Love (Hands in Air), 1989 by Wolfgang Tillmans

'I have a duty to preserve it' - Why Tillmans still shoots nightlife

Wolfgang celebrates his 50th today and wants you to see what it was like back in the day - and what it's like now

The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans began his career photographing nightclubs roughly three decades ago. More conservative, career-minded types might have might have left the clubs behind after winning a significant award such as the Turner Prize, which Tillmans won in 2000.

But as he prepares to turn 50, the artist tells fellow Berlin nightlife lover, Luz Diaz in a new Crack Magazine podcast, that he feels duty-bound to document gay nightlife.

“For me, photographing queer spaces isn’t voyeurism,” he says in the podcast about Berlin nightlife, past and present, “I feel I have a duty to preserve it.”

Though Tillmans doesn’t photograph nightclubs very often, there are, as he says “rare moments when I overcome embarrassment, because [a place] is so amazing I want to record it, so there is a record of it.”


Wolfgang Tillmans Self-portrait (Christian) for Phaidon book, 2013, colour photograph
Wolfgang Tillmans Self-portrait (Christian) for Phaidon book, 2013, colour photograph

He gives the example of The Joiners’ Arms, a down-at-heel gay pub in East London, which, as the area gentrified “became the main watering hole of the East London gay creative scene,” he says.

Not everyone in the place wanted their photograph taken, let alone printed or exhibited, and Tillmans decided against publishing his pictures, until after the Joiners closed for redevelopment in 2015.

He adopted a similar approach towards Spectrum, a slightly secretive bar in Brooklyn, which Tillmans describes as “such a fragile space, I would never publish it while it was running.”

Of course, the idea that certain clubs need preserving plays into the hoary old cliché, often put forward by erstwhile club-goers of a certain age, that it was all better, ‘back in the day’.

Tillmans doesn’t fall for this. “You can always say Berlin nightlife was better then,” he admits. “Berlin is getting more gentrified and, for me, there’s a certain mood that was there in the early 2000s that’s gone. But for others Berlin is still a haven of freedom. So, it’s no time to moan.”



You can listen to the full podcast here, which includes snippets of a few of Tillmans’ favourite house and techno records. Meanwhile, to understand how this photographer went from the dance floor to the Turner Prize and on to a Tate retrospective and the walls of tasteful collectors, order a copy of our fully updated Wolfgang Tillmans Contemporary Artist series book here.


Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans