genuine, though, is the desire for authenticity. So, absurdly enough, that’s something that actually is authentic about this moment. Personally speaking, I feel somewhat post-authentic. What’s authentic to me is whatever looks authentic.
WT: Well, that’s the gift of late birth! Certain ideas are just worn to death. All the sorts have been played out. Images had been so outspokenly formulated by the time I started to speak with them that I didn’t feel a need to add to that. I don’t have to be part of any one school. The authenticity label is tricky, because I immediately want to denounce it, to say it’s not true, that everything in the work is consciously constructed, but that’s also untrue. I do respond quite immediately to situations, and I think the pictures should come across on an intuitive level. You shouldn’t have to get caught up in the artifice; you should try to be hit by an authentic experience.
At the most basic level, all I do every day is work with pieces of paper. I shape colors and dyes on paper, and those objects aren’t the reality they represent. I understood that early on, and it was the beginning of all my work. How does meaning take hold of a piece of paper? Why does this paper carry a charge? It’s the brain, it’s our humanity that brings life to it. What matters is how we shape the things on the paper, somehow forcing it to become a representation of life, or experience. People always think that a photograph is bodiless, that it’s not an object unto itself but merely a conduit, a carrier of some other value.
GB: And that’s the reasoning behind your darkroom abstraction pieces, to short-circuit photography’s representational value by foregoing lens-based images and simply exposing photographic paper to light by hand.
WT: Yes. I’m trying to challenge people’s assumptions that every photograph is reality by presenting abstract forms that somehow look figurative. People inevitably use all sorts of words and allusions to describe them, saying they look like skin, hairs or wires or sunbursts, but they only bring those associations along because the images are on photographic paper. If they were on canvas, they wouldn’t say the same thing.
GB: But I think that kind of challenge to photography’s formalist character is a well-established concept. More relevant to the work at hand is whether the abstractions are a conscious subversion of the rest of the oeuvre’s totality. Because the uniqueness and aesthetic value of the other images as a totality is so inherently photographic. The abstractions feel like a deliriously utopian attempt to bring things back to that hypothetical zero-point, the state of surrendering photographic knowledge.
WT: But I always have a good excuse for them because they are purely photographic. They’re as true as my other photographs, because they do exactly what photographs are designed to do.
GB: Which is what? I’m challenging you to spell that out.
WT: They collect light and translate it into dyes. I expose and manipulate light on paper and I let it do exactly what it’s supposed to do. I’m not doctoring the process.
GB: But that’s ridiculous. It’s like saying the only point of language is to produce sounds. Both language and photography only have value in so far as they’re human systems, and that they produce human meanings. Kangaroos have no use for photographs, only we do. And just because I open my mouth and make noise doesn’t mean I’ve said anything. So here’s the trap we’re in: photographs are permanently bound to experience, to the recounting of events with a precision that’s exceptional but incapable of ever completely explaining those events to us. If your abstractions provide none of that explicit signification, however ambiguous, if in fact they are made as negations of meaning, are they really photographs? Perhaps simply by virtue of their process, but I don’t think at all by what you state as their human value as objects.
WT: But they are photographic in pleasure.
WT: They’re great pleasures for me. They’re a fascinating phenomenon that I take great pleasure in.
GB: That can’t be all there is.
WT: But it is!
GB: All of this can’t be that insubstantial.
WT: But it’s part of that research into how meaning gets onto paper. Part of that’s hard work, but it’s also being open to the pleasure of being and playing. Without sounding too corny, I think play is very important, very serious. I’m exploring what happens when thinking and being become matter, because photographs don’t just come into existence on their own.
GB: I think I Don’t Want To Get Over You is the key example of that, because it shows within a single image the kind of cross-contamination we see in your work at large, with the abstracting light trails that break open the underlying straight representational image. It has a duality, the connection to experience mated to the desire and the attempt to break free of that condition. Then there’s also the transposition of the image formed automatically by a lens, by a machine, and the trails left by your own hand as the author.
WT: It has that inherent quality of being manmade.
GB: Not just manmade, but Wolfgang-made. It yearns for universality but is tied to your own everyday, like all the other images that are distinctly of their time, of their author.
