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Book Review How to Raise a Hand Photographs by Angelo Vignali Reviewed by Meggan Gould "Photographic series about hands were added to my list of (playfully) banned subjects a number of years ago, where they would join cats and fire hydrants as too cliché-prone, and thus best avoided..."

How to Raise a HandBy Angelo Vignali
How to Raise a Hand
Photographs by Angelo Vignali

Witty Books, Italy, 2022. 128 pp., 7¾x9¾".

Photographic series about hands were added to my list of (playfully) banned subjects a number of years ago, where they would join cats and fire hydrants as too cliché-prone, and thus best avoided. A reliable trope of interest among undergraduate students is the flesh of hands, usually tender youthfulness countered by images showing what other flesh has endured over various spans of manual labor or sun.

Clearly, my presumption of inevitable cliché was a mistake. Angelo Vignali’s How to Raise a Hand is a book of fingers and hands, and I could not love it more.

The book is divided into six chapters that are bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter is photographed within the space of the artist’s sparse studio, and each is a tight edit on a singular motif. In one, we observe photographs of sculptures representing fingers, in another, improbably large photographs of fingers spill out of a box. We see these photographs pinned to a clothesline, absurd giant fingers dangling in space. We see suit jackets unpacked from bags to be hung neatly on a coatrack, and then joining the fingers, floating on almost invisible line. The jackets lose the mold of the human body they once shielded, as the fingers did through the act of being rendered two-dimensional, flat — armatures of flesh rendered futile.

Chapter IV arrests me, disarms me. No pun intended. The individually printed images of disembodied fingers are montaged together, on page after page, into a pointed cacophony of digits. No pun intended, again. Each is cut out with no apparent underlying logic; some follow the contours of hooked fingers, others are typologically rectangular. The only hints of color in the book lie within this chapter: a few brief moments of yellowing paper hint at black-and-white processing stains, two magenta fingers jolt, tease me. Once the alarm of finger isolation (dissection?) passes, I realize that each finger is displayed by poking upward through a cardboard hole, pushed up and isolated against a sterile background. Some shyly lurk at the hole’s edge, others flop, flaccid, onto their examining table.

Each chapter reads as a delicate study of a specific object, or set of objects, in this quiet studio. Subtle shifts of the camera’s vantage point underline the sense of a sustained study; a redundancy holds us, grounds us, in each chapter’s focused vision. The black-and-white captures are somber, gray, and low key — serious with a tinge of unshakeable melancholy. Three dimensional sculptures, a mirror, three dimensional flesh and blood, all flattened with extraordinary care into a photograph’s two dimensions. The unspoken fourth dimension feels like grief, or yearning, or their potent combination: an attempt (and inability) to reach across time to touch someone.

Benedetta Casagrande’s essay, “Molting, Molding, Mourning,” which closes the book, is a poignant meditation on photographic transformation and material. It confirms, with broad strokes, my initial suspicions as to the underlying loss at stake in the artist’s handiwork (pun, clearly intended). She writes: “Infamously mortifying in its precision, photographs proffer something akin to an insect’s molt: the shell of something that moments before was alive, and that, through shedding, suddenly becomes inanimate.” As the best essays do, it pulls everything together with succinct precision, offering enough of an explanation of the artist’s journey within the book to make me return to the images anew. In this understated and astonishing visual contemplation, there is an evocative mingling of joy and grief as we molt, we mold, and we mourn.

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Meggan Gould is an artist living and working outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,, the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, and Speos (Paris Photographic Institute), where she finally began her studies in photography. She received an MFA in photography from the University of Massachusetts — Dartmouth. She recently wrote a book, Sorry, No Pictures, about her own relationship to photography.
Book Review Stadtbilder Cityscapes 1979–1985
Photographs by Ulrich Wüst
Reviewed by Blake Andrews “These milestones have come after a long, low-key career in the trenches of photoland, during which his profile raised barely a blip outside of Germany. If he’s been overlooked by the international photo community, that’s just fine with Wüst..."

Stadtbilder By Ulrich Wüst.
Cityscapes 1979–1985
Photographs by Ulrich Wüst

Hartmann Books, Germany, 2021. German/English. 160 pp., 105 Illustrations, 7¾x10¼".

