This is not a retrospective, we are told, entering German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ giant solo exhibition at Tate Modern, open to the public from tomorrow. The poster for the show – a blown-up pink and orange photograph of pulled-apart crab – is a salty taste of the fleshy images inside, splayed across 14 rooms.
“His photographs of individuals and groups are underpinned by his conviction that we are all vulnerable, and that our well-being depends upon knowing that we are not alone in the world”, read the notes in room six. Though there are expansive, beautiful photographs of nature – in particular, wavy seas – and lots of still-life works depicting everyday objects like cars or asparagus and an office desk covered in cigarettes and post-it notes, it’s Tillmans’ social documentary photography that sets him apart. Because he’s not yet 50 years old, his depiction of youth culture, club culture, masculinity, sexuality and style still feels really relevant today. From two men wearing camo jackets, caps and Reebok classics lying on a grassy bank smoking and having a good time, to a teenage boy standing on Old Street roundabout wearing Nike Air Max and looking at his phone, to album cover outtakes for Frank Ocean's “Blonde”, it’s a snapshot of our time.
Tillmans has also used the platform responsibly, presenting the social conscience of this generation alongside its social behaviours. The political narrative starts with Tony Blair’s New Labour posters reading “new life for Britain” – which in retrospect sound so conservative – and moves on to political theory printed out on A4 paper about how it’s scientifically easier to convince someone that Einstein wasn’t a good physicist than it is to change their mind about immigration. In later rooms, the anti-Brexit posters “Say you’re in if you’re in” are displayed alongside photographs of airport signs reading “Rest of world passports” and heartfelt statements about inclusivity and freedom. Tillmans’ cover shoot for the special photo edition of The Big Issue also features, and in the last room, there’s a touching portrait of a very normal-looking man wearing a T-shirt that says “Don’t look down on anybody… Unless you are helping them up”.
From fashion photographs to social documentary, to travel, to fine art, to still life, the exhibition is vast and varied enough to challenge the most unintentional Tate visitors, as well as being a complete and total thrill for hardcore Tillmans fans.
Wolfgang Tillmans 2017 runs from 15th February to 11th June at Tate Modern.