WT: Because they can’t be achieved any other way. I’ve never been afraid of being of my time, and I often find it problematic when people try to avoid that in order to achieve timelessness. They cut themselves short in the process. All great art is strongly linked to its time. The paradox is how to achieve that universality while acknowledging specificity. It’s quite hard to handle, this open-endedness. The lack of clear answers, handling the contradictions, not thinking, and yet not giving up either. Not going the easier route of pretending that there are simple answers.
© Copyright Gil Blank and Wolfgang Tillmans
NEW YORK MAGAZINE
(Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, NY. Artwork © Wolfgang Tillmans)
Billions of photos are shot every year, and about the toughest thing a photographer can do is invent an original, deeply personal, instantly recognizable visual style. In the early nineties, Wolfgang Tillmans did just that, transforming himself into a new kind of artist-photographer of modern life. He’s now so widely imitated and all-purpose that—like Pollock’s tangles or Warhol’s colors—Tillmans’s style is everywhere. It’s part of the culture.
What that style is is hard to encapsulate. For two decades he’s moved among genres, making images large and small, color-saturated and bleached-out; photographing cast-off clothes, cityscapes, still lifes, studio tools, youth culture, and portraits. He’s all over the subject-matter map. One year he’ll be making pictures of the Concorde; the next, of soldiers. But they do have things in common. A Tillmans has slackerlike beauty and nonchalance; a color sense that is more like that of a monochrome painter who works in large or otherwise unbroken fields; an accidental and uncontrived appearance; an attraction to the abstract and fragmented; and a sense of the photograph as an object that (usually unframed) occupies wall space more like a sheet than like a piece of art.
Tillmans’s self-assured, majestic new show at Andrea Rosen especially embraces that last idea. Much of the gallery is hung with scores of unframed pictures of varying scale reaching almost to the ceiling and the floor, some clustered, some isolated. Visiting is like being suspended in a photographic aquarium. Although at first you might think he was just traveling around, snapping the shutter willy-nilly, you soon see that he’s trying, with each picture, to make something powerful and personal out of impossibly clichéd subjects.
In one shot, a man is in the Ganges, but he’s presented from such an odd angle that Tillmans avoids both the hopelessly generic and easy exploitation. A modern Islamic building doesn’t look bombed-out or exotic; instead, it tells us that in this part of the world, people build until they run out of money and then live in their unfinished homes until they can afford to build again. An overhead picture of Dubai forgoes the mirage of the fever-dream oasis, showing us instead the ugly strip city it really is. He gives us boat people, athletes, and Asian markets as if we’d never seen them before. Tillmans is expanding his old aesthetic, producing images even more street, even less effete, and asking with every photo, “How can I make a picture nobody else has?”
Andrea Rosen Gallery.
Through March 13.
SELF SELECTOR LONDON
Truth Study? Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans
This interview was published on the 10th of November 2010 in the issue # 6 of THE LAST OBSERVER, the free weekly newspaper and incremental catalogue of The Last Newspaper exhibition at the New Museum, New York.
IS THIS TRUE OR NOT?
‘The Last Observer’ London correspondent Lorena Muñoz-Alonso meets Wolfgang Tillmans, whose table top installation ‘Truth Study center’ is featured in ‘The Last Newspaper’.
A door buzzer is activated on a busy street of East London on a rainy Saturday evening; I push and find myself in Between Bridges, the non-profit gallery space Wolfgang Tillmans opened in 2006 to show artists that “are overlooked in the London scene”. (The current exhibition is by Gerd Arntz, a fairly unknown German artist and activist of the Weimar era.) I climb the spiral staircase to the studio and Tillmans welcomes me upstairs and offers me tea. He is tired but talkative, having just returned from Nottingham, where he has been installing his works for the British Art Show 7. His studio is a huge open space, full of desks and wooden tables, where newspapers and magazines pile under the neon lights. “Last year at the Venice Biennale I had four table works. And I had a whole room table installation (Space, Food, Religion, 2010) at the Serpentine Gallery show. But having The Last Newspaper and the Nottingham show opening in the space of three weeks has reactivated the Truth Study center project in a very significant way”, he says while pointing to the build up of world-wide printed media that towers on every surface of the studio.
What is or are the origins of your Truth Study Center works?
