Wolfgang Tillmans (centre) with his band Fragile

Fire Island and Pet Shop Boys made Tillmans groove again

The photographer describes getting back into making music - now he plans to include some in his next exhibition

Photography wasn’t Wolfgang Tillmans’ first creative outlet. As he tells the arts site Hyperallergic, in 1985 – two years before he bought his first camera  - he began to make pop music. It was dancey, electronic stuff and, unfortunately, it didn’t last.

“My collaborator Bert [Leßman] left town,” says the German photographer, “and I never found the courage to find another. Then I discovered my visual side and began making work with a black and white photocopier. Somehow that took over.”


Device Control


Nevertheless, music remains a major source of inspiration for Tillmans. He covered Europe’s club scene for lifestyle magazines during the early years of his career; he installed a listening room in his gallery Between Bridges and at his Tate Modern retrospective back in 2017, putting recorded music on the same level as fine art; his tune, Device Control, was included on Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Endless. He's also taken up recording music again, on a semi-permanent basis, thanks in part to the pop group,  Pet Shop Boys.


Tillmans Fragile


“In 2014, I was having dinner with the Pet Shop Boys, whom I’m friends with, and Chris Lowe was enthusiastically showing me these musical toys and gadgets on his iPhone,” Tillmans recalls. “I told him I would really love to play with that as well. He said, “You really should get yourself a MIDI keyboard and give it a go. You’ve always loved music, so you should really try.” He didn’t know that I had some history with it, but the way he said it was so persuasive, and that was the moment when I thought, “I’ll do it!” I then got myself a keyboard, took some singing lessons, and went into my sound archives.”

Though most of the work he releases sounds like contemporary dance music, Tillmans doesn’t simply tinker with synths.

“I’d been field-recording with a voice recorder for years,” he says. “In 2011 I was at the factory for the printing of my book Abstract Pictures and I recorded the printing press because I thought the super rhythmic sounds of this rotation press were a good techno soundtrack.”

Now he has formalised his hobby, setting up a modest recording studio at his summerhouse in the Pines section of Fire Island. This portion of the barrier island, about a two-hours from Manhattan, doesn’t permit cars, and is, Tillmans says, “a super productive environment. Living and working there is good for me, making room for the music, but also for the photography.”


Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans

Indeed, the German artist is planning to combine the two, with the inclusion of a sound component in his show at David Zwirner in September. For a more detailed look at Tillmans life, work and outlook order a copy of his book here.