The Ultimate Guide to Wolfgang Tillmans

We celebrate the opening of Tate Modern's 'Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017' with an A-Z guide on the German photographer

Wolfgang Tillmans by Luis Mora. Image from
Wolfgang Tillmans by Luis Mora. Image from

Between fashion shows, exhibitions, visual albums and political activism, Germany’s most prolific contemporary photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans is rarely out of the spotlight. A staple in the gay club scene in the 80s and 90s, Tillmans’ contribution to subcultural understanding alongside his no-rules approach to his trade has made him one of the most talked about photographers of his generation. Here is a 26-point guide taking you through the life and times of the small-town boy.

From Neue Welt. Image from
From Neue Welt. Image from


Wolfgang Tillmans began his photographic career shooting exclusively on analog cameras, favouring the 50mm Contax. It was only in 2009 that he transitioned into digital photography, realising that the quality of the newer technology surpassed his trusty SLR. Tillmans’ shift in mediums is documented in his newest photobook release “Neue Welt”, which focuses on city and landscapes across the globe.


In 2006, Tillmans opened his not for profit exhibition space Between Bridges in his home away from home – his London studio, with an exhibition by David Wojnarowicz. In 2014, the space relocated to Berlin, where Tillmans now uses it to promote awareness surrounding the topic of the current European migrant crisis.


Tillmans’ long time love of techno music has influenced a number of collaborations with musicians over the years. In 2011, Tillmans was commissioned by The Opiates to produce a range of photographic images to accompany their CD “Hollywood under the knife” and an EP of remixes and also recently shot his friend Frank Ocean for the cover of his much-anticipated album, Blond.

Arkadia_I, 1996. Image from
Arkadia_I, 1996. Image from


Although Tillmans claims that he never intended for his work to be autobiographical and has stated that his work has been misunderstood as recording his world and that of those around him, it is considered some of the most important documentation of the London club and gay scene.


Wolfgang Tillmans was born not far from Dusseldorf, and moved to Hamburg after high school, partaking in community service to avoid being drafted for the army. It was in Hamburg where he had his first show of Xerox art. Becoming increasingly interested in photography, but stating that he was “too young to become a photographer”, Tillmans enrolled himself in the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design to hone his craft.


Tillmans met contemporary R&B artist Frank Ocean on a photoshoot originally intended to feature in Fantastic Man magazine. A shared love of music and passion for visual art saw the pair bond immediately, with the elusive singer choosing to feature the most recent release from Tillmans’ musical side project Fragile on his visual album, Endless. Ocean then went on to use one of the photographers images from the Fantastic Man shoot as the album artwork for the much-anticipated Blond – an image that was revoked from being used in the magazine’s issue.

Concorde Grid, 1997. Image from
Concorde Grid, 1997. Image from


Tillmans has used grid formations in many of his projects over the years, most notably in the meticulous Conchorde Grid shot around London for his 1997 exhibition in Chisenhale Gallery. His Solar Eclipse Grid made a year later was included in the photographers Turner Prize installation, and in 1999 Tillmans produced Snow/Ice Grid, which shows numerous images of the varying stages of the disintegration of snow.


When Cult Street wear label, Hood by Air debuted their SS17 collection at New York Fashion Week last year, they also introduced the multidisciplinary Wolfgang Tillmans as a model. The photographer’s background in techno music and club scenes, as well as his interest in youth culture meant he fit in perfectly with the underground feel to the PornHub sponsored event.


When Tillmans was starting out in photographer, it was i-D magazine that gave him his big break. Submitting his candid snaps of the club kids around London to the publication, he soon went on to contribute regularly, and it was actually at an i-D party in Cologne where he met Daniel Buchholz who offered him his first exhibition on the strength of what he had produced for i-D.

Installation at Reading Prison. Image from
Installation at Reading Prison. Image from


Last year, the photographer had a brief jail stint. He did his time alongside Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen and Ai Wei Wei in Reading prison, working on a collaborative tribute to Oscar Wilde’s former cell. Unlike many of the other artists who displayed pre-existing work, Tillmans’ contribution to the project was made inside the prison walls and was meticulously planned to reflect the monotony of living in such confines. The photographer produced a looped film, which attempted to see through the bars of the cell’s window and also made a portrait of his distorted reflection through the mirrors used by actual offenders in the prison.


Tillmans moved to New York for a year in 1994 and met painter Jochen Klein. The two struck up a relationship, and were together until Klein’s AIDS related death in 1997. Tillmans cites Klein as a major influence of his work – his lover introduced him to Spanish and Italian Baroque painting, helped him stage and set up the infamous Kate Moss shoot in 1996 and was always there to discuss ideas and upcoming projects.


The i-D commissioned series chronicling Tillmans’ friends Lutz and Alex is probably the photographer’s most recognised work. Using a fashion spread to articulate the idea of equality between the sexes, the snapshot-like imagery shows the male counterpart as naked from the waist down and the female bare-chested. The equivalence in publically accepted nudity between the two subjects represented the pair as a partnership instead of the man sexploiting the woman, the important issues of gender explored in an editorial context.

 It’s only love give it away, 2005, from MoMA PS1 exhibit. Image from
It’s only love give it away, 2005, from MoMA PS1 exhibit. Image from


Freedom From The Known was Tillmans’ first ever-American exhibition, shown in the Museum of Modern Art, New York’s sister gallery, MoMA PS1 in 2006. Representing the artist’s transition from figurative imagery to abstraction, the exhibition featured 25 large-scale abstract photographs, which were produced specifically for the show, as well as photocopied works from his earlier series, Empire.