The project started in 2005 with a show in London at Maureen Paley which coincided with the publication of my third book for Taschen, also titled Truth Study center. It was a contradiction, somehow, because the contents of the book had nothing to do with the tables. That first show included sixteen tables. Then, in 2006, I had a big mid–career survey in the U.S., a show that toured between Chicago, Los Angeles and Mexico City which included a twenty-four-table installation. In 2007 I had a show at the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover where I showed thirty tables, which then become part of the exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. So there have been two very big installations so far. The U.S. installation was altered from city to city; I was adding and adapting the contents depending on the context.
So the way you can work on the tables is quite quick and reactive?
Yes, pretty much. The tour was a year and a half long, and they were heady times in the American political arena, so it was interesting being able to incorporate all that to the work. There was a particular piece that was then published in The Guardian called ‘Ten easy steps for a fascist America’ by Naomi Wolf – a very heavy statement indeed. It was very striking and beautifully illustrated, so I made a table incorporating that on the spot. That table piece is again in The Last Newspaper exhibition. Americans don’t really like foreigners to criticise them. They are good at self-criticism, but the moment it’s a foreigner who does it, they can get defensive. But Wolf is American, so that couldn’t be accused of coming from European prejudices.
Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans’, Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Benoit Pailley. Courtesy New Museum.
How did you begin the process of incorporating the table as a new element in the vocabulary of your practice?
It actually started in 1995 with a show at Portikus in Frankfurt where I used five flat cabinets to show images I had published in magazines. Also in the Turner Prize show in 2000 I used the same idea of laying out elements on a flat horizontal surface, so it was already settling within my practice then. While I was editing the Truth Study center book I came to this really obvious realisation that all my work happens on a table. A table provides a space for a loose arrangement, where things are laid out in a certain way, but can be easily rearranged. On a wall you have to pin or tape the stuff, but a table is more fluid. There is clarity and complete contingency at the same time.
And why did you start using newspapers as raw material in your work?
I had worked with found newspapers before, in the ‘Soldiers’ series (1999). I have to confess I am a bit of a newspaper junkie and have collected them since childhood. I often think that a day’s newspaper contains the essence of the whole world. But I guess that around 2002–2004, the years post 9/11, a clearer picture of the world we live in emerged – all the insanity that surrounded us – after what had seemed like the less politically charged 1990s. I was enraged and concerned and spending a lot of time reading media and thinking about all these different claims to the truth, ‘the big truth’ which was the ultimate justification behind all that violence and those wars. I realised that all the problems that the world faces right now arise from men claiming to possess absolute truths.
So hence the name…
Of course it would be very desirable to have a completely neutral ‘Truth Study center’, but that will never be possible. So even though it has this big title, it is not claiming to be delivering truth, but rather looking at all these different, opposed truths. But it is not at all saying that everything is relative or subjective. I do think there are certain truths that are not negotiable, that some events and attitudes are wrong, and I am straightforward about in the work, which I think is precisely what makes it interesting. It takes a moral stand on the one hand, but on the other is always aware of its absurdity and of its extreme limitations. So it presents all these issues, like the impact of AIDS denial in Africa or the question of the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – the whole war came about from a single question: is this true or not?
Are the tables fixed in their arrangements and subjects?
The tables are, or can be, pieces in their own right. They do not always have to come in the same installations. But it’s the same as with a wall installation, when I think a grouping really works, I try to maintain it. But the working process is quite flexible and not set in stone.
Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.
So you color–photocopy all the newspaper that are on the tables, which is already a process of translation in itself…
Very much so. That is the essential part of the visual composition, because we have been talking a lot about content but of course if the table works were not interesting to look at, they wouldn’t have an artistic justification. I use the color photocopy because of aesthetic reasons, but also because the color copy is amazingly permanent, as opposed to newspaper. I couldn’t use the original newspaper cause it wouldn’t look good after a year. But media-wise there are also real things, like a lottery ticket, a bus ticket, a vegetable wrapper…
You have a very strong relationship to printed matter. You have even said: “Everything I do happens on paper”, which I think is a simple but very meaningful realisation, with a lot of implications…
I have a double interest in The Last Newspaper show. Not only do I use newspapers and magazines as material, but also my work is heavily featured in printed media and I use media as both generator and distributor of my work.
What are the main subjects of your tables in The Last Newspaper?
There is one table about soldiers and war, one about religion, another about the depiction of war, games and violence on the internet. I also have some images of airlines and the experience of flying and there is one about Americans’ attitudes to food. There are a lot of critical messages there, but you could find all of them in very mainstream publications. Information and criticality is there for everyone, which is also one of issues I want to highlight in this work.