At age 73, Ulrich Wüst’s star is on the rise. On the heels of his first-ever U.S. show in 2016, he was included the following year in Documenta 14, where “his atmospheric black-and-white images of abandoned East German cityscapes at the heights of Brezhnev-era stasis foreshadow the inevitable end of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.” In 2019 this series was included in the compendium The Freedom Within Us. Now he has followed it up with a monograph. Stadtbilder, designed and released by Hartmann Books, collects cityscapes of the former East Germany between 1979 and 1985.

These milestones have come after a long, low-key career in the trenches of photoland, during which his profile raised barely a blip outside of Germany. If he’s been overlooked by the international photo community, that’s just fine with Wüst. His commentary on the art world (as relayed in Stadtbilder) is telling: “I became aware of how strange it was, and I felt quite comfortable about not having to join in this dance.” Even before arriving at that judgement, he took his sweet time settling on the “weird hobby” of photography.

Born in 1949 in Magdeburg, Wüst studied architecture and civil engineering at Bauhaus in Weimar, then worked as a city planner and a photo editor. He tinkered with his own photography but it wasn’t until 1984 that he took the plunge into it full-time. By then he was already well into shooting the photos which would form Stadtbilder. The complete book, which wound up including the original series plus 50 added photos, documents various East German cityscapes roughly a decade before reunification. By Wüst’s measure, it’s a visual study of Germany’s environmental “psychotype”.

Stadtbilder captures the German Democratic Republic in vernacular limbo. It had emerged from the wreckage of WWII, and was largely rebuilt and reinhabited. But in some respects, the country had come out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the Soviet Iron Curtain cast a grey pall throughout. Wüst’s frames are decidedly uncheery. He did not often photograph people, so there are no human smiles to brighten up the frames. In their stead, stern marble busts of Marx and Lenin are set against brutalist architecture and post-war ruins. A stifled dreary mood pervades amid signs of a past that can never quite be forgotten. 

Wüst visited many East German cities, typically on magazine assignments where he might shoot his own outtakes in addition to whatever was commissioned. He usually carried a single 35 mm film SLR and 50 mm lens, which he handheld in landscape format. This setup — “my ridiculous equipment”, as he calls it — was an unusual and somewhat idiosyncratic choice for static cityscapes, even back in the heyday of small format film cameras. But it suited him fine. He became intimately familiar with his equipment, and it became a near bodily extension.

Wüst approached most street scenes head-on, camera leveled, paying close attention to verticals. He generally aimed broadside at facades, curbs, and other traces of the built environment. Several photos in Stadtbilder are spiced with open roadways receding to the horizon, their frames knit with fencing, statuettes, and industrial adornments. All have a blunt descriptive power that falls somewhere in the aesthetic neighborhood of Lewis Baltz, Joachim Schmidt or Stephen Shore (just don’t compare him to the Bechers and their “unremarkable compositions”). “Wüst is the phenotypical observer”, comments Matthias Flügge in the opening essay, “turning even the most inconspicuous street corner into an incident transcending futility.”

might be a mere visual memento if approached as pure documentary. But its photos are pushed beyond contemporaries through clever twists. Time and time again Wüst injects witty layering and visual confusion, all enhanced by the homogenizing effects of greyscale monochrome. In a photo of Leipzig 1982, for example, trees, cars, and brick blend into a 2D chiaroscuro. A shot of Berlin 1982 performs a similar trick with window frames, utility poles, and distant apartments, their forms dancing to an ambiguous rhythm. Photos of Karl-Marx-Stadt 1982, Magdeburg 1982, and Dresden 1985 repeat the magic. Wüst is irredeemably playful. Wherever he looks the buildings blend into puzzle pieces. He just can’t help himself, it seems. Thankfully he’s in good company. Luminaries like Lee Friedlander and Gerry Johansson face the same existential crisis every time out, with equally beguiling results. Why do forms line up just so? Won’t the world ever settle down into stasis? For a photographer of cityscapes, these are good problems to have.

