Wolfgang Tillmans, (born August 16th, 1968), is, perhaps, known today as one of the most renowned contemporary fine art photographers. He is known as the “documentarian of his generation”, and is much regarded among his peers and contemporaries.
If you have ever encountered Tillmans’ work, whether that might be a single photograph, a spread of his photographs published in a magazine, a book or an installation, the ‘taste’ and presence of the artist himself is inevitable.
It is clear in the presentation of his work, that Tillmans ignores the traditional separation of art exhibited in a gallery from images and ideas conveyed through other forms of publication and presentation, and more importantly is giving equal weight to both.
In an interview with Nathan Kernan, Tillmans is reported saying:
“I guess I could have an easier life if I didn’t care so much about all the different manifestations of an image, if I didn’t care about making the prints myself or in my studio, but somehow I see that as being part of my work, and the time spent dealing with a print is also time spent with the work. I understand my work better through this process.”
What stroke me at first as surprising and unusual, was that the artist is designing a book, or better to say is containing his own work, that at first might not have had the intention of being presented in that format. That is actually quite innate to Tillmans.
Through a more dedicated research and engagement with his work I have come to realize that it is quite natural for me to grasp that he, in fact, does design end edit his books himself.
Concretely, I have found myself acquainted with three of Tillman’s books: Burg, Truth Study Centre and Neue Welt. Burg being the first of the three was published in 1998, and Neue Welt the latest, published in 2012.
All of the three, were published by German publishing house TASCHEN.
Although one might think that having such a big house as TASCHEN publishing your work would almost completely strip you of your creative role in the design of a book, Tillmans stated in an interview [link to full interview], that on the contrary, he has full creative control over the design and content of his books.
The a fore mentioned book, Burg, is a bit larger in format than the latter two, which, on the other hand, incidentally almost completely resemble each other. They were published with the gap of eight years, however if we judge purely by “outside” traits, Truth Study Center and Neue Welt are ‘fraternal’ twin sisters.
Unlike Burg, they are both soft-covered and their front cover is completely wrapped with a single photograph, and the author and the title are stated in the same white colored typeface, although the font size of the Truth Study Center is significantly bigger than that of Neue Welt. At the bottom center of the cover states TASCHEN, the publisher.
The spines of the books are, also, both white and use the same typeface, as that of the front cover.
The back cover is, in both cases, a different photograph than that of the front cover.
In spite of the slight differences, all of the afore mentioned books seem to share the same design principle. They either start or finish with an accompanying essay or an interview on Tillmans and his work, with the text pages being ‘interrupted’ or ‘accompanied’ with smaller scaled images of Tillmans’ work as if to kind of visually demonstrate the written content of the text, that being the case in Burg and Truth Study Center. The two mentioned, as well, end with listings of Tillmans’ biography and curriculum vitae, bibliography and words of acknowledgement and gratitude.
However, the newest of them, Neue Welt seems to have ‘cleaned out’ the ‘unnecessary’
information even more, as only the very last page contains publishing information.
What is, also, unique to Neue Welt is that this book has both front and back cover flaps inside which is printed the index of all of the book pages. Except for the pages with the interview, in this book there is not one single spread that does not contain photographic image, from the front to back cover.
Tillmans does not view books as collections/ archives of his work but as exhibition space in themselves. Neue Welt is constructed and should be viewed more as an installation of Tillmans work than a regular book. Whilst browsing through the book (Neue Welt) the white space of the paper becomes equivalent to the white walls of a gallery/ museum. Tillmans designed the book in a same manner he would curate his exhibition. All of the photographs are carefully scaled and placed, not only to be true to the artists style but to give them proper space and interrelation to bring out the best of them and to create a strong work as a whole.
Interacting with the Neue Welt the holder starts to relate to it and think of it as a sort of portable exhibition.
The way it is designed, the viewer is not only challenged to engage with each singular picture or a narrative that is usually expected in photo-books, but with the connections Tillmans creates between the photographs. Having that in mind, holding his book in your hands feels almost like a privilege. The same kind of privilege one feels when one sees an exhibition of an artist’s work.
Engaging with these books, for me it was very interesting to see how they become a work of art in itself, through process of design. Although, as a viewer you have the liberty to observe every single image in depth, it is in a way impossible to ignore the whole structure and rhythm of a book as a whole. The artist’s language and modus operandi is inevitable. I ascribe this to the fact that it was the artist himself who designed his books.
During my studies at the Rietveld Academie, I have myself had the chance to be a designer of my own books, and it was whilst working with the photographic content of my own that I learned how differently does this content work in the medium of a book. The format and structure of a book give the content a new meaning and experience than observing it as single, or even series of photographs printed and pasted on a wall.
I am of the opinion, that it is the artist personal involvement and connection to the content, while designing it that creates this special flavor of the book and it would be interesting to see the direction in which book design would go if more and more artists were designing books on their work themselves.
More on Wolfgang Tillmans and Neue Welt:
Rietveld library catalog no: til 3 and til 1
Neue Welt has unfortunately not yet been acquired by the Rietveld Library, but is author's own.