Detail of Truth Study Center (NY), 2010. Wood, glass, and mixed media. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, © Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Latitudes.
Is this series your outlet for political expression?
There is definitely a bit of that. I use these works to make statements on subjects that I feel very strongly about but that I can’t or don’t want to tackle in my photographs. At the same time, though, the reason why I started to work with images from the very beginning was because I wanted to be involved with what was going on the world. Questions of taste or of beauty have always been politically charged for me. Do you find two men kissing disgusting or beautiful? That is a question of aesthetics but also of politics. I’ve always had this very strong awareness that every freedom that I enjoy as a gay person has been hard fought for by many people before me, and that gave me a great sense of public responsibility. I think every person counts. I might be very traditional in that sense, but I really think it does matter.
The Last Newspaper is on view from the 6th of October 2010 till the 9th of January 2011 at at the New Museum, New York.
THE LAST OBSERVER is edited by Latitudes
Wolfgang Tillmans’ work is currently part of The British Art Show 7, touring throughout 2011 across the UK:
Nottingham Contemporary 23 October 2010 – 9 January 2011
Hayward Gallery 16 February – 17 April
Glasgow 28 May – 21 August
Plymouth Arts Centre 17 September – 4 December
Wolfgang Tillmans, 1997
WITH PETER HALLEY AND BOB NICKAS
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TRAVIS
Besides being one of our all-time favorite photographers, Wolfgang Tillmans was our cover photographer throughout our first year, helping to establish the index style right from the start. Over the course of the last year, his portraits for us were surprising, poignant, playful, strange, thoughtful, and sexy — in short, everything you would hope for in another human being. With our collaboration coming to an end after six wonderful pictures, we wanted to talk with Wolfgang about his work. We called him at home in London, where he’d just done “the ultimate fashion story” — Kate Moss for Vogue.
PH: How are things in London?
WT: Well, I’m enjoying myself, not for the first time, but …
PH: What’s London like nowadays?
WT: There’s not much change in my perspective, or at least the reasons why I love London have always been the same, and so the international hype around London doesn’t really affect me that much.
PH: Why do you love London?
WT: Well, because of the music, the street, you know, the whole club culture.
PH: I haven’t spent much time in London, but the way people socialize there is very distinctive. It seems different than in America or in Europe. Do you pick up on that?
WT: I find it is different from America, but I’m not sure where the exact difference is. It’s like, the pub rules that you have to drink in certain hours and you have to drink as much as possible in those hours.
BN: Can you be sober and have a good time in London?
WT: I think so, yes. But, I mean, it’s also much more fun being drunk. And that’s one thing I like, that people are pretty unashamed about losing themselves.
WT: Which is a nice difference to New York where …
BN: … people are ashamed.
PH: I’ve noticed that the English people I know really like to party.
WT: Yeah, but I think everyone would like to party. Americans like to party as well. It’s just that there are different fashions.
BN: My years of partying are behind me.
PH: We don’t party in New York anymore, you know.
WT: Yeah, it’s all about controlling yourself.
PH: Yes. And anybody else you can get a hold of. [laughter] Well, actually, that makes me think about your photographs. You’re certainly not a control freak. You talked about the freedom of going into a situation without expectations.
WT: Yeah. I have to note that abandoning control of a situation doesn’t mean I’m giving up control of the process, as a whole. So, I’m actually very precise about the way I work. But part of that precision is to know where my precision starts and ends. And there are moments where I can’t control that anymore. Because I can’t control human relations, especially not with people, so I don’t even know.
PH: But you once said something very evocative to me, that you had sort of taught yourself not to look for a photograph, not to look for anything when you went into a situation.
WT: Yeah, because that is like photographing according to a recipe. If you go into a shoot with an idea, you only get that idea and you cut yourself off from the chance of getting a much better picture. And I guess that’s the problem that a lot of photographers probably have — that they don’t trust the situation they are putting themselves into. So they have a safety net and they don’t even try to leave that. But I find it intriguing to expose myself to somebody that I’ve not met, and see what happens. Take a possible alienation as a positive result, and make that into a picture.
BN: Didn’t you once say that you showed the person a little bit of your own vulnerability when you were photographing them?
