Beginning in 1989, at the volatile age of 21, Wolfgang Tillmans began applying his own radically skewered photographic vision to the commercially debased medium of fashion photography. He worked for i-D in England, Spex and Tempo in Germany, as well as a growing roster of blatantly hip publications around the world. In the U.S. he's contributed to Interview,Index and Vibe. In the process, Tillmans has invested the visual and social concerns of his art with the gloss of fashion, a surface of desire and the empty iconography of style as signifier of identity.
Perhaps because so few in any position of visual authority can ever come close to grasping the tweaked sensibilities and insidiously internalized ironies of 20-somethings, many have assumed that his work was somehow about youth culture and fashion. It is not.
Tillmans exemplifies a warped '90s hybrid of the personal and social, the commodified and ephemeral, the glamorous and prosaic. His art is deceptively but decidedly formalist, and at the same time it's subversively pan-sexual, narcotically ecstatic, young and fresh.
Tillmans is among the most potent and provocative portraitists of our times. His photographs distill gesture and unleash a wealth of conflicting terms from that convergent axis of culture and commerce at the end of the century.
This conversation between critic Carlo McCormick and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans was conducted in New York City on the occasion of Tillmans' solo exhibition at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, Oct. 23-Nov. 28, 1998, in conjunction with the publication of his latest book, Burg (Taschen).
Carlo McCormick: You just saw John Waters' new movie, Pecker, about a young photographer in Baltimore who gets discovered by the New York art world, with all the comic ramifications that success has on his relationship with the friends and family he photographs. Beyond the obvious humor of this fictional story are some very real issues photographers today have to face regarding their subject matter.
Wolfgang Tillmans: With the subject matter of contemporary photography, you have to be prepared for the effect of its publication. You can't play innocent, because you know what happens to these pictures -- at least you do after your first success. So you better be prepared to have the answers.
CM: And do you actually address this in the work itself?
WT: Yes, in a way I've tried to address that from the beginning. This wasn't recognized so much because people bought my fiction as authenticity, but for me it was always out there in the impossibility of authenticity. It was always about the construction of these images.
CM: As fictions?
WT: As fictions, or as reality, and as the nonclarity where you don't know what is fiction and what is reportage. I want people to accept my esthetics as valid, and what's considered most valid is what is perceived as real. That's why I create my style of lighting, color and situations to look as if there is very little between me and my subject.
CM: As a kind of impersonated verité.
WT: Yeah. The funny thing is that it was a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That fiction became reality. At the time, my subjects were outsiders, and my work was an outsider perspective. By the time my first book with Taschen had come out, it had become far more common and popular, and suddenly my work seemed to be reportage.
CM: The fashion business immediately picked up on your style as well as that of other contemporary photographers. As you in turn put your work out in the context of fashion editorial, did you think of this as a subversion of or acquiescence to the co-optive representations of the fashion industry?
WT: The thing was I'd always done fashion work. But to me the definition of fashion is more a question of industry or not industry -- or original versus unoriginal, in terms of ideas. That's where I draw the line. I've always been incredibly interested in clothes and their expressive qualities. This of course constitutes a huge part of my work. I wanted to bring those ideas into media that I myself got a kick out of. I've loved i-D magazine since I was 14, so it was natural for me to think that way.
CM: Were those spreads you did for i-D actually fashion stories? They always looked like art to me.
WT: I always used the fashion pages as a pretext to show my pictures. I realized very early on that those were the only pages where photos can be published without having to....
CM: Service the promotion of stars.
WT: Yes, or have any other story or content. As long as you have some sort of fashion credits on them you can pretty much do what you want. That's the space where photos don't get questioned as service. That's why I thought of it as a great showcase, a great playground, to infiltrate esthetics. There was fashion, but they were not fashion industry, as in Tommy Hilfiger. I think that's a major difference. I have nothing against fashion. I'm proud to be involved with the esthetics of clothing, media and photography, but I don't deliver my vision to the service of corporate culture. I was asked very early on to do advertising, and a lot of magazine work as well, and I always turned down offers that asked me to illustrate stereotypes of a certain "tribe."
CM: You mean in terms of selling youth culture to the mainstream?
WT: Right. I'm not against advertising either, per se, but I don't believe in the fusion of art and commerce, or art and fashion. They are very separate things to me, and all that talk of cross-over bores me to death. I don't think that all this stuff in fashion magazines is art. It's fashion, clothing, make-up, styling, and should feel validated on those terms instead of aspiring to art.
CM: It lacks any substantive conceptual framework, and without content it's not so much art as artiness.
WT: Yes, it's arty. It's surrealist, or whatever.
CM: Fashion photography might also be dismissed for its lack of honesty. While you challenge and subvert notions of authenticity, is there a line between what is actual and what is faked that you maintain in your own mind towards your work?
WT: No, I think what's on the picture is what counts. I always try to resist the viewer's appetite for explanation. That's what happens with photography -- the viewer wants to know how, when, what, where. I look at pictures as pictures. When you look at paintings you don't ask these questions, you just accept that this is the vignette or situation you're given. That's very much how I see my pictures. I want to keep those questions out so that it doesn't matter if it's staged or not.
CM: The way you disrupt narrative linearity in your installations, is that also strategy to obviate these questions?
WT: I think so. I guess it's a representation of how I see my life and environment, the way I experience them in a parallel rather than linear way. Instead of embarking on specific stories or projects -- with the exception of the Concord photographs, which I definitely approached that way -- they build up to become bodies of subject matter.
CM: After a decade of extensive traveling through a broad realm of diverse experiences, what are the sort of correspondences that accumulate for you?
WT: I'm interested in what I see and in the fantasy of travel as a metaphor. Like the Concord -- I've never traveled on one, and all the pictures were done without access to the airport or the plane. It's not really about access so much as the fantasy and its accessibility to all our lives.
CM: With your inclusive sensibility, traveling has extended and diversified your imagery to a degree that we can no longer describe a single subject of your art.
WT: Yes, the seed of that has been in my work from the beginning. Only recently it has become more pronounced. We like to pin things down to one aspect, or one angle, but I was never interested in narrowing my subject matter down to a digestible field. That has always complicated the perception of my work.
CM: So when you're hanging a show or designing a book then, how do you locate the discrete correspondences within your work?
WT: One thing at the core of this is how good an image is, how well it is composed. And looking at that in terms of how new it is, if there is precedence for it, which is the main criteria of course.
CM: So you believe it is still possible to create a new image or composition?
WT: I guess so, yeah.
CM: I only ask because there are those who do not.
WT: Considered in terms of cultural theory it's probably impossible to do a new image because we are coined by art history. If someone looks at my show I'm sure they could find these historical patterns. I kind of like that because there is no culture outside this room. In terms of connections, that is the initial criteria of the picture. I'm concerned with what's in the picture but I'm also very concerned about them as objects and presences.
CM: You mean that in the physical sense of size, scale, paper and printing process?
WT: Yes, all of those things. This is what I occupy my time with.
CM: Also as shapes on the wall.
WT: Absolutely. You could also call me an installation artist in the way that I use space and play in these places. I think photography shows are usually quite boring.
CM: There's nothing worse than that straight line running across the wall.
WT: It's not very pleasant is it? It's very linear. I try to break up those juxtapositions. For me, I only make sense as a gallery artist when I do something that I cannot do in a book or a portfolio.
CM: How do you think differently when you're doing a book or a magazine where it's page facing page, flip, page facing page, etc.?
WT: There it is forced into a linear format. When I do them chronologically I get a kind of randomization that makes sense.
CM: If you want a certain randomness, does this mean you believe in some inherent structure that will be revealed no matter how it's ordered?
WT: I believe in an inherent structure in the additive layering of my experiences. I believe in something new and I believe in evolution. Photography is only a way of showing what and how you think about things. In that way chronology makes sense for me.