As with Friedlander and Johansson, dense visual textures are typically encoded in tight prints. The book is modestly sized, and its reproductions are scaled down even further to fit horizontally, perhaps 6 inches across. Thankfully the small enlargements don’t detract from the power of Stadtbilder. With several dozen bantam photos, there’s no use pixel-peeping. It’s more fun to flip the page and lose yourself browsing. The hardback binding features full-extension cardstock covers running flush with the internal pages, an elegant design touch. In addition to the informative essay by Matthias Flügge, the book features a recent interview of Wüst conducted by Katia Reich (all texts are in both German and English). The wily master comes across as playful and intelligent, a diligent observer who has always pursued his own dogged path. With Stadtbilder, photoland can finally see what Wüst has been up to all these years.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at
photo-eye Gallery Maggie Taylor's Artist Reception & Book Signing Jovi Esquivel An early digital adopter, Maggie Taylor has been utilizing this technology to build her evocative and elaborate photomontages for over 20 years...

Maggie Taylor. The Gathering, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 15x15", Edition of 15, $2800

photo-eye Gallery is pleased to announce 

Maggie Taylor  /  Internal Logic

An artist reception and book signing for Taylor's new book and exhibit by the same title. 

This exhibition and book feature...

"dreamlike worlds inhabited by everyday objects"

On View August 6- September 24, 2022
Artist Reception & Book Signing: August 6, 3-5pm

An early digital adopter, Maggie Taylor has been utilizing this technology to build her evocative and elaborate photomontages for over 20 years. These whimsical narratives often begin as pastel background drawings, with additional components such as 19th Century photographs, drawings, vintage toys, seashells, feathers, and taxidermy scanned and meticulously arranged over time to complete the scene. Working instinctively, Taylor crafts a surreal alternate reality with curious peculiarities, rich in symbolism.

Taylor's new book Internal Logic features insights into the shape and contours of her inspirations. Her deep archive of images is the lexicon through which she communicates her multi-layered imaginings. Each image contains the keys to understanding the corpus of other photographs.

>> Learn more about Maggie Taylor's New Series on the photo-eye Blog!<<

As part of our video series photo-eye Conversations, Gallery Director Anne Kelly interviewed Taylor. In this interview, they discuss the artist's latest work, her new book, and her process in great depth. Click on the image below to watch this fascinating conversation!

Maggie Taylor lives on the edge of a sun-drenched prairie populated by cows, alligators, and birds on the outskirts of Gainesville, Florida. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1961, and moved to Florida when she was 11. Her childhood was spent watching countless hours of science fiction and situation comedies on television. In college, she received a Philosophy degree from Yale University and a master's degree in Photography from the University of Florida. 

Taylor's digital composites have been widely exhibited, published, and collected by many museums.  

Print costs are current up to the time of posting and are subject to change.

photo-eye Gallery is proud to represent Maggie Taylor.

For more information, and to purchase prints from Maggie Taylor
please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly or Gallery Associate Jovi Esquivel
you may also call the gallery at 505.988.5152 x202
Book Review The Sea Photographs by Barbara Bosworth Reviewed by Brian Arnold "The Sea is the third in a trilogy of books by Barbara Bosworth published by Radius Books in Santa Fe, and it is a collection of photographs made primarily along the coasts of New England, dating back to 1984, when Barbara moved to Boston to work at Mass Art..."

The Sea. By Barbara Bosworth.
The Sea
Photographs by Barbara Bosworth

Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM, 2022. 200 pp., 60 illustrations, 10¼x12¾".

The Sea is the third in a trilogy of books by Barbara Bosworth published by Radius Books in Santa Fe, and it is a collection of photographs made primarily along the coasts of New England, dating back to 1984, when Barbara moved to Boston to work at Mass Art. A native of rural Ohio, she was engrained with a deep connection to landscape, and saw interest in these waters for decades. The previous books in the series are The Meadow, a meditation on a small but iconic stretch of land outside of Boston, and The Heavens, a richly visualized investigation of night skies. Each of these books measures about 10 x 13 inches, are gorgeously designed — implementing creative and beautiful strategies for mixing text and image in the books — and feel like a unique piece of artwork in and of themselves. All of them are structured the same way, with large sections of photographs interlaced with short essays by Barbara and her longtime friend and collaborator Margot Anne Kelley.