WT: Yeah. I think because I feel like, pretty much on a par with the person that I photograph. I mean, on a human level, that we are all just human beings, and pretty much made of the same material. I can allow myself to be vulnerable, but I can’t actually pretend that I’m not vulnerable.
PH: It’s a tall order — you’re familiar with the whole dialogue about the power of the photographic gaze, and so forth. Are you working consciously against that? Or is it something you just sort of want to dismiss?
WT: I’m just very aware of the impossibility of that. I mean, look at the Larry Brown cover I did for you. There was a most impossible situation — meeting this fundamental Christian football player in the Crescent Hotel in Dallas, for a luxury breakfast …
PH: I guess that’s not really empowered is it?
WT: Exactly. Or meeting Mira Nair in her editing suite when she’s got all the rest of the world to think about. And so, to pretend that I am in control of the situation would be ridiculous. But somewhere on this planet we meet and have to get through this. So it’s part of my process to make that work for me.
PH: Can I make an analogy, that if the camera has sometimes been thought of as a weapon, that you kind of use it as a toy? I don’t want to call it childlike, but there’s a sort of pop-joy that one gets from your pictures. You also don’t use a lot of equipment, so it’s almost like a little kid going around with an Instamatic, just snapping away.
WT: Yeah, I mean, I find my best work is when I’m positively thrilled by what is in front of me.
PH: What gets me about your photographs, that separates you from other photography today is that you seem to connect with people rather than look at them cynically. And in your pictures, life looks very worth living, you might say. It’s hard for me to express.
WT: It’s also difficult for me, without sounding corny, I guess. But, of course, I love life and I have a positive outlook on things. I have idealistic intentions with my work. And I want to put some image of my vision of humanity into the medium. And I find that basically is a political kind of work.
PH: Yeah, it really comes across.
WT: Because there is this imbalance towards stupid representations of people in today’s media.
PH: And you really are not a snob about people being young outsiders or famous and beautiful. It’s like, you want to take it all in.
WT: Yeah, without actually pretending that I’m … that there is a big family or anything like that. There are certain misconceptions and one of them is that I photograph my friends and my family, and it probably arises because they all look like friends.
PH: I actually thought that was only a small portion of your work.
PH: I imagined you going around on trips and maybe meeting people, or them being sort of random situations?
WT: No, I hardly ever pick people off the streets or in clubs … almost never really.
BN: I’m thinking of the word “democratic,” because when I started looking at more of your photographs, I couldn’t always tell the difference between what were personal pictures, and what was commercial work. And I realized there’s a kind of blurring between them in your work. In other words, with some photographers, their commercial work looks like it’s what they were hired to do. And the other work is personal. But in yours they kind of flow into each other much more.
WT: I just make my work, and there’s only one kind of work that I do. But then, I put it out into the world, and it instantly starts to travel. People start to claim it for whatever field they think it sits in. So I actually don’t control the framework in which my work circulates.
My staged work looks so real that people actually take it for documentary. But, in fact, that is my intention, to disguise the manufacturedness of it. Half of my work, or probably more than that, is staged.
PH: This is contradictory to what you were saying at first, that you went into shoots without pre-expectations.
WT: That’s the thing, I go into an index cover shoot without expectations because there is nothing I can expect because I don’t know who I’m meeting. But there are a lot of themes and images that I have in my head, that I stage with people, with models. And then, in order to distribute them into the world, you use fashion channels. So I use the fashion magazine kind of as my platform to publish my storyboards. I inject my personal visions into the world, by making them look real, or looking like a club shot or like a fashion shot.
But actually, what I do is I enact situations with my models or friends so I can see what they look like. There’s the photo of those people sitting in the trees. Or those people lying on the beach. The woman with her hands wrapped around her head. All those were planned images.
PH: But by “staged” you just mean you move people around a bit?
WT: No, I tell them what to do, and I choose the clothes, I choose the location, and I set them up in their positions.
BN: It sounds a bit like a little scene from a movie …
WT: Yeah, but it’s a kind of post-art photography. It’s no longer about — “Look how much an artist I am, how controlled it is.” It’s confident enough to use photography to its fullest extent without constantly pointing at how I’m controlling the whole process.
PH: Do you identify strongly with the cinema verité tradition, or the street photography tradition?
