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What Makes a Picture a Picture?

A new exhibition of the work of Wolfgang Tillmans examines what a photo is, how it works as an object, and how it lets us look at the world.

Technology has made it so everyone can be a photographer, but that means it is even more difficult to make an iconic photograph. Photo School is a new monthly column that will teach you all the things you need to know about photography, without the hassle of having to attend art school. Because who needs an MFA?

'Nachtstilleben (Night Still Life),' 2011 (negative); 2013 (print). Wolfgang Tillmans, German (active London), born 1968. Chromogenic print, Image and sheet: 53 1/8 × 79 3/4 inches (134.9 × 202.6 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art

Until recently I didn't know much about Wolfgang Tillmans's work, but I knew he was supposed to be really great. In art school I had only noticed a few Tillmans photos of European club culture, and I'm ashamed to admit that I never really "got it," though many of my peers seriously worshipped him. Luckily, there's a show currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) geared toward introducing Tillmans's work to a broad audience who, like me, may not immediately gravitate toward it.

Who better to fill this embarrassing gap in my photography knowledge than Nathaniel M. Stein, Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the PMA? Stein came up with the idea for the show, titled In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans, on his first day working at the Museum, after he noticed and fell in love with a recently acquired still life while touring the storage facilities. The exhibition positions that monumental photograph, Nachtstileben (Night Still Life), as a hub onto which pictures by other artists from the PMA's permanent collection are connected, in addition to other works by Tillmans on loan from Andrea Rosen, his first New York gallery. Stein and I walked around the exhibition, from piece to piece, and as the connections became clear to me, I started to understand what all the fuss is about.

VICE: So, the show started with this picture (above) called Nachtstilleben (Night Still Life). It was acquired by the museum last year?
Nathaniel M. Stein:
Last year, 2013, so we are very excited about it. It was the first work by Tillmans in the collection. He obviously is a massively important contemporary photographer, but for some of our core photography audience, this is something that may seem a little bit outside the established aesthetic, a little bit challenging in some ways. So, part of the project for us is to bridge why we as curators think this is exciting and fantastic, while our audience on first glance might be like, "What?" The point of the exhibition is to get the photograph out there, to get people's eyeballs on it, but also to talk about what Tillmans is about, by looking at things from the collection in connection to ideas that come out of his work. Beyond the fact that it's just a drop-dead amazing photograph, there's a lot going on. I actually think Wolfgang Tillmans is some sort of a genius, like on an intellectual level, so there's a lot going on there intellectually.

Installation view of 'In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans' at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Why do you think Tillmans may be hard for people to access at first?
All the reactions people have to this picture can be used as entryways into understanding it. People could look at the photographs and say, "Oh that's a gigantic snapshot"—meaning that they are perceiving that there is something going on in the way the aesthetic of the picture works, the way that it is apparently organized that's different than what they are used to seeing in an art museum as a photograph. They also may have the reaction that it's just a bunch of junk, not conventionally beautiful subjects of artwork. And the both of those things are interesting ways to start a critique.

Actually, there are references to a language of still life symbolism all over that picture. Almost all of the objects in the picture have resonance with traditional still-life symbolism.

You mean like still lives in painting?
Totally. Like batteries, a scale, gold—all just modern versions of very old still-life symbols. The compositional components of the picture are absolutely jaw-dropping. I mean, there's this crazy reference to the classical triangular composition, there's also these really amazing shifting planes. It's very stark, and bold. Then it becomes a question about why. This is one of the things Tillmans pushes us to do, to think about how this has become a picture. Does it become a picture because we have some idea that he carefully arranged all of this stuff and put it together in this composition? Can it rise to the level of being a picture if what he's done is simply to recognize this in the world? Because I think that is probably more what happened here.

What is it that makes fragments of the world coalesce into something that counts as a picture? He's challenging us to think about that.

Installation view of 'In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans' at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

How did you go about making relationships to other things in the collection?
Some of the people in the show are artists who are important to Tillmans. For example, Tillmans has identified Andy Warhol's flower posters as important work. There are some people that just made sense to include, thinking about Tillmans. Other things came from doing a lot more reading and thinking about Tillmans and what themes I could most feasibly bring out of Nachtstilleben. For example, there's a lot to be said about Tillmans and queer desire, sexuality, and many more social issues, but It's harder to get there from this picture out of all of the pictures that he has ever made.