The Sea is divided into four sections of photographs (an obvious reference to the seasons), with each of the sections richly illustrated with black-and-white and color photographs — masterfully handling both — which treat the water as a mirror that reflects our greatest beauty and our deepest longings. Such a deep-felt emotional connection to the landscape is something few photographers can fully articulate, but with each picture Barbara finds her heart within the contours of the water and its coasts. The texts are clearly distinguished by using a smaller, thinner paper, something that looks like a warm-toned, acid-free newsprint. Between these four sections of photographs are essays by Barbara and Margot, also including fragments from Virginia Woolf’s book The Waves and Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, and a piece by the award-winning landscape writer Barry Lopez. The Sea also contains 13 appendices, which include writing by Jem Southam (a clear kindred spirit), descriptions of early attempts to catalog and measure wind currents, Barbara’s weather journal (those who follow her weather Instagram will recognize the work, but personally I love seeing it on paper with pencil annotations), a “cabinet of curiosities,” a collection of sand she made by gluing small patches of it to paper, as well as watercolor paintings of coastal New England and other small collections about America’s shores. The combined effect of all these things feels like an immersive experience, blending deeply felt poetry with little tidbits of citizen science and vernacular expressions of the landscape.

The reproductions in this book are remarkable, and it helps to remind the reader that photographs are more than just images but are also objects. Anyone who has worked with color film knows that difficult exposure conditions can easily reveal some of the physical limitations of traditional photographic materials. And Paul Graham showed us that film grain can be broken down to individual colors. The scans and digital productions used to make The Sea fully embrace these characteristics of film, with no attempt to correct them. There are several pictures in which you can witness grainy flecks of color evolving across the page, each grain transitioning from midnight blue to deep burgundy. There are even pictures in which you can see agitation streaks on the film, imperfectly processed color negatives. Some might find this problematic, to me however, it makes her photographs appear more heartfelt, suggesting that the making of the picture is also an act of beauty, it’s not just about the final print.

Radius Books is clearly one of the most ambitious and innovative book publishers today. When you get a copy of The Sea, be sure to remove the dust jacket, at least once. The binding of the book is so simple and yet so lovely. So much of what makes this book successful is the design, beautifully understanding and articulating what makes Barbara’s work so special. Often with Radius, however, there is a sense that bigger is better, and I repeatedly find myself thirsting for them to use their incredible production skills to make a smaller, simpler book, something that just lets the pictures speak and doesn’t use so many design elements. In this book that hits me in the appendices, some of these feel like simply too much. I love many of the elements that they bring to the book, but every time I sit down with it I end up rushing through them to get to the end, even feeling like these distract from the rich visual complexity of her photographs.

I studied with Barbara while pursuing my MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art. When I was there, the careers of both Abe Morell and Laura McPhee took off. Abe’s camera obscura pictures from the 1990s (my personal favorites of all his work) resulted in several high-profile commissions — from the New York Times, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and he was asked to illustrate an edition of Alice in Wonderland. Laura was working with Virginia Beahan on No Ordinary Land and was just taking a year off teaching to photograph in India. Frank Gohlke was an icon in the city, teaching at both Harvard and Mass Art, and Nick Nixon was still at the height of his career, MoMA purchased a complete set of The Brown Sisters. Not much was happening with Barbara’s work at the time, indeed she was recovering from a personal trauma beyond words. She didn’t typically work with graduate students — that program was controlled by Laura and Abe — but my class successfully petitioned the department to have Barbara teach our photo seminar, and I’m glad we did. Being around all these star-studded careers mattered little to Barbara while she quietly suffered through her pain — making pictures was not about a career, but it was the perfect tool for healing from loss. Indeed, each spring Mass Art hosted a benefit auction in which graduate students, hand-selected undergraduates, alumni, and faculty were all invited to show. The school’s main gallery was divided into two main levels, the upper floor reserved for the star-studded faculty and alums, and the downstairs gallery was for students. All the years I was at Mass Art, Barbara’s pictures were relegated to the bottom floor with the students, while Abe, Laura, and Nick all showed upstairs with Sheila Pepe, William Wegman, Tony Oursler, and Doug Dubois. Barbara not only didn’t seem upset by this, in some ways seemed to take it as a point of pride; Barbara wanted to teach her students that none of us are anything but students, and the best photographers are the ones who can illustrate a lifetime of learning and curiosity. She was an incredible role model, constantly affirming that a true love for making pictures was enough, indeed reminding us that photography was one of the best tools available to us for helping us explore what it means to be human. I still find this truly inspiring, and to me Barbara represents incredible humility, affection, and strength; and I see all these sensibilities clearly at work in her pictures too.

