Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans Shows Us His Metal


A few years ago, one could have complained that Wolfgang Tillmans was the greatest wasted photographic talent of his generation. Emerging out of fashion photography, the London-based German established himself in the galleries with his paeans to nightlife and the amphetamine highs and deflated lows of his extended circle of friends. The compositions were electric, and the pictures always bloomed with lush color, but one wished there were more to his life.

In recent years, Tillmans has sobered, yet as this new show, “Atair,” demonstrates, he’s lost none of his verve.The exhibition, at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, opens with dark side of gold (2006), which features a hugely enlarged C-print reproduction of a newspaper story about mining for gold. Much of the image is filled with the article’s text, but at its center is a small picture of the molten metal, flaming with chromatic intensity. The contrast introduces Tillmans’s theme of the detail contained in images: how little is transmitted in cheap, monotone reproductions, and how suggestive is the rich tonality contained in color images. Victoria Park (2007) expands the theme, the picture a much enlarged and faded photocopy of an image of Tillmans and a friend relaxing, while
paper drop (window) (2006) provides an opposing perspective: a luxuriant, colored abstraction derived from the teardrop-shaped curve of a bending photographic print.

The exhibition takes Tillmans’s habitual form, jumbling grandly scaled and framed shots with smaller pictures tacked up with Scotch tape (his attention is always distracted; his hierarchy of value entirely mysterious). There are four tables arranged at the center of the gallery that display images and press cuttings on the themes of paradise, war, religion, and work, but these incline toward tub-thumping and are not among the show’s highlights. The sharpest insights address photography itself, and the finest pictures are those he has shot with instinct—when he has suddenly glimpsed something perfect in the sight of monkeys dashing across a dusky road, sweaty barroom revelers, or a rash of ivy rising up the walls of a housing project. The title of the show, “Atair,” comes from a name for one of the brightest stars in the night-time sky, and it encapsulates his heartening belief that beauty can be glimpsed daily, if we’ll only watch out.