Neue Welt, the title of Wolfgang Tillmans’ latest book, couldn’t be more aptly named. The German photographer has undergone a number of chrysalis-like transformations over the course of his 44 years, and Neue Welt represents the latest.
We know Tillmans as the visual diarist of ’90s London and Berlin, where he captured candid scenes from his own life and those of his friends, weaving them into a kind of fin de siecle portrait of the era just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the ’00s, we watched him become more introspective, producing abstract work using darkroom chemicals and photocopiers–exploring contour and composition like a painter. This week, Tillmans introduces us to his latest work in a 216-page Taschen book and accompanying exhibition at Kunsthalle Zurich.
Unlike his abstract series from the past decade, the world TIllmans show us in Neue Welt is recognizable, full of people and places ranging from London and Tasmania to Saudi Arabia and Papua New Guinea. If you’re a fan of his work, the images are somehow surprisingly mundane, compared to his past: a parrot, a street scene, the cracked shell of a crab. By turning his lens on subjects that are frequently photographed, Tillmans seems to be testing the strength of his own voice, which comes through as joyful, and endlessly curious. The candid portraits and sky scenes are joined by a series of highly stylized images of morphological car headlights, which look absolutely nothing like the commercial photography they are meant to mimic–these are alien taillights, sent from another planet. Tillmans says he’s “trying out what the camera can do for me, and what I can do for it.”
Change and evolution is part of any artist’s life, but Tillmans gave a more in-depth explanation of his roving lens to Interview‘s Bob Nickas last year. “Each time I make an effort and I get out of a lazy routine, it’s amazing how big the reward can be,” he said. “It’s listening to those little ideas knocking on the door in your mind… Because big ideas don’t make themselves known as big. Every successful picture I’ve done has really been based on taking a very flimsy, fleeting little idea, grabbing hold of it, and taking it seriously.”
Neue Welt is on view at Kunsthalle Zurich until November 4.
[H/t It’s Nice That]