Your Body is Yours

Wolfgang Tillmans, Love (hands in hair), 1989

The idea of "not being afraid of our bodies" is central in my work. All too often the body and its image are somehow under control. We are told by the media, by advertising, by parents and societal codes how we should look, how to shave or cover the body, how a body should be used. For many people the need to conform to beauty standards has become a straight-jacket. But the body is free and only you own it. And this is something that photography can amplify. It gives me a tool to portray diverse ideas of beauty, to be at peace within myself.

Truth Study Center

I was very much affected by the change of political climate we faced after 9/11 and the war in Iraq – a general drift backwards to dogmatic ideas, ideologies and, in particular, claims of truth. I collected newspaper articles that I felt were significant, exhibiting them as they could express what I felt better than my photographs could. In 2005 I held an exhibition in London. One floor had purely abstract photographs, and the other showed a collection of these materials under the title "truth study center", which isn’t a claim, but rather a reminder of the impossibility of absolute truth. These collages have since become an ongoing feature in my exhibitions, bringing the directly political world into my more personal photographic world. The tables put things into context and at the same time stress the importance of observing, study and visibility.

[Translate to English:] Installationsansicht von Fragile, Musée d’Art Contemporain et Multimédia, Kinshasa, 2018 Foto: Wolfgang Tillmans

Making a portrait is a fundamental artistic act – and the process is a very direct human exchange. The dynamics never change, no matter how famous you are or the sitter is. You’re always dealing with vulnerability, exposure, embarrassment and honesty. What I find most appealing in people is how they are aware of their own fragility and yet are still strong and independent beings. I want to communicate this complexity in its entirety, that lack of a singular reading, and to channel the multi-layered character and the contradictions of a personality, the way they’re revealed in clothes, in styles, in attitudes, and the way a person lives. It’s the fractured reality of identity that fascinates me.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Anders pulling splinter from his foot, 2004

Groups of Works (selection)


Wolfgang Tillmans, August self portrait, 2005

The picture that I consider my first work is Lacanau (self), 1986. It is a self-portrait I took on the beach in France, photographing down my body. There is a pink shape, which is my T-shirt, a bit of black and white from my shorts, a part of my leg, and a big area of sand around it. It is also my first abstract picture. At the same time it is both a representation of a figure and a record of an experience I had: an affirmation of my self. It was me saying "I am." It was like coming out to myself as an artist. Since then I occasionally come back to the self-portrait and it has become a group in itself within my work.


Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz, Alex, Suzanne & Christoph on beach (b/w), 1993

Being together with friends or friendly people is possibly one of my biggest longings. At other times I have talked about the love for the object, for the printed paper, the study, the fascination with these objects that I make. But the other ongoing fascination is really about people, a love for people and community, and exploring ourselves in a fearless way, people having fun together, or not always having fun. This being together is something that I try to capture, depict or stage sometimes. For me, staged photographs are not necessarily less authentic, as it is the intention that needs to be authentic. There is no rule that defines "authentic."

Freischwimmer / Greifbar

A sense of fluidity is evoked in the mind of the viewer even though these pictures were essentially made "dry" – only with light and my hands. Created in the darkroom without negatives and without a camera, they’re made purely through the manipulation of light on paper. In this respect, their own reality, their creation and their time are absolutely central to their meaning: the time that I spend with the material in which I explore and intensify different effects. They take on a particular significance because of their physicality. As abstract pictureson photographic paper, while they may appear "painterly," it is important that they are photographic and not painted. These pictures become possible in their photographic "present-ness."

Wolfgang Tillmans, Greifbar 29, 2014

paper drop

Wolfgang Tillmans, paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse, a, 2014

One evening in 2000, I was walking around my studio and I had this realisation that everything I do is on paper. Soon after I made a picture of this big sheet of red photo paper, which I hung attached only on one corner. I observed how it curled and how the sharp sunlight brushed it, and how this paper was sort of falling. That’s how the name "paper drop" came about. Then in 2005 I again looked at large pieces of exposed paper. I had curled a sheet backwards on itself and I saw this drop-like shape. I photographed it in a way so that only the edge of the paper was sharp and everything in front and behind was out of focus. I always understood photographs as objects, not just flat surfaces.