Part of: In Camera

Interview: Wolfgang Tillmans

published on 10 April 2017

Photographer and Turner prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans was the twelfth participant in our In Camera live interview series, to time with the Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern. Tillmans spoke to Lou Stoppard on 10 April 2017 at 12:15 GMT. 

Photographer and Turner prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans was the twelfth participant in our In Camera live interview series, to time with the Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern. Tillmans spoke to Lou Stoppard on 10 April 2017 at 12:15 GMT. 

38 Q&A Posts

Q. Visiting your 2017 exhibition at the Tate I was struck by how many responded to it as an outside perspective - a challenge to the establishment, especially given the political commentary. Yet I also considered the dominance of white male artists within exhibitions and arts institutions. To many, as a well-established, commercially successful white male you are a part of the establishment. I wonder do you think about that and do you see yourself as offering an alternative voice and being an outsider in these environments and if so, how? Lou Stoppard, editor-at-large of SHOWstudio
Well I am aware that I am of course not an outsider. On the other hand I grew up being gay so that always gives you a different perspective. I am also a white male so I never had an institutional disadvantage put upon me and because I have seen the world with a different eye I have always been aware of other people's struggles and that not everything looks the same from different angles. I am not trying to make a complete picture within my work but it isn't a coincidence that in my work there is hand raised from a black lives matter demonstration. It is giving it a space but I'm not claiming that I speak for the whole movement. There is this banner from this queer demonstration in Berlin, which reminded people that it is nice here, but have you have been to Kyrgyzstan. I like to include this in all of my exhibitions to remind the viewer of this.

Q. You talk about being a gay man and those representations in your work. In the current political/societal climate, how important is visible queerness to you and how does this reflect in the work you've been producing? SHOWstudio viewer
I’ve been interested in a pansexual approach to the body and to sexuality. I never wanted to be defined as a gay artist making art so there has always been men, women and the playful interaction of genders either the same or male and female. There's been a lot of discussion on what the term queer means and increasingly there are also heterosexual people that self identify as queer so it's more of a state of mind but it can’t be discussed away either, we’re all just queer. The word has a certain charge. It’s funny because in German, queer means from the side, not like at an angle and I guess queer always should be. It should challenge a certainty and a single reading of the world, which I like to keep present in my work. The main thing I remember again and again is that we shouldn't be afraid of our bodies. We shouldn’t be dominated by the fashion industry to control our body beyond what is necessary and what is good for us, which is why I included that photograph of buttocks and balls in a vast size in the the exhibition because there's nothing scandalous about it, half of mankind look like this. It’s just a rarer perspective of a man so I like it when it's not obviously scandalising but the benignness is what is shocking about it.

Q. This next question came in from someone who you’ve shot and who I think is a friend of yours which is Kate Moss and she asked, ‘What does freedom mean to you? Kate Moss, model
It wasn't fought for by me, it wasn't granted but it was fought for by others. The fact I can live in freedom is the result of other people putting their arse on the line doing embarrassing and challenging things. I don't just mean the gay liberation, I mean the French Revolution. Some people rose up in France 250 years ago and stopped a corrupt, oppressive system. I’m always aware that what we enjoy here is the result of history and other people and it is our duty to protect that. People take everything for granted now and we have to be aware that what we enjoy is fragile because there are always people who are pushing against it. Fundamentalists, far right people and extreme capitalists all push against the space that we enjoy.

Q. That relates to a question that was asked by Neil Tennant from The Pet Shop Boys that relates to some of the work that you have done in pushing back. He asks, 'Do you think it’s possible to influence the anti-Europe pro-nationalist voters through your activist artworks or are you just preaching to the converted? Can artists affect the outcome of the debate?' Neil Tennant, The Pet Shop Boys
That is an interesting one. There is something true to that fundamental observation and that preaching to the converted, but one also has to remember that political activism and political art is actually something that is made to encourage and keep the spirit of your comrades, of like-minded people. To reach the ones most opposite to your view is the hardest but if you think of it more as the process of osmosis, art is powerful tool. You only have to look at the social advantages of the sixties, seventies and eighties and they all have to do with art, film, music, graphic design and fashion; they all pushed. In the end art is only another word for culture. All political strifes are called culture wars. So what is acceptable or not? Aesthetics and politics are interlinked.