If you take a listen to this recent interview with Barbara and Sasha Wolf, you will hear Barbara talk about her early influences as a photographer. Here Barbara talks about her career in humble terms, she says quite bluntly that she does not go looking for opportunities, but simply puts all her faith in making pictures. That in mind, Barbara has quietly put together a substantial and enviable career, one I admire so much more because it was never the goal. In 2005, Barbara published Trees: National Champions with MIT, and then nothing again until 2013 when she made her first book with Radius, Natural Histories. In the last 10 years, by my count Barbara has made 13 books, working with publishers as interesting and different as Datz, Radius, Dust Collective, and TIS. In 2015, she had a major retrospective of her work held at the Denver Art Museum. Looking over her books, collectively they reveal a deeply insightful and patient photographer, and an artist committed to exploring photographic narratives and the craft and artistry of bookmaking. In my time knowing her as a person and through her books, Barbara has fully convinced me that embracing the power of beauty is enough, that despite all our pain and disillusionment beauty does offer redemption.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.
photo-eye Gallery New Image by Thomas Jackson! Jovi Esquivel New image by Thomas Jackson, featuring his tulle sculptures in collaboration with the wind.
Thomas Jackson, Tulle no. 34_v1, Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, 2021, Archival Pigment Print, 30x38", $4,000

How close is too close to stand before an image? Because I want to get close enough to absorb the light radiating from this breathtaking photograph! Neon clouds of tulle glow against the contrasting deep, blue sky, while the warm reflection of the billowing fabric mimics the last rays from the setting sun across the beach. This mischievous photograph is full of rewards for those that want to step in and have a closer look!

Thomas Jackson explains that 2020 was the year he "tried to harness the wind," and that the Wind was, "the force that transformed my installations from lifeless fabric to living things." We often think about the wind as a destructive force, but the Wind has the ability to help things move that otherwise couldn't.

In collaboration with the wind, photo-eye Gallery is pleased to announce 
a NEW image by the artist Thomas Jackson!

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Jackson grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. After earning a B.A. in History from the College of Wooster, he spent his early career in New York City working in book publishing, then as an editor and writer at Forbes Life magazine. An interest in photography books eventually led him to pick up a camera, shooting Garry Winogrand-inspired street scenes, then landscapes, and finally the installation work he does today. A self-taught artist (with the exception of a number of classes at the International Center of Photography in New York), Jackson has pioneered a unique working process that combines landscape photography, sculpture, and kinetic art. His work has been shown widely, including at The Photography Show (AIPAD) in New York, the Center for Contemporary Arts in Sante Fe, and the Bolinas Museum in Bolinas, CA. Jackson was named one of the Critical Mass Top 50 in 2012, won the “installation/still-life” category of PDN’s The Curator award in 2013, and earned second place in CENTER's Curator's Choice Award in 2014.

Travel back in time to the origin of the project, and watch the 2015 video in which photo-eye Gallery was honored to have Jackson deliver a pre-celebration gallery talk on his exhibition Emergent Behavior. During this talk, Jackson discusses the project's progression over time, its symbolic relationship with both sculpture and installation, and the future directions within his practice. 

Follow Thomas on Instagram for behind-the-scenes footage, like the videos below! 

In this first video, Thomas takes a meter reading near his 4x5 camera, and we get to catch a glimpse of the support system used to suspend his ephemeral sculptures.

Last week, Thomas was featured on the Pantone Instagram page. In this clip, he talks a little bit about his new work and process while on location!