He started making pictures for magazines right?
Um, well, no, not really. He started with photocopies that were actually installed in galleries and sometimes coffee shops. He never actually did commercial photography. That's a confusion: He accepted magazines as a place to distribute his work, but he didn't become a magazine photographer. It was always a vehicle to get his work out there. Which is actually really interesting as a part the way he thinks about photography. It's not like one format is derivative and not real. Each one is its own thing.

So for a photograph in a magazine, "magazine" would be the medium for that photograph.
Yeah, the photograph you actually get in the magazine is a thing, it's an offset printed edition, if you will, of 40,000. Whereas a lot of people just lay the blame at the door of photography for this massive confusion of images that we live with now, Tillmans has this way of thinking about it that's almost more like an ecology.

Installation view. (Left) Wolfgang Tillmans's 'Kopierer,' 2010. (Right) Ray K. Metzker, untitled (from the series 'Without Camera'), 1995

Some of the TIllmans photos are Scotch-taped to the wall. What's up with that?
There are many reasons why he does that. It has to do with his interest in you knowing that the photograph is a piece of paper, not a window through which you see the world. It's not unmediated, it is a thing. It also has to do with an interest in undoing conventional hierarchies. Mixing up taping and framing and presenting things in perceptual constellations on the wall is, to me, about blurring categories of hierarchies. There is a sort of deft awareness of the fact that things are different, but what's interesting about their differences is how they are the same.

Look at a picture like Garten, for example. Because it's a picture of flowers, you can think of it as a still life. It's also a sort of classic, "photography-of-the-world" approach: It's Tillmans recognizing a slice of the world that is outrageously beautiful when it's photographed. But it's also him just thinking about color and light on a surface. So, those are three different ways that that picture can be a picture. He's interested in making one object in which all of those coexist.

Installation view. Wolfgang Tillmans's 'Lighter, black convex III,' 2013. Chromogenic print, plexiglass box

So this is a piece of photo paper that's been exposed and then shaped or crinkled or something, right?
It comes from a series where photographic paper is crushed, folded, or sculpted in some way. Here's another interesting place where categories overlap. It is absolutely a photograph; it's been exposed, it's been developed. It's a photograph on the most fundamental level. But it is pushing back on the notion that a photograph is a window through which you look to see a picture of something else. Going back to the notion that the photograph is an object, it pulls you back to the surface. It's a photograph that is a sculpture, and then there's that great way that sculpture is both a representation of something and also is the thing that it represents.

Do you think it makes it more of a "thing" because it's unique, and an edition of one?
That's actually an interesting and kind of complicated area. Tillmans is very aware of the contradiction that comes up when you think, OK a photograph is an object, but it's also multiple objects.

Installation view. Editions of 'Parkett,' 1992-1998

At some point in the 90s, Tillmans starts realizing that prints he's making that technically contain development errors are also unique photographic objects which can never be precisely repeated. So he starts to experiment with that, and you get pieces of paper where the content of the image is sort of very subtle and difficult to see. He's thinking about objects that are inherently singular and completely unique because they cannot be repeated. Yet they are also photographic, and he's distributing them in a format that suggests editioned work, that suggests multiplicity.

Parkett is a magazine?
Yeah, this is the actual issue of the magazine in which his edition was sold. Essentially it's a mail-order catalog format, like a mail-order format, like there's articles that relate to Wolfgang Tillmans there, and then a page where you can order work from his edition. Usually that suggests you'd be buying a print in an edition, but in this case, you're actually buying the exact unique object depicted in the magazine.

Marcel Duchamp, American (born France), 1887 - 1968. 'Dada: 1916-1923,' Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, April 15 to May 9, 1953. Letterpress exhibition catalog and poster designed by Duchamp; crumpled version. Image and sheet: 38 1/4 x 24 3/4 inches (97.2 x 62.9 cm). Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother, Alexina Duchamp, 1998

What is this crumpled thing?
The crumpled thing is a Duchamp. This is an instance where what you're able to say on a plaque in the gallery is relevant, but maybe not the reason I wanted to put it in the show. What I say there is true, but the more compelling reason to have Duchamp in the show is that when you're introducing a work into the collection of the PMA, you have to introduce it to Duchamp, because he is an absolute backbone of the collection. We have one of the best collections of Duchamp in the world.

