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 1990s, 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?"
Wolgang Tillmans, Jan. 30-Mar. 13, 2010, at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.