Frieze London dedicated an entire section to the Nineties for their 2016 festival, with the intention of revisiting seminal exhibitions from the era that have had a lasting impact on contemporary art. Tillmans was featured alongside 13 other artists, with a recreation of his very first exhibition in Cologne in 1993.


Wolfgang Tillmans has pioneered a presentation style outside the norms of standard exhibitions. Tillmans rarely uses frames, but when he does inconsistencies in size and style are obvious. The photographer mainly pins and tapes images directly onto gallery walls, placing fax and photocopies next to delicately printed images and postcard-like photographs next to large-scale canvases. Viewing his shows as site-specific, the exhibition space is generally addressed as a larger composition.

Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Image from
Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Image from


The photographer is renowned for his innovative printing techniques, progressing from traditional darkroom methods to experimentations with old photocopiers. Tillmans often takes influence from accidents and complications that arise when printing, and went as far as to celebrate his mistakes with a 60 page Parkett edition featuring dirt traces and silver salt stained images on exposed paper. Taking pleasure from the accidental, the photographer uses what others might see as oversights as a chance to investigate his practice.


Tillmans’ documentation of LBGT life is generally photographed in gay friendly clubs within accepting societies. Taking a stance on queer activism upon realising that not everywhere in the world is as tolerant of homosexuality, Tillmans travelled to Russia to document those affected by the crackdown of LGBT rights under the reign of Putin. Exploring the complexities of homosexuality, he juxtaposed portraits of regular gay Russian people with images of Orthodox churches and displayed them at that years Manifesta 10, which was being held in Saint Petersburg. As well as this, the activist makes a point of photographing relevant protests throughout the world, using his stature to challenge anti-gay laws and acceptance.


Stimulated by the EU referendum debate in United Kingdom last year, Tillmans created a free zip file of posters, which could be downloaded to share on social media or to print as posters or on t-shirts in order to fight Brexit. On his website, the German born artist shared his motivation behind his politics, stating “I see myself as a product of the European post-war history of reconciliation, peace and exchange.”


From teenagers passionately kissing, to close up shots of various body parts and from the phallic images in Panorama Bar to that of a naked Frank Ocean in the shower, sexuality has always played a part in Wolfgang Tillmans photography. The photographer feels sexuality is very important, and documents it as he does so that it can be acknowledged as such and not just used for marketing purposes or viewed in a prudish manner.


In 2000, Wolfgang Tillmans became the first photographer and the first non-British person to win the Tate annual Turner Prize. Nominated for his numerous exhibitions as well as published work in books and magazines, the jury praised Tillmans for his contemporary take on photography in terms of subject and presentation.


Showing his dedication to his adopted homeland of Britain once again, Tillmans involved himself in Art on the Underground in 2011, aimed to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground transport system. 15 artists offered fresh perspectives on the world’s first network via a series of limited-edition posters – Tillmans abstract green poster brightening up the commute. “I’d been thinking of the mind wandering off during a Tube journey,” said the artists of his contribution. “Eyes closed, drifting out of the crowded city into some aqueous or natural space, so for the print I decided to use my Freischwimmer image, with its sense of free-flowing motion.”

Still from Fragile's That’s Desire/Here We Are. Image from
Still from Fragile’s That’s Desire/Here We Are. Image from


Tillmans has been exhibiting his videos since 2002, although he has been active in making them since the late eighties. His first video, Lights (Body) (2000–2002), comprises of static shots of the lights in an empty club, and is accompanied by a remixed track from French house music forerunners Air. His signature style based on the integration of visual art and music led Tillmans to produce a music video for The Pet Shop Boys and create his work with the aforementioned Fragile.


Preoccupied by content rather than technique, Tillmans snapshot aesthetic and lack of compliance to photographic rules means that he is not part of the tradition of fine-art photography. Citing early photographers as his influences, he mentions Weegee as a serious inspiration – his early black and white “documentation of the collateral damage of fashion” in the raving days a nod to the flash-heavy, starkly uncomfortable events the crime photographer Weegee recorded.


In an interview conducted by Peter Halley, Tillmans comments that in 1988, while living in Hamburg, he “started to go out tons and take ecstasy and that became this all-encompassing experience he wanted to communicate how exciting Hamburg was at the time”. It was during these pill-popping days that Tillmans’ first spread on club culture was published in i-D magazine, paving the way to him becoming arguably the worlds most esteemed club photographer.

Alex and Lutz Sitting in the Trees, 1992. Image from
Alex and Lutz Sitting in the Trees, 1992. Image from


Tillman’s enthrallment with youth culture came about during his first visit to England in the early eighties. There, he fell in love with the country and – inspired by the many subcultures London city kids engulfed – began capturing portraits of disenfranchised youths of the outcast sub-sets. Focusing predominantly on the gay scene, Tillmans’ early images of club kids go beyond the clichéd images of youth. Tillmans’ imagery is so relatable because he was so closely associated with the emerging culture as a young homosexual man in the thick of it all.


Wolfgang Tillmans’ very first institutional and solo exhibition took place at the Kunsthalle Zürich in 1995. The exhibition at the esteemed Swiss contemporary space consisted of an selection of black and white photographs taken of his friends in the clubs he frequented in the earliest days of the his career. The photographer was invited back in 2012 to celebrate the opening of the newly renovated gallery, which aptly showed the progression from the 27-year-old Wolfgang Tillmans to the revered artists we know and love today.


Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 is on display at London’s Tate Modern until 11 June 2017

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