PRINT May 1994


LIKE MOST SALON PHOTOGRAPHERS, Wolfgang Tillmans takes pictures he would have us “take” as diaristic impressions—images of places seen and people observed in them, generally arranged around occurrences that project the fly-by-night. The genesis of the style is not so much in the old New York school of photography (Diane Arbus’ early 35-mm. work, say) as in images that are less emotionally based (the subjects are, rather, visually “interesting”), more driven by narrative, if of seeming randomness. Compare Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, say—a novel of fast cuts, a third-person voice that drifts off into shared, boring emotional messiness, and the writer’s exchange with his subject as a frame. Like Garry Winogrand’s photographs, Tillmans’ work seems less photography per se than some literally visionary literature in a non-rhetorical voice.

The subjects of Tillmans’ art are complicit in the production of the image. This is obvious when the pictures are presented as fashion photography, though the term “fashion photography” needs to be exorcised from talk of his work: what he creates in pictures, with the help of clothing he chooses himself, bears little relationship to fashion, which is just a series of shapes that people recognize as possible foils for their desires. In any case, Tillmans’ work, though shoehorned into the context of fashion, is always narratively based, whereas what drives traditional fashion stories is another momentum—that of consumption: page after page of the sell.

The subject’s complicity in a photograph is nothing new, but Tillmans’ means of production is: color, which we do not recognize as such since his processing and development aim not for the immediate punch of color photography (always seductive to the eye, and to most magazine art departments) but for a draining of it. This is less an exploitation of color’s properties than a stripping away of its means of seduction. For photographers like Nick Waplington, Philip-Lorca Di Corcia, and Nan Goldin, color is part of the subject of the work; but Tillmans defers to the quality of film sent to the drugstore to be processed and then returned. There is always a difference between what we imagine the film to look like when we send it out and how it eventually comes back; Tillmans’ prints rely on our memory of this exchange, indeed they depend on it. So everything’s always a little bit fucked up, but it can be managed through the idea of a photograph as a chemical construction resembling things like people and their homes. Which is to say, Tillmans’ photographs will just do.

Tillmans, a 25-year-old native of Germany who by all accounts (including his own) now makes London his home, is not so much insisting on the naive as puncturing the authorial voice behind whatever narrative he is creating (or re-creating). And his dissolution of the distinction between the finished print (colorful, done) and the off-the-cuff photographic remark is emphasized by the variety of ways in which his work is exhibited, seen. I first came across his photographs in the November 1992 issue of i-D, the London-based popular-culture magazine, where they were presented as fashion novelties. But Tillmans’ photo-piece, “Like Brother, Like Sister,” made a show of incest and twinship the starting point for a discussion of one’s relationship to the self, regardless of hardware. One reference point might be Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles, of 1950. And in a photograph of a boy pulling at the thigh of the woman who (we presumed) was his sister, the rivulets on her thigh (created by her brother’s finger) recalled the icky charm of David Bowie’s hair and flesh and Candy Clark’s alabaster, horrible skin in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), a film about the search for the repulsive, beautiful, fascinating double.

This photograph—reprinted last winter in the Paris-based art journal Purple Prose—has also been shown in gallery exhibitions of Tillmans’ work. The result is a double consciousness, not so much of the work per se than of the ways in which it is used: popular magazines are the province of the art director and the editor, who crop, arrange, and edit the narrative to fit their own production (the magazine) as opposed to the photographer’s intent, which may be exactly nothing, exacting nothing, as is.

Hilton Als is editor-at-large for Vibe magazine, New York.