For the past 20 years, the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans has captured in snapshotlike photographs random glimpses of people, places and things ranging from Dubai guest-worker housing shot from an airplane window to a man bathing in the Ganges, women athletes waiting to compete in a German heptathlon, wrinkled clothing, the inside of a photocopy machine and shoreline debris on the Italian island of Lampedusa. The photographs in his latest New York show—more than 65 in all, most from 2008 or ’09—hint at well-trodden themes of globalization and the voluntary nomadism of individuals having the freedom and means to pass from developed to developing worlds and back again. But an open, noncommittal tone prevails, in part because Tillmans doesn’t picture abject poverty, violence or the ultra-rich. Rather, his unsensational photographs offer no coherent narrative, just a series of partial views.
The works included large, poster-style inkjet prints and small- or medium-sized chromogenic prints that, in Tillmans’s signature style, were taped or clipped directly to the walls in seemingly arbitrary groupings throughout the space. The installation had the random feel of social media, paralleling the experience of encountering groups of images on a stranger’s Facebook page, though Tillmans employed this hanging style well before the rise of such networking sites. As a whole (and it would make little sense to view Tillmans’s photographs individually), the installation constituted a kind of placeless image world in which people and events are disconnected from history and politics, even as they are connected through the eye of the photographer and, perhaps, the beholder.
Tillmans’s fracturing of the contemporary context can seem to exemplify 21st-century vision and experience, yet his snapshot esthetic, seemingly neutral eye and reliance on strong, saturated colors to create formally balanced compositions are familiar gambits redeployed here to vastly different ends. Photographer and MoMA curator John Szarkowski contended in his essay for the 1964 catalogue The Photographer’s Eye that photographs are incapable of communicating a coherent narrative, and can offer only a series of “scattered and suggestive clues.” Through the photographer’s isolation of details, the effective photograph could “give the sense of a scene, while withholding its narrative meaning.” Like William Eggleston’s classic photographic fragments (an open freezer, a tricycle on the sidewalk), Tillmans’s brief and arbitrary glimpses draw attention to all we are not seeing in order to address the complicated world outside the frame.
Photo: View of Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition, 2010, inkjet and chromogenic prints; at Andrea Rosen.