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Book of the Week: Selected by Brian Arnold

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.