Over the last two decades Wolfgang Tillmans has redefined what photography can look like within a fine art context, with his deceptively casual images of everyday human scenes and objects. His photos from the early 1990s of friends and rave culture catapulted him to fame, embodying the exciting and pioneering nature of his work. This summer marks his eighth solo exhibition (Wolfgang Tillmans, through July 31) with Maureen Paley, the gallerist who in 1993 gave Tillmans his first showing in London, shortly after he had arrived in England from Germany.

Portrait of Wolfgang Tillmans. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo courtesy Wolfgang Tillmans Studio.

Allie Biswas (Rail): Let’s start with your interest in astronomy. I read that at the age of ten you made a photo of the moon by putting your camera at the end of the telescope.

Wolfgang Tillmans: I don’t know why I got so obsessed with astronomy. It started one day with a little book that I found on my parents’ bookshelf, and I guess the same day I picked up my mother’s binoculars, and from then on pressed my parents for a telescope. Then the next year it had to be a bigger telescope, and the year after an even bigger telescope. There was something that I found deeply comforting about it all. I was always an inquiring boy, but I remember that with the stars, with this encounter with infinity, with this connection to something larger, I had a sense of not being lonely.

Rail: That’s interesting, because people often feel the opposite way. Infinity is what scares them.

Tillmans: Exactly. I reversed that usual feeling and connected it to this visual observation, and this question of: Who am I? Where am I? Where do I come from? Even though I couldn’t answer these questions, I could do as well as I could to confront them by observing what I was able to see. What I kept with me from then on is that astronomy is particularly prone to obstacle distortions and challenges of visibility, and, hence, of what one can record. Everything that goes on in astronomy is at the limit of visibility. What detail can you still see on the surface of the moon? How many moons of Saturn can you see? Can you see the partition in Saturn’s rings? With faint objects there is something that is very interesting. When you look straight at a faint object you cannot see it, but then when you look a little bit to the side of it, you can. That is due to the fact that the center of the retina has the most color sensors, which are not as light-sensitive. The cells around them are more sensitive and enable us to see things at night, in low-light situations.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Italian Costal Guard Flying Rescue Mission Off Lampedusa, 2008. ©Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Rail: So, at a young age, astrology also helped you to realize that the way we see things depends on certain conditions?

Tillmans: Yes, I recognized that the way in which we see things is not consistent. The quality of our lenses makes things appear sharp or less sharp or with colored edges. And depending on the way that you look at something, you can either see it or not see it. That, proverbially speaking, is, of course, the story of society and all our interactions. What appears to be one thing may appear as something else to someone else.

Then, as a teenager, I turned my interest from the stars in the sky to earthly stars like Boy George.

Rail: Pop stars became more important.

Tillmans: [Laughter.]—Yes, yes.

Rail: This interest in astronomy also highlights your preoccupation with the universal. Everything has the potential to be considered by you in terms of subject matter.

Tillmans: Astronomy is so universal. It’s a pleasure that all of humankind shares, which I like. It is also a great leveling agent because it so clearly puts us in our place. It also has highly political consequences, like how people thought about the place of humans in history pre-Copernicus, and then after Copernicus and Galileo. Now, in the last five years, there has been this other moment of similar magnitude—NASA’s Kepler Mission and the discovery of thousands of other planets. It is very, very likely that there are many more earth-like planets in the universe, and the probability of there being life on them is very, very high. In this day and age of religious fundamentalism I just find this fantastic news, that the last bastion of man thinking that they are unique and selected by god is now scientifically challenged.

Rail: You started with the biggest things—the sky, the planets, the stars. Then, at the beginning of your career, you became known for the opposite. Your work is associated with the smallest details. What was it that made you want to look at everyday life?

Tillmans: Between the ages of eighteen and twenty, I was working with this black-and-white laser photocopier. I was interested in deconstructing pictures—photographs—into grainy surfaces and details. It was kind of an abstraction process. In ’88, because I moved to Hamburg, I had my own life and my own flat. I was no longer living in a provincial town. I was part of youth culture and club culture, and, in this case, of the “acid-house revolution” that had a huge impact in Hamburg. Suddenly house culture swept away the class-based ways of ’80s power-dressing and elitism, and everything was democratized. Everyone was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a smile on their face. That was a dream come true—my political ideas of a community, paired with real life.

It all felt so pressing that these abstract considerations—the photocopies—lost their urgency. Instead, I wanted to photograph this energy that I felt. That’s really how I then turned the camera to these experiences of dancing and music and the body. Being “in the body,” being comfortable in one’s body, sharing friendship—those things seemed very liberating to me. Outside of very small publications, there wasn’t any imagery that represented youth in this way. Pictures of young people were very staged and stylized, and the people usually appeared slightly soft or apologetic of themselves. I saw my peers and myself as strong people with strong experiences and strong persuasions.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lights of St. Petersburg, 2014. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Rail: Your first show was around this time, the “Approach Series” from 1987 – 88. Is that right?

Tillmans: Yes.

Rail: What impact did showing your work in public for the first time have on you?

Tillmans: That was a different liberation. In ’86 I was looking for a photocopier to make a zine on, and in the local copy shop in my hometown I came across this first Canon laser copier. It was really a very rough scanner with a laser printer inside. Now, of course, every photocopier is like that—a scanner with a laser printer. But at that time it was revolutionary in that it could, for the first time, reproduce photographs in half tone. But in order to do so, it transformed the pictures into dots, and I realized that these photocopies were incredibly beautiful objects, because they had their own texture. Today you would call it something like “noise.” This electronic noise worked well with the images that I chose, which were often from newspapers or magazines, but also, increasingly, my own photographs. I suddenly felt that these photocopies were my first truly expressive works, and they were expressive without me painting them or without me drawing them. That was so liberating. I realized, I don’t need to paint pictures; I don’t need to draw pictures. There was something alive in something photomechanical.

Rail: Had you considered other mediums to work with before this moment? What you’ve just described sounds like collage.

Tillmans: Yes, it was like collage. I had been interested in everything else—I really put my hands on literally everything one could think of. I was making clothes; I was singing and making music. I stopped that and put a break on it for twenty years, only to start making music again last year. My first record is coming out this summer.

Rail: That’s pretty significant.

Tillmans: You are literally the first person to be told outside the studio and my friends.

Rail: How would you describe the record?

Tillmans: It is called Make It Up As You Go Along 2016/1986 EP. There is a 2016 side—two tracks that I made now—and on the 1986 side there are three songs from back then, which I had recorded on a very simple cassette recorder and which, in a sound studio, we restored. Then we replayed the instruments, and mixed the original crappy tape recording and my voice with the replayed instruments. It’s like something that you can’t think up—to make something with a thirty-year gap in between.

I guess in the last couple of years, maybe, I’ve returned to considering a more performative self, which I once had, as well as this interest in making music. Last year at the David Zwirner exhibition, I showed a video in which I am kind of dancing. I am connecting to a moment, and maybe I’ve now found the courage to return to these older passions. They are not there to end or replace the thirty years of visual art. They are all connected, because this love for music runs through all of my work.

Rail: When you first came to the public’s attention with these photos of your friends and clubbing scenes, they created such a strong impression that even ten, fifteen years later, people still used that series as their primary reference for you. Was it difficult for you to change people’s perceptions, particularly as you began to turn your focus to still lifes?

Tillmans: Fortunately I never felt that I had to look for something new to turn to, because there were always these other interests in parallel to the clubbing works and so on. But I did feel the greatest urgency with those photographs of my peers. When the first book came out with Taschen in ’95, it allowed me to shift the focus onto the still lifes of drapery—of clothes hanging or drying—and some of those pictures were actually from the early ’90s. There was an aspect of pulling out things from earlier on that I had chosen not to show before, and developing them further. I have experienced that it takes roughly seven years to really filter through a change to the broader public. I would say that the still lifes and non-people subject matter came to full attention in the very early 2000s, but at that time I was already working with the non-figurative pictures I made in the darkroom. I started those in ’99 and they were regularly included in my exhibitions in the early 2000s. Then I had a very big show at the Hamburger Bahnhof in 2008, and at the press conference I was asked about these new abstractions. I suddenly realized that it really takes seven years, as the first time I showed them was in 2001. Though that is, of course, how we are all like. It is not like we are constantly tracking everyone’s developments.

Rail: By the time you started showing with galleries, you had already garnered an audience from your magazine work. Did publishing in magazines help, do you think?

Wolfgang Tillmans, Arena Homme+ grid, 2015. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Tillmans: I would say that I always had an audience, and that, in part, was because I chose to publish my photos in magazines. For years and years I had to deal with snobbery from parts of the art world and particularly the photo establishment. I was not taken very seriously at all by the photo galleries and the photo scene. It was the contemporary art galleries that picked me up because they saw the relevance of the magazine, and the potential of the interplay between the printed sheet on the wall and the printed photograph. I’d have a C-print next to a magazine page on the wall, and, for some, that was sacrilegious. For others, including myself, what was interesting was the conceptual inquiry and celebration of seemingly contradictory practices. So even in 2000, when I won the Turner Prize, conservative critics were up in arms that it was fashion photography or that it was not serious. I’ve always thought that it’s easy to make things look important, but it’s difficult to make things look easy.

Rail: One particular quality of your work that people respond to is how inartificial it appears. But there is a considerable process you undertake in order to get it to that point. Can we talk about your work as “real” photographs depicting “real life,” and what that type of commentary means to you?

Tillmans: Yes. If you have a strong layer of artifice in your photograph, you first see the artifice, and also the artist’s desire. The desire to make art is the one thing you don’t really want to see in art because that’s kind of boring. Of course, we all have ambition and intention, but those things in themselves are not interesting. When I reviewed student applications for the Städelschule in Frankfurt, I found them writing things like “I want to express myself.” That’s always a bad start. That is not what makes you special.

Rail: In that case, what an artist has to contribute within a bigger context is actually what is important.

Tillmans: Exactly. We all want to express ourselves, so it is really more of a question of, what do you want to contribute? Because art is only relevant as a continued dialogue between people across decades and centuries. It is an ongoing discussion that’s taking place in a context. Outside of that context, when it’s just pure expression, it can be pleasing, it can be nice, it can be decorative, but it’s not really connected to other things.. Coming back to the content and what that meant for the content: I found that photography is such a great medium because it is considered like evidence. If something looks “real,” the mind trusts that it actually happened, at least in a pre-digital world. So what I presented in exhibitions and books in the ’90s—this social world—was perceived as “these are his friends and this is his life” when, in fact, it was a really complex mixture of staged and unstaged, of found and set-up pictures, and various degrees in-between. People have thought that the Alex and Lutz pictures were real life but—

Rail: Who sits half-naked in a tree?

Tillmans: Exactly! The pictures are true documentary. They are pictures of the time because they are true to my feelings and intentions, but they are not true to real life. They are true to my feelings about gender, physicality, and identity politics of the time. All of those thoughts and hopes, they are recorded, and they are truthfully recorded. That’s why they create this strong sense of zeitgeist document.

Rail: Thinking about the context in which your work appeared, did you feel like you were a bit of an anomaly? You sat apart from the YBAs [the ’90s generation of Young British Artists] in London, and the Düsseldorf School of photographic artists.

Tillmans: I was two or three years too young for the Freeze exhibition, which I think took place in 1988. I moved to Britain in ’90. And I am around ten years younger than the Düsseldorf School. They came to the fore in the very late ’80s and early ’90s and were widely known. I like their work but I felt “I see that” not “I feel that.” I thought it was good that the work existed, but I didn’t need to contribute to it.

Rail: It’s perhaps very easy to be lumped together with other people just because of where you are based.

Tillmans: I feel so indebted to London and English culture. I would always refer to London as my primary home. London is the big continuum of my life. It may be an identity crisis or an identity liberation, because you are free to reinvent yourself and take the bits of the culture that you like and leave other bits behind.

Rail: Can you talk about your exhibition space, Between Bridges? Was the reason for moving it from London to Berlin simply for practical reasons?

Tillmans: Yes, that was purely logistic. In 2011, the studio space in London became unsustainable. The heating didn’t really work anymore and the roof was leaking. It became clear that this wasn’t a good place for a photographic archive of twenty years, and at the same time the famously cheap rent in Berlin allowed me to get a great, secure studio. I decided it would be better to keep everything safe in Berlin and have the London space as a place for living. But Between Bridges had to eventually move to Berlin, because I did end up leaving the building in London.

Rail: What was the premise for opening the space in 2006?

Tillmans: I opened it because I felt there was something missing in London, and in the East London scene more specifically. I also felt that the time I had saved from reducing my teaching activity in Frankfurt, I wanted to spend on something that wouldn’t be about my own work. So I focused on artists who in some way or another are working with society or are making work about society. I don’t want to say that it is political in every case, but certainly in the case of David Wojnarowicz or Sister Corita or The Center for Land Use Interpretation, they were working in a non-commercially driven way. At that time in the London there seemed to be very little risk-taking and a lot of younger artists were really just driving towards establishing a style that could result in a sustainable career. Which is nothing terrible—that is everybody’s right. I even wanted to make the exhibition of David Wojnarowicz’s work as a reminder to myself of how much you can put your money where your mouth is. He really holds nothing back, and he probably didn’t receive a lot of the success that he is now getting, twenty-five years after his death, because of it.

Rail: Do you consider yourself an artist with an activist ethos? In the early works you were positioning yourself within a subculture. Your ongoing project—Truth Study Center—is a reflection of your political perspectives. And you are very much behind the current pro-E.U. campaign in Britain.

Tillmans: For me, a lot of the early work was motivated by an interest to keep activism as attractive as clubbing, and even to connect the two. I did not see hedonism and activism as exclusive sites. Only when you are aware of how tragic life can be can you also enjoy the depth of a party through the night. But I was also aware, of course, that the political was nothing attractive per se, and nobody wants to be preached to. So I have shied away from very overt, direct messaging so far. Truth Study Center also embodies this. On the one hand it has been my speech; a tool to amplify voices that I like, in commentary and op-ed pieces. On the other hand, I have also used it to portray turmoil and chaos—the chaos of diverging opinions and untruths, the chaos of creationism and fundamentalism. In this way, it is also a deeply contradictory work.

Rail: The posters you have designed for the pro-E.U. campaign present a very clear voice—your intention is not in any way vague.

Tillmans: This is the first time that I’ve used that particular voice. The posters are part of my work, but they are driven by a different necessity and criteria.

Rail: The Neue Welt (New World) project from 2012 also indicated the use of a new voice, or at least a new direction. It subsequently highlighted how broad your scope is in terms of what you photograph.

Tillmans: Broadness was never on my agenda. It’s more like the title of my exhibition at Tate Britain in 2003 implied—if one thing matters, everything matters. By that I meant that everything has the potential to matter. I did not mean that everything matters equally, and that everything should be recorded. But everything can be recorded and it is you who attributes value to things. It is about having the broadest possible openness, and not having a closed mind. That’s really important for me. I bring this out through specific subject matter that then does recur within the different genres of landscape, still life, photographing works of art, portraiture, nightlife, phenomena of light, and astronomy, and then the whole phenomena of non-lens created images. But, in the end, the subject matter is joined and woven together by a sense that the subject is either something that I have affection for or that which I would want to know better. The Neue Welt project was really a complete rethinking of how I take photographs, and of what.

Rail: What propelled you to get to that point?

Tillmans: Towards the end of the ’90s there was already an overabundance of photographs. I didn’t have a need to make more pictures of this alternative lifestyle, and I shifted to suddenly inserting photographs that didn’t show the real world—they were abstract pictures. Then in the 2000s I focused very much on the conceptual photographs of photographic paper, and then the sculptural folded photographs. By 2007 or so, I felt that I wanted to confront myself with a camera again and try to look at the outside world, in a way that felt similar to when I first started in the early ’90s. But I wanted to do this by shifting the parameters away from places that I know, to places that I really don’t know. Otherwise, I wanted to look at places that I do know, like London or New York, but approach them in a different way, almost like a stranger. I was very much taking an outsider’s perspective, and a deliberately superficial approach, to recording how the world looks like now. It was in an almost hit-and-run kind of way.

Rail: So from 2009 you started making these trips to various places around the world, and that lasted for four years?

Tillmans: I traveled a lot, but I wasn’t in one place for very long, because what happens in the first two or three days in a new place is the most important for me. I have a 24/7 visual alertness that almost cannot be sustained—it doesn’t get deeper in two weeks. And, anyway, how long do you have to stay somewhere to really know it? Neue Welt also coincided with working with a digital camera, so I was completely learning the language again.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Chingaza, 2012. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Rail: It sounds like one of your most considerable undertakings so far.

Tillmans: I’m really proud of that project because it was such an impossible task. It was also an impossible practice to then edit these photographs, which potentially seemed so random. For some of the images, there were no precedents in my work, so it’s not like I could recognize them as “this is a good picture.” I felt around 2007 that I was almost too good at my own language, and so I wanted to challenge that. But then to recognize new pictures that don’t fit into the box of your own vocabulary is actually really excruciating, and only when the show and the book came out did I feel as though this was an experiment worth making, and that the transition to digital photography had been successful.

Rail: How would you say that your approach changes? You said earlier that a lot of your subject matter is dependent on you having some sort of knowledge and affection for it, which differs from the way you considered subjects for Neue Welt. And your portraits, for the most part, are based on the personal relationship that you have with the person.