CM: Do photographs work retroactively for you, with new work informing the old?
WT: Yes. In particular because I did take some good pictures early on at a time when I wasn't confident enough to recognize them, or was maybe looking for other things. In the new book, it starts with pictures from 1986, which is a direct result of rediscovering them and recognizing that I have really always been interested in the same thing.
CM: I've been writing the same story for 20 years. Why do you include the older work in your shows today? If you're interested in the new, why constantly recycle old images?
WT: Because I believe in this additive layering. I don't think that a picture I was convinced of, happy with, or was once really meaningful to me, is ever going to lose that. I mean, I hope. And I try to test that hope in the exhibitions to see if it holds up. These installations are a kind of psychological map of my current moment, so it's very possible that something older will be relevant. Insofar as they chart my psyche, when I read my exhibitions I may make connections that are not there for the viewer. But it must make sense to me, so the viewer still understands that it has to be exactly this way for me.
CM: They're also quite open-ended and allow for multiple or alternate readings by the viewer.
WT: I hope so. You can enter them on various levels, formally or in terms of content, for example, through colors, size, patterns, gestures and thematic patterns They're not about my private life. Even if they come from very personal experiences or situations I try to make sure they carry a more emblematic character. I usually never want to point at me in the photographs. The main point shouldn't be that this is these people at that party in that city on that day, or that these are my friends. It should be more generic. Because we are thinking of photography as authentic we want to know the story. As soon as the viewer recognizes a face he constantly tries to make a connection.
CM: There are a number of people who re-appear frequently in your pictures. This relationship to one's subject has become a central issue in contemporary photography. Everyone has their own parameters. Nan Goldin, for example, only shows the photographs that her subjects are happy with how they're represented. I assume your relationships are also collaborative rather than passive because your work is more posed than spontaneous snapshots.
WT: That happens also. More often though are, of course, the very aware moments that are created for the camera, so there usually isn't really that problem of stealing a moment from someone's life. With the people that I use, like Alex and Lutz, the photo was obviously the reason for sitting in the trees in the first place.
CM: How are they part of the creative process?
WT: Without them I wouldn't be able to do exactly what I end up with. I set up the situation and the framework for what is possible, but I'm always very aware that what we know and can describe with words is never a good enough idea for an image. An image has to carry more magic than just an idea you can talk about. That's why I hardly ever go into a situation with an idea at hand. I have more of a degree of madness in mind, or of beauty. I hate nothing more than contrivedness that doesn't work on any other level.
CM: You kind of flirt with a manner of casual photography....
WT: Say the "s" word.
CM: All right, snapshot. But without even having to talk about your work, why do you think this has become so predominant a look in the '90s?
WT: For me it was never about taking bad pictures. I always aim at taking very good pictures.
CM: They are actually really formal, intentional and studied.
WT: Yes, it's just a new formalism that looks to the untrained eye like snapshots. For me it came from noticing how I really like the way things are, how they look. I think it all starts in this definition of beauty. When I was in college in Bournemouth in 1991, I started to realize it's not about creating an image, it's already there. You get excited by looking at a friend sitting opposite you, so why take them into a studio? It was from this basic understanding, that yes, I'm excited by this, the creases in your shirt, so why iron that shirt. Or I'm excited by that bulge....
CM: Aren't we all.
WT: Yes exactly. So I wanted to photograph what I desired. To take a picture that represented what I desired as much as what I saw when I desired it. I wasn't very able to do that in the beginning, and I thought about why -- what is the film, the paper, the light, the color, doing that doesn't capture this? I started to really investigate the process and found ways of using a flash to mimic how things appear naturally, so that it is without shadows. In my pictures you hardly ever notice the light source, which is something that is very opposed to the snap shot style of many contemporary photographers who do not hide the photographic process.
CM: Your pictures of rats actually do make evident this photographic process.
WT: Yes, the camera's presence is more explicit in those pictures. It makes them seem kind of cute and playful towards the camera, and also gives them those red eyes. On other occasions, for example in clubs, I've used flash very straight on.