BN: There was the famous TV series, An American Family, where the everyday life of a California family was filmed in their own house for a whole year.
WT: No, I’m actually not very interested in finding, in collecting these moments. I’m looking for the one definitive picture of a person or a situation.
PH: Who are your favorite photographers?
WT: Nick Knight, I have to name as the first. He’s the best fashion photographer of this moment, I would say. I saw his work in the ’80s in London. He was the first photographer whose name I ever recognized, and the first who taught me that photography is a relevant medium.
BN: Who else do you like?
WT: Well, I don’t really know. I like Andy Warhol as …
PH: As a photographer?
WT: As an image-maker, without so much discerning between the two. Most art that I’m interested in is based somehow on the photographic process, and so you can also say Richter and …
BN: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a photo? It can be painting?
PH: I always get the impression that you started taking pictures when you were like, six years old? You seem to have that kind of natural relationship …
WT: It’s pretty much the opposite, because I tried all sorts of things, but the last was photography. Maybe because my family is such a keen amateur photographer family. So photography was a really kind of un-cool thing … we were forced to view slide shows by my father.
It was really the only medium that I didn’t experiment with. But in ’87 the first black-and-white laser copier from Canon came into town, and I discovered its power to enlarge copies to 400 percent, not with mirrors, but with a digital process. So I started photocopying things — also pictures that I took on holidays, dissolving photographs though the pixillation and the high-magnification of the Canon machine.
Then I needed more photos after I had done a few little shows with that work, so I bought a camera.
BN: When did you buy your first camera?
WT: In ’88. I was 20. And then, after a while of continuing to work on the copier, I realized that the photographs were better than the manipulations. Since I started with manipulating photographs, I never really went into making the process visible.
PH: When you do an exhibition, you still are very much an installation artist who uses photographs.
WT: Yeah, but it’s not exactly so much about remodeling a teenager’s bedroom or an art director’s clipboard, which people sometimes think.
PH: I don’t read it that way at all.
WT: Yeah, I mean, neither do I.
PH: Your installations do a lot with the space in the room.
WT: Yeah, it starts off with … that I want to reflect the way I look at the world, that I have an inclusive vision of the world. That I am aware of the fact that I’m now looking at the sky, but now I’m looking at my feet. And next, looking at the phone. That they are all these different parallel things causing visual sensations and thoughts and ideas. And that I’m interested in various aspects of life, and I want to give them space and representation.
PH: You make photography look easy, like just snapping a picture. Is it easy for you?
WT: It’s probably easier than for other people. But it’s not really easy at all because it’s hard work. It’s not necessarily hard work at that very second, but it’s a lifetime of actually making visual decisions, and training the eye … and training the brain. It’s a lot about thinking about pictures. I find that 80 percent of my time and work is spent actually looking at pictures.
PH: It was so amazing the way you chose cover photographs for us. We had agreed that you would choose the photograph for each cover. And I was so surprised almost every time the photograph came in. They really represented your taking a lot of responsibility for a certain amount of risk.
WT: Yeah, because it is about one particular image. And I find that, in the end, there is only one best picture even though there are a million possibilities. But for that one moment and one purpose, there is only one choice. And when there is one choice, then I’m very prepared to defend that.
PH: But do you struggle over that? Or does the choice come to you naturally?
WT: No, that’s the thing, if I find there are equal choices, I show them. We’re all aware anyway that we’re being photographed, and that’s something that maybe I’m not trying to circumnavigate.
PH: One thing that I’m impressed with is even though you’re still a young person, I find that there’s been a lot of growth in your work in the last couple of years. And it so much seems to reflect growth as a human being. I mean, your pictures seem to be getting more and more expansive and psychologically insightful.
WT: Um … that’s probably the hard thing about what I’m doing. Again, without wanting to sound pretentious or whatever, what I’m really struggling with is to keep that growth factor in there, and not be overrun by all sorts of … it would be so easy to lose the plot now.
It’s not about achieving something for its own sake, and taking pictures for their own sake. But to make conscious decisions and choices, and it includes this constant questioning — “Why am I taking pictures?” Because really, the world is … it has pictures enough. I mean, there are enough pictures out there.
PH: Your picture of Udo Kier was so extraordinary, because it’s not usually how Udo chooses to appear. He usually tries to appear rather magisterial. And in your picture he looks kind of like a little boy.