Q. This next question relates to that conversation about the power of art and the way that art can communicate, it was asked by Ian Green, CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust. He said that you have used your work to highlight issues around HIV stigma and what role do you think this has had in influencing hearts and minds on important issues? Ian Green, CEO of the Terrence Higgins Trust
Like I have just said, art has a significant role. It is actually not marginal and those in power, even though they are aware they are not that cultured or not that interested in art, they somehow sense that this is what makes society. Society without culture is unthinkable. On the other hand I have also been asked in the past year whether artists should be more political. This question implies that artists should by nature be more political than carpenter or a dentist but I think the great quality of art, almost the defining quality of art is that it's useless. By default it doesn't have to sell anything, it doesn't have to illustrate anything, it can just be. That freedom must be fundamental so I don't want to give any artist a bad conscience, like 'oh you haven't worked against brexit or you’re not doing an anti-racist awareness campaign'.  It is not for everyone to do that with their work. We all now have a duty to realise that this is a unique time, not unique in history, but quite a few older people have said they haven't experienced anything like this in their life. This in an emergency and people have to get up and be involved, this isn't just Facebook where you can post something.

Q. This relates to question asked by Lucy Moore who runs Claire de Rouen Books and is someone who you’ve worked with. On that notion of posting she’s asked, ‘What is the best way to communicate social and political ideas with nuance and wisdom now that attention spans are so short?' Obviously referring to the fact people are consuming so much imagery and scrolling through things so quickly. Lucy Kumara Moore, Claire de Rouen Books
The hardest thing is to speak, to really sit down with a family member and talk for half an hour to an hour about a subject you're not so easy about. I realise it's much easier to write a political thought and post it but to actually confront a cabby who's made a slightly racist remark and draw him into a conversation I find really cringey. That's what we really have to do, use our freedom to speak. The biggest problem is the much described city and country divide, the coast vs. the mainland in the USA that can only be bridged by actual conversations.

Q. You’ve mentioned before that people often see the world differently because of your pictures and that the real success is not the price that your pictures go for, but the affect they have on other humans to see something with open eyes. Has there been a certain image you feel has done this more than others? Keanu Yohansson, Canada
There are obvious cases like Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees. This is maybe one of the most well known pictures of mine and it came from that spirit of the playful exploration of gender and the body, just sitting naked in trees. It looks like reportage but it was a staged scenario. I think that's something I used, the language of authenticity, which isn't betraying the viewer because we really did frolic around in the park, but in that moment it did happen; rather than make something look like it is particularly staged. I also like to make things look real as if they have happened. When things look easy they are also believable. I have tried to make my work not look complicated and portray certain modes of communication, of being in your body of; looks, matter, effect and whether that is normality. Interestingly, even though I never sent out to document my times in the nineties, like my first book that came out in 1995 was seen as a document of the times and this is the generation that I had photographed. If we time warped into 1968, of course it didn't look like there were hippies everywhere. It looked probably very different but what we understand about the spirit of the time is actually the aspirations and the dreams, which is only usually realised by a few people and again that is the power of art. It is to describe and influence or slightly rewrite history, because it is not a lie it is authentic.  

Q. There is a question that was asked by Simon Baker, the photography curator at the Tate, that says, ‘Is seductive beauty a problem for political content?’ Simon Baker, Curator of photography, Tate
There was a German socialist magazine that still exists called Konkret. In the 1970s they put naked women on the cover just to sell more copies to spread the message, so that was a very seductive way, that today wouldn’t seem progressively correct. I don’t know if there is a problem but if you are involved in the business of the representation - of representing humans, you have to ask yourself what does that do and mean. Very early on after my success in the early nineties, I questioned what is this proliferation of young people actually doing and who are we looking at. By the end of the nineties there was an omnipresence of pictures of cool young people doing nothing, which at the time I would have said they were resting in themselves because back then I didn't see any pictures of serious young people and I wanted to fill that gap. That had been quickly co-opted and turned into commercial language but within the choices of who you photograph, because we are always creating a catalogue of aesthetics of what you think is desirable. I am also attracted to particular colours, textures, and fabrics. There are things I like so I do talk about them as well so I’m not trying to be completely neutral, which you can’t do either. The question as why I photograph people all the time is not because it’s constantly a normative activity as a whole. So this constant picture production is worth questioning. That was behind myself at the end of the nineties, changing my work and making pictures without a camera. I wanted to do exhibitions and I wanted to continue showing pictures but suddenly not of people.