Tillmans: I guess in retrospect the portraits that end up being works in my exhibitions and books have this personal interest and connection, even though that connection may only be an hour old, rather than, in some cases, ten years old. For Neue Welt I pulled out one aspect that had been with me from the beginning and amplified it: reading surfaces as the expression of underlying social, political, and cultural circumstances. For example, I observed in the 2000s how the design of car headlights shifted from a round or square “friendly face” in the ’90s to an aggressive, almost cartoonish, dragon and shark shape. I likened this to a more competitive spirit in our societies. One would initially assume “Oh, that’s just a superficial design decision by the carmakers. It’s just fashion.” But, actually, those things look like that for a reason.

Rail: Tell me about your current show at Maureen Paley. This is your eighth exhibition with the gallery.

Tillmans: The show is on two floors and the ground floor is dominated by a picture called The State We’re In, A. It’s a three-by-four-meter seascape of the Atlantic Ocean. It looks completely agitated, even though there aren’t any white crashing waves. It’s further out at sea, and within the smaller waves, and the even smaller waves within those, the whole surface is full of tension. On the one hand it is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it’s actually quite uncanny too, and I saw that as a metaphoric picture for the times we’re in—this sort of hypertension that is about to erupt at any moment. That floor is kind of a continuation of Neue Welt. There’s a picture, for example, of a high-tech heart operation in an operating theater in Japan, but it’s just a detail of blood tubes; and there is a picture of a tropical blossom, which is a macro photo from Colombia. The second floor features an installation of tables that I designed eleven years ago when I premiered Truth Study Center at Maureen Paley in 2005, and it feels significant for me to come back into this space with the same type of tables with an installation that’s called I refuse to be your enemy 2. It consists of blank office papers in different standards, U.S. and European sizes, and in different grammaturs and various shades of white. Different grammaturs mean that, initially, the papers look the same. But when you look closer you see they have a different shine and transparency. And it really brings out the sculptural nature of the work. In a way, it’s undeniably a sculpture, which originally was just a support structure for the information that I put onto the tables.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Open Heart Bypass, 2015. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Rail: Will you be showing any of the posters you have designed for the pro-E.U. campaign?

Tillmans: We will put the campaign posters on the outside of the building because they should, of course, be present. But I also don’t want politics to dominate every aspect of what I do. I love my work, my art, and that should have full attention.

Rail: Were you keen to make sure that you had a show at this particular time of the year given everything that’s happening in London?

Tillmans: No, it’s a complete coincidence actually. The exhibition was set a year ago, the referendum hadn’t even been set.

Rail: It’s meant to be, Wolfgang.

Tillmans: [Laughter.] I know, I know. It’s very curious because I think it is a momentous and monumental decision, and I’m sure it will build up to an incredible national discussion about who we are and what we want to be. My work is always speaking about questioning myself: Where am I? What am I? What is my relation to the world I live in? That can never be fully interpreted or read by an audience, and that is never the point in art anyway. People should never feel they need to understand everything. Often when I look at art, if I get a hit of a certain sensation—be it a memory of a smell or a taste or a feeling—and if I get that from five or ten percent of works in an exhibition, I think something successful has happened. So if people feel that this composition of elements in the exhibition at Maureen Paley somehow gives a sense of time and place, or of a shared experience, then I’m happy.

Rail: Will this be your last presentation in London before your retrospective at Tate Modern next year?

Tillmans: Yes, it will be. And the great thing about the Tate Modern exhibition is that it’s not actually a retrospective. The curator, Chris Dercon, invited me because he was particularly interested in the branching out of my practice, and my current practice of the last ten years. I took the year 2003 as a departure point for the Tate Modern show, not only because that was the year of the Tate Britain show—which had a retrospective angle, even though I was quite young at that point—but because the whole exhibition looks at the now. I defined the present time that we’re in as beginning in 2003, which marks the beginning of the Iraq War. Since then, that is the state we have been in. We have not left that state.

Rail: That’s the context of our world.

Tillmans: Isn’t it? But in actual fact, when I look at the work in the exhibition, most will really be from 2008 onwards. The show is an incredible opportunity to not have to use the once-in-a-lifetime honor of having a Tate Modern exhibition to show thirty years of work. I just felt like I’m too young for that. [Laughter.] And I think for the audience it will be a very different experience, to have a museum-scale show that’s devoted to a relative sense of now. The show with Maureen Paley is almost like a prelude. It’s nice because it’s starting a dialogue with the city.


Allie Biswas

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She is based in London and New York.