In any case, knowing the ideas of what makes something a piece of art then doing whatever it takes to completely turn it on its head is related to what Tillmans does. They do it in very different ways, and have different attitudes about it (Tillmans is not flippant in any way) but to me there is a common interest in undoing hierarchies.

William Eggleston, American, born 1939. Greenwood, Mississippi. 1973-74 (print) Dye transfer print. Image: 12 13/16 x 18 1/2 inches (32.5 x 47.0 cm) Sheet: 15 7/8 x 20 1/16 inches. (40.3 x 51.0 cm). 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Walter Hopps and Caroline Huber, 2001

Moving this way, we've got Eggleston. I understand this part of the show has to do with surface qualities.
Yeah, it has to do with the sensuality of surfaces. For Tillmans, photography is a way of engaging with and interacting with the surfaces of the world. There's a completely unabashed connection between photography (the act of looking at and really engaging with those surfaces) and erotic experience. Surfaces, for him, are where the two-dimensional world become meaningful beyond two dimensions.

If you look at images on paper—photographs—it's all about the connection between the two-dimensional world and the world of much deeper meaning. You have this blank piece of paper, and it's mute and dumb, completely without significance, and you can invest it with this entire world of experience and meaning through photography.

So, these are images which engage with the tactile sensuality of the surfaces of the world. This Eggleston picture is about sexuality on some level, but you can also think of it as an object you could have an erotic response to, with that crazy, crazy lavish red. So there's that sort of slippage between what's depicted and the object itself.

Pear and Orange, Studio/Pacific Palisades, 1996. D. W. Mellor, American, born 1947. Gelatin silver print, Image and sheet: 7 1/2 x 9 5/8 inches (19.1 x 24.4 cm) Mount: 12 1/16 x 13 15/16 inches (30.6 x 35.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Jo Ann and Stephan Leimberg, 2009.

This Friedlander picture looks like The Birth of Venus.
There's an insanely close relationship between the central figure of that painting and this girl on a swing. Some of the ideas I'm chewing on in pairing it with this photo by D. W. Mellor (above) are that these pictures make reference to a long history of art, whether they're quoting something from the Renaissance or using a still-life language that's 400 years old. They represent different ways of grappling with art history, and that can be a route towards making something count as a picture.

One of the things that I think about here, in terms of something "counting" as being a work of art, is, Does it have to do with the intention or thought or the artist, or a process of labor that goes into it? One of the things people think when they look at Nachtstilleben is that it's a snapshot, that he just clicked the shutter in the direction of some things on the windowsill. Obviously that's not true, but that's a perception that people have. So, is there resistance to the idea that that counts as a picture, or a work of art? Is it because they feel there was not enough labor that went into it on the part of the artist? What are the things that pictures are required to have in order for them to count as art? Does it have to be able composition? Does it have to be about somebody knowing a lot about art history? Does it have to be a beautiful object? Does it have to be hard to make it?

'Black Kites,' 1997. Gabriel Orozco, Mexican, born 1962. Graphite on skull, 8 1/2 x 5 x 6 1/4inches (21.6 x 12.7 x 15.9 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, © Gabriel Orozco

Well, this skull isn't a picture. What's the story there?
This is one of the more popular things in the show, the Times actually chose to reproduce this in their article on it. Again, this is a traditional subject of still life. It also engages with the idea of the tactility of surfaces, and how something that is a surface can also be connected to a three-dimensional experience of depth. So here the the process of putting squares onto the skull's surface—which is also a three-dimensional object—suggests skin, or maybe even thoughts, asks you to think of the embodied process the artist goes through creating it.

Because the Tillmans photo may be difficult for people to access, were you compelled to include things in the show that people could get into for other reasons? Like, people might identify this as a skull, and think it's cool for the same reason they'd buy a T-shirt with a skull on it. Was there a conscious decision to create points of accessibility?
Yes, because people will walk into museums and do what they want to do. A lot of the themes in this show are more cerebral or harder to access, even difficult to explain. So if there are that many things asking you to do a lot of thinking, there also need to be some things that, at least on the surface, are just really engaging.

In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans will be on view through Friday, October 24. You have one more day to go see it in person. You might have missed it already. Sorry!

Matthew Leifheit is the Photo Editor of VICE, and also teaches photography at School of Visual Arts. Follow him on Twitter.