BN: I felt that Larry Brown came off looking like a mischievous little boy.
WT: Well, that is like …
PH: That’s the magic.
WT: Maybe. That’s what I mean when I say I feel on a par with the people I photograph. I am strongly aware of me being, not a little boy, but a little human being. I very much see other people as that, and only as that. So I’m looking for that, and trying to look through the public persona that first meets the eye.
BN: Now you just photographed Kate Moss …
PH: Actually it would be fascinating to hear about that, because there is somebody who is photographed all the time, who has a very well-known public presence. So what happened with that?
WT: Well, I was going into it after a lot of agonizing about if I really wanted to do it, and I felt really under pressure to succeed.
BN: It was for Vogue, right?
WT: Yeah, American Vogue. And I also really wanted to succeed within those parameters.
PH: Was the assignment to do with clothes, or to do with her?
WT: It was a fashion story on chinoisserie. But the story line was kind of like, me meeting her. So she came to my studio in London — it’s actually where I live — and we spent two days together. It sounds much too romantic, of course, because it was a photo shoot situation with hair and makeup and styling. And so, I was thinking, this can’t work, and it hasn’t worked in the past for me. But then I thought, well, if I’m supposed to be a fashion photographer, I should do the ultimate fashion story — Kate Moss for American Vogue.
I went into it without any preconceptions, without trying to be cynical or clever about fashion. And so I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by her beauty. Because when she really is in front of you, she is just incredibly beautiful.
PH: She is?
WT: Which is quite a revelation, just how that works. I mean, she’s already beautiful when she comes in off the street, but then they do the hair and makeup, and put on clothes, and suddenly it all comes together.
Then when I went to the photo shop to look at the prints, they looked just like Kate Moss. And that was quite incredible, because during the shoot it didn’t look like the complete picture. She is actually about putting together that whole look …
BN: That’s her job.
WT: There has been a lot of endless talk about supermodels, but it was quite impressive how much talent is needed for that. I could see it in front of my eyes, how she completely worked it.
PH: I always wondered about that. What makes that talent? Is it a sense of body language? Or knowing what the camera will see?
WT: She was very aware of the whole process. I mean, she wasn’t trying to be a model. She was completely aware of the irony of the whole thing, making fun, and imitating other models. Making fun about the projection of what she’s supposed to embody. But at the same time, not being really cynical.
PH: So you all must have gotten along very well?
WT: Yeah. It was fun. And also, we — meaning my boyfriend and me — tried to make this as much like our home as possible. So it was probably a different experience for her as well.
BN: Wait a second. When you said she spent two days there, did she actually sleep over and eat with you?
WT: No, no. She stayed in a big hotel or something.
BN: But she didn’t just come in and have her picture taken and leave? You spent time together …
WT: Well, she came in the morning and left in the early evening. The pattern was pretty much just like a fashion shoot. Putting on a new outfit every hour, having the hair done three times an hour, the face touched up. So the things you talk about aren’t incredible.
PH: I’ve always wondered how photographers and film makers keep their concentration when the hair person is busy, and you’re just waiting?
WT: Well, concentration doesn’t necessarily flow all the time. We think that concentration is a continuous thing, but actually it is about just peak moments. So I was actually very happy with the people interrupting when it was necessary, when it was for the good of the whole picture. And it was interesting to see all the things that were unacceptable for a picture, like any bit of hair hanging loose is an instant no-no. The situation was very much about trying to make something that I liked, but that Vogue will still like. It’s probably not the most important thing in my life, but it was something that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.
BN: Is there anyone that you really want to photograph that you haven’t?
WT: One thing I am interested in is the iconography of our time. Like, the last thing that I saw driving out of New York was a huge billboard of Kate Moss. So that is something that intrigues me, to then photograph her. So I usually answer that question — Michael Jackson. I guess that would be the ultimate.
PH: I met Michael Jackson.
WT: Really? Where?
PH: On a plane to Paris. I saw this guy standing in the front of the plane, and he was wearing a black leather surgical mask and a black cowboy hat …
PH: … and mirrored sunglasses, and black clothes. And I thought, “gosh, this is a very well-dressed hijacker.” But he said “hi” to everybody on the plane and we had a little talk about art. I told him I was an artist and he asked me if I did realistic art. And I said, no, I did abstract art.