CM: In pornography now, amateur porn, like home movies, is suddenly very popular. Perhaps for its very aura of authenticity. Is this something you have an appreciation for?
WT: Only as it represents something that has not been stylized by rules. Like how some photo esthetes in the past set up that it's good to have a glow in the hair from behind. I studied photography for six weeks and left because I couldn't believe I was being told what was right. Who says what's right? I definitely believe you have to know your craft. But any anomaly, like esthetics, talks about itself and not about the subject matter. When I look at a picture I want to see what the subject is, and I don't want to see the tricks of the trade. The amateur doesn't have these tricks, he just looks for what he's interested in.
CM: When you talk about beauty, you often locate it in the most quotidian, mundane and every-day. There is some tradition of this of course, but it is a relatively new condition in the contemporary esthetics of the sublime.
WT: I was very touched by what Rafael Doctor, a curator in Spain, wrote in regards to my work; that the ability to see the whole in something small and mundane was a great human gift. That's actually why I do the still lifes. I don't know, I just get fascinated by the beauty of an orange or a glass.
CM: Is there something ultimately very fetishist about this? How, in this obsessive attention to the minutia, from whatever is lying on the table top to the pile of crumpled clothing on the floor, there's a potent charge of sexual energy.
WT: Not so much in everything that I photograph. Certainly in the clothes there is a fetish interest, in how they're imprints of the body. Clothes are the sensual surface we deal with. I mean, I see hardly anything of you right now, so I find it quite natural that a lot of my sensual attention goes towards clothes. I admire and am puzzled by them, so I photograph them to understand what they do and why. What I find so fascinating about clothes is how they create identity but at the same time create belonging, or the loss of individuality.
CM: This is particularly true of the clothing you often photograph -- the seemingly less fashion-oriented apparel, like blue jeans, tee-shirts, army fatigues and cargo pants, or the generic functional working class clothing of the gas station attendant, security guard or UPS deliveryman, which all is suddenly so popular with youth as utilitarian street-wear.
WT: Which I'm sure is absolutely the same thing as this photo phenomenon. We'd rather have the realness of the UPS man than some fancy Thierry Mugler suit. We want real emotions, real stories, real experiences, real wear and tear. It's something I wanted since I was a little boy when my mother wanted to throw out the ripped jeans and those were the ones I loved the most because they carried all those memories and traces of life. As much as I hate the whole discourse related to this photography issue, I think it's very valid to think of realness, authenticity and amateurism.
CM: Generation X is such a ridiculous construct, created by the advertising industry to describe as an x-factor the very elusive identity of a generation born between two baby booms. However, within the eclecticism of pop music and the new wave of writers, filmmakers and artists now emerging, we are getting a better idea of what it's about. Your own work has certainly been looked at by many as useful in this regard. Do you think it's valid as a representation or expression of this generation?
WT: Absolutely. I think I am very much of my time, including how fiction can be used as a document for our experience within the media. And I don't think this is the opposite of what it means to be a great artist anymore, which is why I don't shy away from questions about Generation X or fashion and art. A lot of people are interested in these questions, in the same way they're interested in Caterpillar boots. That is, in the end, art of a bigger stream of consciousness which runs through Western culture in the '90s. At the same time, the real subject that I deal with is a much larger project.
CM: Where then would the landscape fit in with all of this. I myself have a hard time looking at landscapes and seeing them fresh today.
WT: Yes, they're boring. I see them as interesting in their exaggeration, like the photograph of the Alps with the sheep in front that I showed at MoMA. This of course is a totally made-up beauty. I have this one strand in my work that is seeing the edges of this super-beauty and admitting how I like looking at it without being cynical about it. But the detail is there to be stepped back from, which is why I often photograph from above. There, where the randomness of nature meets the order imposed by society, is how you can see what really fascinates me in all my work -- the hidden social patterns that are revealed in all human interaction.
CARLO McCORMICK is senior editor of Paper magazine.