Q. Do you think you could become this successful with your work if you were to start out in these days? Eva, London
I think that there is an incredible urgency today, there is a lot to be said. I think it’s not necessarily being said enough in certain fields. You know like music for example doesn't really represent the calamity that we are in. Very few musicians were there to speak out about Brexit. Why can't super top stars make really abrasive political comments at the height of their career in the sixties and seventies and why can’t they do that today? I have always approached my work from the question 'What is missing?' and I have always felt that can't you overtake your idols or what you admire. You have to come from the side that is not there already. What is there is there because it made its space from being good or shit. You have to make a comment or contrary to what you think is shit. So this means the question 'What is missing?' I can't answer that for you but I want to contribute to what is going on. I think young people and young artists of any mediums desire to express themselves is already a value within itself. We all want to express ourselves, it is what we have to contribute to the discussion what matters. It is difficult today, music is a crazy system. There is no money in it, it is insane, it is not a fair situation. You can't say there is a lot of great opportunities but in general quality and someone who has something to say will get through. I know from my gallerist friends who are constantly looking for a genuine honest voice that wants to contribute something and not just someone who wants to be successful. If you have something to say you can get through even if it seem over saturated now. In 1986, you would have thought everything has been done in pop culture like punk was the most extreme movement but acid house and techno came right around the corner. People say it’s so difficult because everything has been done and that they had it so good in the nineties. There's always something new.

Q. You used the word shit quite a lot there and Hari Nef, the model you’ve used in your work said, ‘you once told me nice was the little sister of shit, how has this phrase manifested in your work?’ Hari Nef, model and actress
It is just like this random use of the word nice. I'm not interested in the radical as opposed to nice. It is important to also get comfort from things but nice is the thing that is indifferent, passive and without conviction.

Q. So you don’t think you’re nice? Lou Stoppard
Yes. Of course I want to be nice but when it’s ‘nice’ or when it’s ‘oh that’s nice.’ There's a difference.

Q. We have a question from someone called Toby who said, 'When we collaborated together in the nineties on 'Uniforms' at Bournemouth College of Art & Design, Nick Knight was already a household name in fashion photography and only a few years out of Bournemouth himself. As an art student holding a camera, did you ever envision back then, how your career would unfold as a fine artist?' Toby, UK
I did have a sense of purpose. I’ve always had a sense that I'm doing this for a reason. I’m not doing this to be successful. I want go to places that I myself read for example i-D or galleries that I went to. I loved art, that is why I wanted to be in art. That is what I was saying about people wanting to express themselves and only really thinking about their own work. It is so important to think about other art and photographers because that is the only reference that makes what we do possible. My great beloved teacher from Bournemouth told me there is no art outside of that window, meaning there is no culture in nature. The only reference is your dead or older fellow artists, they are your friends and you need to study them because without them you wouldn’t be speaking the language you’re speaking.  

Q. We had a lot of questions about that so I will attribute them to lots of people. They ask about the artists or photographers who have had the most influence on your work. It is an obvious question in a way, but are there people to this day that you remember seeing any of their works? Lou Stoppard
Strangely maybe the first time that I felt the power of art as a child, I must have been eight or nine in Zurich, Switzerland. There is a church that has five Marc Chagall windows. I am not a huge Chagall fan now but it touched me and I made such a fuss to make my parents buy an oversized postcard for me. Art means something. I had key moments like that throughout my teens. I had similar moments when I held the Blue Monday cover, by New Order, designed by Peter Saville. I thought this is a work of art, it shook me, and this is something I relate to. In the same way, 1984 when I was fifteen I went to the Cologne train station once a month to buy a copy of i-D. The pictures of our host Nick Knight, they pictured left a huge impact in encouragement. Our styles are completely different. The whole magazine in its spirit back then, in its non-commercial spirit was super important. The presence of the art museums in the Rhineland where I saw Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol made a huge impact. I could see photographs transferred and for me they were actually paintings of course but they were photographs transferred onto canvases. That was blurred for me early on. Even though photography is painting, the magazine page is a photograph printed, Warhol is a photograph printed. Screen-printed onto a canvas and a magazine page is offset printed onto paper. It all comes from the lens and they all spoke to me in tactile ways: the smell of a magazine, newspaper or the museum, the special experience. I have always been interested in both of them.

