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Wolfgang Tillmans -- Photographer With a Concept

tillmans1It seems as though everyone is a tillmans2conceptual photographer these days, but Wolfgang Tillmans emerged in the 1980s as one of the pioneering artists in this movement. His photographs can be deceptively simple or casual at first glance. Whether it’s a pair of jeans hung on stair post or his uninhibited friends, the result has an almost confessional quality. His subjects often were punks and ravers and their lives on the street, but could just as easily be repeated images of the Concorde or the mosaic tile at the edge of a pool.

His still-lifes of food and table top arrangements appear to be simultaneously contrived and documentary. You can almost imagine that someone left the objects in that manner, except that no one would have put together such tillmans1disparate objects.

Exhibitions of his work are as quirky as the artist. Most of the photographs are unframed and the scale spans the extremes -- from postcard sized images to those that take up almost an entire wall. tillmans2Tillman’s clusters of ink-jet prints and C-prints seem like a conventional exhibit technique now, but he was the innovator in the 1990s. Likewise, exhibits of his work have a unique narrative cohesion, where the groups of photographs seem to communicate among themselves. Each grouping forms its own habitat and tillmans1Tillmans has allowed the viewer to see it close up for what it.

Hope, death, sickness, life, heaven and hell -- they’re all themes that are repeated in Tillmans’ work. Some of the most interesting narratives are the ones that juxtapose opposites -- tranquility right alongside violence. But he can just as easily lose himself in the abstraction of folded fabrics or the shadows and shapes of curled up photographic paper.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Wolfgang Tillmans is greatly admired. Now all he has to do is figure out how to stay ahead of all his imitators, and it looks like he has the ambition to make that happen.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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