Print costs are current up to the time of posting and are subject to change.

photo-eye Gallery is proud to represent Thomas Jackson.

For more information, and to purchase prints from Thomas Jackson
please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly or Gallery Associate Jovi Esquivel
or you may also call us at 505-988-5152 x202

Book Review Golden Apple of the Sun Photographs by Teju Cole Reviewed by Zach Stieneker "The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds in its collection a nineteenth-century Dutch silver salt spoon, captioned simply: “Dutch salt spoon, 19th century." Teju Cole, however, suggests an alternative..."

Golden Apple of the Sun. By Teju Cole.
Golden Apple of the Sun  
Photographs by Teju Cole

MACK, London, UK, 2022. 136 pp., 7½x10".

The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds in its collection a nineteenth-century Dutch silver salt spoon, captioned simply: “Dutch salt spoon, 19th century." Teju Cole, however, suggests an alternative in his expansive essay in the Golden Apple of the Sun.

"Bonaire was claimed by the Dutch in 1636 (the 'Dutch Golden Age') and turned to the harvesting of salt,” he begins. Cole goes on to describe the horrific harvesting conditions, undertaken by enslaved people at the time, including a 1831 first-person testimony. Salt harvesting continues now under the American multibillion-dollar corporation Cargill — their tagline “Making salt in paradise.” Paradise here refers to Bonaire, which remains a Dutch “possession.” Cole’s essay continues to describe how the salt made by the people of the Caribbean has been, and continues to be, used to preserve cod in Europe and New England, which is in turn exported to the Caribbean to feed the people making the salt.

So, yes, a nineteenth-century Dutch salt spoon is pictured, but in that object are histories of colonialism and slavery, portraits of human suffering and the etiologies of staggering wealth. In that light, the preceding series of images made exclusively in Cole’s own kitchen lose their innocence. With each turn of the page, more questions arise: Who made these objects and ingredients? What did it take for them to get to where they are? Whose lives did they cost?

For Teju Cole, everything is nested in something. This is the profound suggestion of the Golden Apple of the Sun, which meditates deeply on the ways that even the most precise and constrained — one kitchen, one fraction of a second, one chance arrangement of kitchen items — reverberate with meaning.

There’s even a formal enactment of this idea in the essay: its many different threads are presented in a single, continuous block of text. It oscillates continuously between memoir , prose poem, and academic nonfiction. The essay is addressed to a nondescript “you,” and in the book’s acknowledgments Cole thanks “the many yous.” No salt spoon is just a salt spoon.

Reflecting on the artistic tradition of the still life that he is working within, Cole writes, “In our twenty-first-century lives, ordinary as our objects are, devoid of patina as they are, mass-produced as they are, they are no less charged with the mystery of everydayness as are the vessels on Chardin’s stone plinth, for they contain our hours which are as resonant to us as Chardin’s were to him.” What, then, are our hours?

The photographs in the Golden Apple of the Sun are all made within the six weeks leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic. These are the hours that the work most acutely engages with, but part of that engagement involves the reminder that to define a moment requires a selection, that the pre-election period could just as well be thought of as the entire history of the American experiment rather than just six weeks. These are the hours that the book wonders how to mourn.

“We’re being asked to do something intolerable, to witness and understand other people’s pain, and then still move on with life,” Cole said in an interview about the work. “It’s very difficult to do, and yet it has to be done.” So we find ourselves in the kitchen, stocking and depleting it, arranging and rearranging it, day after day.

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Zach Stieneker holds a BA in English and Spanish from Emory University. Following graduation, he spent several months continuing his study of photography in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Book Review Wolfgang Tillmans A Reader Reviewed by Brian Arnold "My first experience with Wolfgang Tillmans’ work was in a school trip to New York City in the 1990s. I was in grad school and visiting photo galleries with photographer Abelardo Morell, my professor at the time..."
Wolfgang Tillmans
A Reader

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2021. 352 pp.

