In the Hold of the Gesture
In Alex and Lutz holding each other, a chromogenic print from 1992, we see the sweatered arms of a young woman wrapped around the bare back of a young man as she leans her head into his neck. They stand in an out-of-focus, green landscape and while their faces are obscured, the tenderness of their connection is readily apparent.
This image is one of many pictures that Tillmans included in the first feature he shot, designed, and styled for i-D Magazine in November, 1992. An eight-page spread for a special issue on sexuality, it was called, “Like Brother Like Sister – A Fashion Story; no holds barred.” The models are the artist Alexandra Bircken and fashion designer Lutz Huelle, both friends of Tillmans and effectively collaborators in the magazine feature. Tillmans and his friends were both inventing a culture and then fixing it; the use of the word “fashion” in the title was less a clue about clothing and style than an indication that what was being featured was attitude and performance. Other photographs in the series present the physical body in different ways; in one Alex holds Lutz’s cock; in another he investigates her crotch; in still another they sit in a tree, naked, except for raincoats. But what characterizes these images is not intimacy or sensuality, as much as a tone of abstract, knowing disengagement. They are in the act of performing their generation.
Alex and Lutz holding each other is one in a subgenre of pictures in Tillmans’s work in which the focus of the image is an embrace between two or more people. A number of these photographs originated in his involvement with club culture in Hamburg and later in London, UK. In Love (hands in hair) (1989) and Arkadia 1 (1996), the pictures embodied the sweet and the sweat of grunge. In Christopher Street Pier Summer (1995), the gesture captures an involuted commingling between two young men in America. These embraces do double work; they are semaphore in that they signal something very specific, and they are metaphor, in that they suggest something else—a sense of community, the articulation of personal identity and generational positioning, a commitment to political engagement. They do the layered work that Tillmans asks of his photographs.
But to return to the photograph at hand: despite all the information provided by other images in the story (another picture where Lutz buries his head in Alex’s crotch tell us that the small reveal of skin we see on her left hip is because she is as bottomless as he is topless), the embracing picture holds onto a kind of radical innocence. Tillmans has consistently explained that he is less interested in a single read of a photograph, than in the way its read can be amplified and changed in the context of other images. That multivalence is why he can so easily and effectively reuse his photographs in different scales and arrangements. But there are images that resist these contingencies and that fix themselves in a simple recognition. The hold that Alex and Lutz holding each other has on us as viewers comes through its uncompromising clarity and directness.