Wolfgang Tillmans makes a return to the photocopier

The photographer says his first camera was the copy machine and he’s gone back to the office staple for a new show
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Filigran III, 2018, unique photocopy, by Wolfgang Tillmans. As featured in his new show How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? at David Zwirner, New York. Image courtesy of the artist and the gallery
Filigran III, 2018, unique photocopy, by Wolfgang Tillmans. As featured in his new show How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? at David Zwirner, New York. Image courtesy of the artist and the gallery

In his Phaidon monograph, the artist Wolfgang Tillmans recalls how, as a teenager, he came across his first mechanical means to make art. “In my hometown of Remscheid, I found a photocopier in a copy shop that could reproduce photos in shades of grey and enlarge them in increments up to 400 percent,” he says in the book. “In a way, it served as my first 'camera' - I've always thought of the photocopier as a camera. And I used it to photocopy found pictures as well as my own and would continuously increase the enlargement."

"I became completely fascinated with how this industrially fabricated paper that has no particular value, could be transformed into a beautifully charged, special and precious object through the touch of a button," he says.

 

Klaus, 2018 by Wolfgang Tillmans. Unique photocopy
Klaus, 2018 by Wolfgang Tillmans. Unique photocopy

Of course the intrinsic value of those works back in 1986 were very low. However, over thirty years on from that early encounter in a German copy shop, Tillmans has gone back to the photocopier, producing some significantly more valuable works for his new show, opening tomorrow (September 13) at the David Zwirner gallery in New York.

The show is entitled How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? and examines the same subjective, indecisive playful quality that Tillmans has considered in other works. The images range from micro to macro perspectives, and include an aerial photograph of the Nile and an extreme close-up of a footprint in wet sand.

 

Self Portrait (2013) by Wolfgang Tillmans
Self Portrait (2013) by Wolfgang Tillmans

However, in among these are images shot on a conventional camera are other abstract works made in the darkroom, and ‘unique photocopies’ or works. One of the works is a straightforward scan of a surprisingly touching email exchange between Tillmans and a Chinese print shop owner, but others are more abstract, made, as Zwirner explains, “by manually moving paper edges while scanning in four colours. The resulting ink-on-paper compositions challenge the medium specificity of a photograph while also emphasizing its inherent alchemical qualities.”

These aren’t the kind of images we’re used to seeing in a photographer’s show. However, these fresh, new, colourful works, certainly hark back to Tillmans’ realisation, in that German copy shop years ago, that, via this office staple, “meaning can be instilled through the mechanics and in the material itself."

 

Wolfgang Tillmans

For more on Wolfgang Tillmans life, work and outlook order a copy of his monograph here.


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