Tillmans became a leading contemporary photographer over the last three decades, compiling a vast range of abstractions, portraits, and landscapes; the German-born artist acknowledges that his photos reveal tender details of his world and personality, but the primary objective of his shows is to plunge his audiences into a pool of self-reflection. “I want the pictures to be working in both directions,” the artist has said. “I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience.”
For every detail a portrait reveals about Tillmans, he creates an entire emotional and physical world for the subjects to live in, a reason the German has been called upon for documenting some of the most famous and creative cultural icons throughout his career. In 1997, he shot Kate Moss with various vegetables and plants in her home, and has used some of the photos in his shows as an emblem of an angelic figure of renewal or growth.
Tillmans also created the timeless cover art for Frank Ocean’s most recent album, Blond; the vibrant portrait of Ocean, guarding his face from golden morning light, water running down his face and chest has become the most recognizable visualization of a musical artist who so easily escapes the public eye. The pair’s creative relationship isn’t limited to the one cover shoot, as Ocean included one of Tillmans’ techno tracks on the final version of Endless.
Many of Tillmans' portraits are diaristic captures of his closest friends, which reveal the complexities of LGBTQ culture and club scenes in Berlin and London. Two mainstays in these representations of his personal relationships are fashion designer Lutz Huelle and assemblage artist Alexandra Bircken, both of whom Tillmans met in high school as a trio of like-minded outcasts. Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, one of Tillmans' most recognizable images, depicts his longtime friends as a lucid modernization of Adam and Eve.
Tillmans' portraits of his late partner, Jochen Klein, are precious capsules of open love and emotional intimacy, but have become signals of memory and loss, as Klein died of AIDS after a one-month warning from physicians. The portrait of Jochen in a bathtub carries a unique contextual tragedy within the sobering and earnest depiction of his past lover. A tree seemingly grows from his head, a visualization of the life he brought to Tillmans' world, while Jochen's daunting contemplation charges the photo with capturing a moment of a man's confrontation with mortality.
Although his photos often lend themselves to multiple meanings, Tillmans insists that his work "always contains the time in which something has been created." There is an air of documentary or journalism in his work, but Tillmans records abstract concepts like human nature, the sense of touch or smell, and sexuality as if they were current events.
During interviews, Tillmans often describes his obsessive search for meaning in the world, and presents his discoveries with a visual clarity which lends itself to mutual understanding, or at least mutual interest. His goal is for the audience to find meaning in things that signify something entirely different to him. In that sense, Tillmans' displays become both social experiments and deeply personal interplays between audience and artist.
"I never felt like I'm behind the camera, but it became a fluid way of expression. I was able to enact things in front of the camera so it is a performed reality."