BN: You asked him who his favorite artists were.
PH: And they were all Renaissance artists like Leonardo.
WT: Half a year ago he was in Cologne because there’s a big theme park near Cologne, and he had it closed down for a day so he could go there. But then the next day he just walked into Walter Koenig’s and spent two hours buying dozens of art books.
PH: He’s incredibly charismatic.
BN: If you ever get to photograph him you have to take a picture of his hands.
WT: Oh, really?
PH: Yeah, I thought he had the most amazing hands I’d ever seen. And it was very strange because he was all masked and stuff, but when he talked to you, he sat close and established this sort of intimacy, so you had this bizarre feeling of seductiveness and aloofness at the same time. It was very powerful.
WT: Wow. On that level that we all are human beings, it would be interesting to try to make contact with that sort of person. I mean, where is that human being in Michael Jackson?
PH: Well actually, after a five minute conversation I came away with one overwhelming impression, that this person had more will than anybody I had ever met before. He’s very soft-spoken and strange. But he just radiated will. It was unbelievable.
WT: I find that really intriguing. I guess that is something that probably most stars have.
PH: Well, he is more than a star. I also went away with this image of the Renaissance artist doing everything. I mean, he does dance, he does music, he said he does all the videos himself, and he does architecture.
PH: Well, you know, his whole theme park.
PH: Yeah, it’s like an architectural complex of a certain kind. So I mean, he does everything. It’s really impressive, if you think about it.
WT: So he would be the ultimate choice. But then again, it could be anyone, really.
PH: You’ve just had a big museum show in Europe, and now your photos are at the Museum of Modern Art. I get the impression that you’d like to have people looking at them who don’t usually go to museums.
WT: Well, I achieve that through my book publishing practice, and magazine publishing. So when I’m working in a gallery or museum it’s very much about that particular audience. It’s very much about the experience for me of making the most tension and, at the same time, the most equilibrium in one room.
It’s about the five days before the opening that I’ve been working in that room at MoMA. That’s really what I take away from it. And then it comes as a bonus to know that hundreds of thousands of people apparently come, thanks to the Jasper Johns show.
PH: Yeah, he really makes people go to museums that don’t go to museums.
WT: Yeah. MoMA and the galleries in SoHo are actually the only places that make sense on a democratic level. Only the shows at Andrea’s gallery and that MoMA show really gave me the impression that I’m dealing with a real public. The rest of the time, you’re looking at like, 2,000 visitors, so it can’t possibly be only about those viewers. It has to be something about myself that I’m trying to find out … that I use these exhibitions to find something out for myself.
PH: It’s a more purist medium.
WT: Yeah. Yet, it’s like the purist-research of my work. It’s very much about the object, as well. The photograph as object. To find ways of actually doing this impossible thing of showing photographs in a gallery.
People haven’t developed much imagination over the past 150 years to invent new forms of presentation. And so it’s a pretty limited medium as an exhibition medium. It’s very much about, “how can I get this excitement that I have from a print lying on my table into the gallery?”
BN: We’ve come to the end of your relationship with the magazine, which is sad, and I’m wondering what you’re going on to next?
WT: Well, one thing I’m looking at is ways of coating the surface of my prints with something that makes glass and framing permanently redundant.
PH: Oh, how great.
WT: I really want to push that one bit further. I mean, people are actually still thinking it’s a slap-dash grungy presentation. But it’s actually the most purist presentation because there is no glass and frame. It’s just the pure sheet. And so I want to push that forward.
BN: So you’ve got some technical research.
WT: Archival research, because the problem is that museums can’t keep those installations on the wall like that forever. But at the same time, I just really want to have a break. A break from speaking through shows. I just have such a multitude of possibilities to express myself that it has become a bit demanding. Now I want to again generate more pressure inside myself, and think about what I really want to say.
PH: Now, if you went on holiday to the beach, would you leave your camera at home?
WT: It’s not a problem. I take the camera anyway. And maybe I leave it in the hotel. Or maybe take it with me one day. If I have it with me, it’s not a burden and I don’t feel obliged to take a picture. But if I don’t have it with me, I usually don’t come into situations where I say, “Shit, I wish I had my camera.” Because I only take pictures two or three days of the month anyway.
PH: That’s a great job.
WT: Well, the 27 other days I’m thinking about it.