My first experience with Wolfgang Tillmans’ work was in a school trip to New York City in the 1990s. I was in grad school and visiting photo galleries with photographer Abelardo Morell, my professor at the time. Morell was dismissive of Tillmans’ photographs, perhaps a bit too loose for his more highly composed, view camera driven formalist approach to art photography. After I left grad school, I started teaching photography to BFA and MFA candidates in Alfred, NY. Early on, some senior faculty were encouraging me to study Tillmans’ work, and as a young and spirited photographer myself, I assumed this meant his work wasn’t worth my attention — I have my own ideas as to what is important, thank you very much. Of course, since then I’ve known of Wolfgang Tillmans as an influential photographer but must confess, short of his iconic pictures I know very little about him. My recent reading of Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader was my first real exposure to his work, and I now have the great opportunity to share with things I’ve learned about him starting from scratch.

Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader is an anthology tracing the artist’s career from the early 1990s to the present day. The book focuses on his writing and theoretical framework and includes interviews, essays, lists (details from his record collection, favorite exhibitions, etc.) and social media posts. These are presented as a way to lay out his philosophies of art, the media, identity, and politics, to show his core values and how they’ve evolved over time. The majority of the book is interviews, mostly conducted by prominent and influential people and institutions (like Freize, Artforum, and Hans Ulrich Obrist), but with some surprises (my favorite turns the tables and Tillmans is the interviewer in conversation with the legendary 1980s UK band The Pet Shop Boys).

I can now say that I understand Tillmans to be a deeply thoughtful, articulate, and sensitive artist who successfully created new parameters for exploring and sharing his work by breaking down barriers between high and low culture, between fine art and popular media, and between representational and abstract photography. The level of his accomplishment as an artist and bookmaker is phenomenal; he is exhaustively published and exhibited but still uncompromising about exploring boundaries. He attempted to embrace photography in its totality, recognizing that each and every form or material available was worthy of our attention. I’ve often thought of Tillmans as more of a media celebrity than a craftsman and was surprised to learn that he was such a committed printmaker, who is empathetic about his commitment to highly crafted photographic printing (he made his own C-prints). He also created books and installations using only degraded Xerox copies, and he embraced bus stops and Newsweek and Time magazines as legitimate platforms for promoting his life and work as an artist.

Circling back, I don’t think Abe Morell recognized the incredible formalism in Tillmans’ work, as his work and teaching reflected something much more modernist in approach to photographic art. For Abe formalism means a perfectly composed view camera image, printed lusciously as fine art photography should be. Tillmans, on the other hand, recognizes that all components of the photographic process are formalist tools — darkroom accidents, fine C-prints, Xerox copies, flashlights, bus stops, and pop culture magazines are all fair-game when looking to find new photographic ideas. Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader provides clear insight into how all these ideas took shape, mapping the development of the artist’s theoretical and conceptual framework over decades.

Perhaps most surprising and interesting to me was Tillmans’ work about Brexit. A gay German intellectual in London had a lot to say about cultural tolerance and openness and was an outspoken critic of the policy. He frequently attacked Brexit and its advocates on his social media platforms and was also commissioned by a pro-EU political body to design get-out-the-vote posters. These posters are an exceptional use of the form, rich with color and space and an optimism that feels genuine, truly believing that a multicultural democracy is a better option.

I must confess that I didn’t read all of the book. While I developed much more respect for and interest in Tillmans and his work, I did find the interviews became very redundant and tedious, and to print a list of some of his favorite records felt more sycophantic than insightful. Ultimately, I don’t think Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader is intended for someone like me, with only a cursory understanding of the artist’s work, and is probably a treasure for those with a deep investment in his career. The book is primarily text, but the reproductions are beautifully produced, small but clearly articulated and with great color, so it does provide a great, general introduction to his work. Published by MoMA, the book clearly defines Tillmans as part of the photographic canon. MoMA produces a lot of publications offering this kind of thorough investigation and documentation of an artist’s words (I love their books on Jeff Wall and Adrian Piper), and Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader seems like another important addition to their collection.

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Brian Arnold
is a photographer, writer, and translator based in Ithaca, NY. He has taught and exhibited his work around the world and published books with Oxford University Press, Cornell University, and Afterhours Books. Brian is a two-time MacDowell Fellow and in 2014 received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation/American Institute for Indonesian Studies.