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Feeling Through His Eyes: Wolfgang Tillmans

Kate Moss, 1996

Wolfgang Tillmans



Portraits, Still Lives, Candid Shots

Berlin, London

ArtMatch Value Score*: Strong


Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) is a photographer whose varied practice explores the world through his eyes, informed by a strong sense of spirituality, humanity and playfulness.

Whether he captures still lives of fruit, intimate portraits of famous musicians and models, ethereal scenes from experiments with photographic materials, or passionate lovers at a party – with film or digital cameras, Tillmans’ work has an undeniable, unique feel. “The reason why a photograph I take can be recognized is literally beyond words.” His work takes on a language of its own - the language of a man with a profound love of life and humanity who walks through life with eyes open, focusing on beauty but courageous enough to defend the values in which he strongly believes. These values were informed by his being part of the first generation of Europeans free to explore identity, particularly in the areas of nationality and sexuality. Over his thirty year career, Tillmans has become one of the world’s most well-known and respected photographers and a representative of sorts for freedom. Tillmans’ work is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in his first major career retrospective in the United States.

“My primary goal is that my pictures should depict what it feels like to look through my eyes.”

Image Credit: Collier Schorr for The New Yorker

Tillmans was born in Remscheid, a manufacturing city near Cologne, Germany, the youngest of three children. His parents ran a business exporting locally made tools to South America. Tillmans first visited London at age fourteen where he stayed with a host whom his mother befriended in 1955 through a postwar exchange program. Boy George was one of his early idols and he liked Britain’s “repressed but omnipresent sexuality.” His first photograph which he considers a work of art was taken on a family vacation: a self-portrait of his pink T-shirt, Adidas soccer shorts and sandy knees. At age 20, Tillmans opted out of military service as a conscientious objector and instead fulfilled a community service requirement in Hamburg. It was here that he purchased his first camera. Following his service, Tillmans initially enrolled in photography school in Berlin, but he dropped out after six weeks due to the strict format of instruction. Instead, he returned to the UK where he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design. The approach at Bournemouth was psychoanalytic, focusing on the “why” of Tillmans’ photography. This experience helped him think deeply about his purpose at a young age. “I saw myself as a serious being and not just being one thing, not just being young, but interested in spirituality as much as in hedonism, interested in politics as well as in personal friendships. The multiplicity of myself and my contemporaries – that’s what interested me and that’s what I wanted to communicate.” Tillmans’ spent the first twenty years of his career in London.

Many of Tillmans’ early photographs from the nineties featured young people exuding freedom and openness. In many ways, he chronicled the formative years of his generation, Gen X, a period marked by the fall of the Berlin wall and the birth of rave culture. On a visit to New York, Tillmans met artist Jochen Klein, and the two fell in love. They moved in together in London and spent three happy years together. Shortly after Tillmans’ opening at the Chisenhale Gallery, a non-profit gallery space in East London famous for showcasing emerging contemporary artists, Klein was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors informed them that the illness was HIV-related, news to them both that they were HIV-positive. Klein passed away one month later. Tillmans grieved his death for three years.

Deer Hirsch, 1995 (With former partner Jochen Klein)

In 1998, at a time when Tillmans felt the world was “over-photographed”, he shifted his focus to a series he called Silver, where pictures were made by experimenting with light, chemicals, salts and algea run through a film processing machine on silver nitrate-coated paper to create a set of colorful, ethereal works. He further explored non-lens pictures through his Freischwimmer series which is the result of directing light sources and light-emitting tools over light-sensitive paper.

Freischwimmer 33, 2003

After a time, Tillmans returned to his lens-based photography practice. He was a late adopter of high-definition digital cameras, as he wrapped his head around how to use a machine that had greater visual acuity than the human eye. When he did adjust to the new technology, he chose not to use a specialized camera, but a Canon S.L.R. manufactured for general use. Before that, he had used a 35mm. Fuji film and a 50-mm. lens, roughly the same focal length as the human eye.

Lüneburg (self), 2020

In 2016, as the Brexit vote loomed and right-wing, nationalist political sympathies were growing around the world, Tillmans felt compelled to speak out in favor of the values he embodies. He made posters to publicly campaign against Brexit in the UK and the AFD party in Germany. He formed a foundation called Between Bridges to support the arts and democracy with a focus on LGBTQ rights and combatting racism. He also created a series called Truth Study Center, which combines newspaper clippings and scientific papers to illustrate how media shapes our beliefs. The role of activist is one that Tillmans’ takes on reluctantly, out of necessity to defend a way of life that he holds dear. In describing his current exhibition at the MoMA, Tillmans says “the show is not a manifest or a rallying cry…maybe photos become standout icons for something, but there’s an openness, it’s not pushing a clearly worded message. I consciously chose that non-partisan approach.”