Tillmans’ acclaimed approach to photography runs counter to prevailing trends. No elaborate studio-based tableaux or digital adjustments, no immaculate large-format frontalities or panoramic symmetries, no bizarre specimens or baffling fictions, instead he favours lively atmosphere, intimate acquaintance, private reportage and darkroom improvisation. In some ways, he harks back to earlier concerns, may even be old-fashioned, in others, confronts painting and installation, begs important questions about the nature of photography. A recent survey at the UCLA Hammer Museum and a current show in Cologne prompt this post.
His photographs fall into roughly five categories, portrait, still life, topical reportage, aerial views of urban landscapes and abstractions. The abstractions are mostly by extreme close-ups or exposing print papers without negatives, manipulating developer and fixative in other ways (see Time, Action and Fear 2005) somewhat after Man Ray’s Rayograms. Tillman’s contribution to each is not great, but his work is rarely to be taken singly, or in ideal isolation. Tillmans prefers the ensemble, the layout or installation, the publication or occasion – the pictorial qualities revealed there by various contrasts and contexts, between his images and others and sometimes texts.
The strategy is a familiar one, exchanging the pursuit of standard stylistic qualities in a work for a surrounding context with which to trigger the appreciation of new or unusual ones. In mid-20th century photo–journalism such layouts build up themes and moods, may even broach abstraction and surprising diversity of object, as in the famous Pittsburgh suite of W. Eugene Smith, say. The same principle inspires any number of collages (exclusively or inclusively of photos) from say, Schwitters to Warhol or Baldessari, is extended to other imagery and objects in installations from say, Rauschenberg to Messager. Painting and sculpture can as easily converge upon the same expansive context.
But here too, Tillmans is notable for his restraint. He accepts abstractions derived without a camera and various photo printing stages, but resists other printing, painting, other arts, publication and broadcast. His contexts are comparatively cautious. But where and how to draw the line? A suitably novel or provocative context is not easily decided or maintained. The testing context soon begs greater inclusion. To say the work is limited to photography is not easy where the camera is discarded. To say the work is light sensitive confines it only to works that require sight. To confine works more narrowly to a given set of equipment and procedures only returns him to the styles the context seeks to circumvent or reconstrue.
Actually Tillmans settles for a range that extends from his social reportage to more composed and formal pictures, either to still lives and greater close-ups or to aerial panoramas and even astronomy. Either way work approaches abstraction. The non-camera exercises establish Tillman’s limit in this. The range or context then anchors his abstraction in his casual encounters and social interests, build his pictorial ambition upon them. His layouts play off the intimacy and immediacy of his circle of friends and a gay youth sub-culture, against the distance and contemplation of his aerial landscapes, against domestic still lives, against abstractions of colour and chemistry. Intimacy versus distance, people versus places, the panorama versus the microcosm, formality of picture versus informality. Tillmans’ layouts are often scattered or loose, stress size of prints for recurring images, options and priority, sometimes rotate a work to display overall composition – its abstract or formal qualities (not unlike Baselitz or Warhol). People are literally distanced, distances personalised, the juxtapositions are a two-way affair.
The sense is of one kind of work compensating for another or urging an overall equivalence. The portraits or figures at gatherings are necessarily casual and snapshot-like, although never achieve the confidential or embarrassing qualities of a Goldin, say. Perhaps that remains the province of the Polaroid, or these days, the cell-phone. Tillmans’ panoramas never hold the large-format clarity or composure of a Gursky or Wall, the still lives similarly record details of place, but could as easily be a Penn or similar. The abstractions, as noted, often abandon the camera to achieve chemical effects, some, just this side of kitsch. At other times they record fine differences of texture or colour to a surface, close-ups of sprays or smears that suggest accident, indifference, waste and dispersal, perhaps some more personal issue. Yet taken together, each shortcoming consoles the other. Tillmans’ revellers inject engagement at the cost of elegance, his landscapes and abstractions provide composure at a distance – some even from camera. His still lives supply elegance but only in life’s minor details. The layouts can variously link works thus, urge a pluralism of styles and directions, a certain scattered tolerance, for people and pictures, at least as far as a layout or installation. For Tillmans this is enough.