Q. This is taking a slightly different turn but this is a question asked from Hollie in Bournemouth who says, 'Nick Knight also studied in Bournemouth as you did, so I was wondering whether the place has had any impact on your work and how your time spent there has shaped your practice.' Hollie, Bournemouth
I was back at the college last month for the first time in years and did a talk and it was very nice. It wasn't shit to be back, it was really good to be back. I had lived in Hamburg for three years before in the red light district and experienced the acid house years and the early techno years there and had a bit of a wild time. I was longing for a quiet seaside experience, like this idea of rainy afternoons on the pier drinking tea. I romanticised that and liked the idea of staying put and not running off to London all the time like the other foreign students did. I think it was really informative to stay and spend as much time with the fellows students and not look really for outside activities. The time when you are a student is the only time when you're not competitive with people in the same profession or your same vocation. When I meet another artist, I don’t think they are a competitor but you do talk differently. In college, you have an equality there that allows you to be open, even though it doesn't happen, not everybody opens up. The opportunity is there to be open to talk about your weaknesses and fears and I felt that was important.

Q. It's interesting that sense of tactility and the physical object. Someone called Kit Parsons from Scotland asked, ‘One of your first interactions with photography was when you discovered a photocopier in a coffee shop where you made a fanzine of collaged images – do you think without this discovery that the direction you took towards your work would have been different?' Kit Parsons, Scotland
I feel really grateful that I overcame the fear of mechanical reproduction over gestural handmade art at a very young age. Now I realise you don't have to draw this or paint that for it to be real art. It can actually be a photocopy and be incredibly beautiful. That is something I independently invented in my head in a small town as a teenager cut off from knowing what was going on in United States and in other places in Europe. There was a similar tenacity and it’s interesting how culture seems to transport what is going on without wires or actually connecting. Osmosis again!

Q. I’m going to go with some questions from more of your friends and people who know you. Hans Ulrich Obrist asked me to talk about your 'Unbuilt Road' projects which are unrealised projects that are too big to be realised utopias projects too big to be realised or too small to be realised. He said that Doris Lessing told him to ask about projects you did not dare to do. I’m interested in both projects you haven’t done because you felt like they couldn’t be realised but also projects you’ve tried and perceive as failures. Hans Ulrich Obrist, art curator
If there is one thing that is on my to do list, it is to do a book called 'Conversations with Doctors'. I observed that I love having conversations with doctors. Not from a hypochondriac point of view but because in school I was initially quite good in science and always had a soft spot it, even though later I completely failed in the subject. There is a basic understanding for example of what osmosis is and how the body works. Since the age of fourteen, I had taken an active interest in aids from a scientific point of view even before I was gay. I was always scanning for the astronomy articles because I was super obsessed with it. In 1992, there was a mysterious disease that homosexuals from Haiti had caught and I realised that this was completely endangering me.

Q. Is that still how you approach it in your work, so if you're making work that deals with AIDS or HIV is it still from that interest from something scientific or is it more of a personal threat that I think gay men feel. Which way is it that you approach it, is it the personal way? Lou Stoppard
It impacted my life from the first day of having sex but of course it did impact my life because my boyfriend Jochen Klein suddenly died of it, at a time theoretically therapy was possible. He found out too late and then I found out, I myself, are HIV positive but I never made that an active subject in my work because people are so scared of AIDS. They think that everything in the work is foreshadowing this. When I was sixteen I was having sleepless night because I had sex with a guy and thought I was dying because I had a swollen gland but of course I was just being a hypochondriac. AIDS has always been in my life since I have been an adult. It has featured in my work in a way, but i'm aware of the fragility of life. Of course i-D did an AIDS issue in 1992. There was a brilliant double page spread by Simon Foxton and it said 'We haven’t stopped dancing yet.' In those days people were just dying. Of course people were clubbing as well. I'm more than grateful that science and chemistry have allowed medication to exist.

Q. Has that sparked the 'Conversations with Doctors' project idea in your head? Lou Stoppard
Like I said, that interest is more of a scientific interest. I realised I can have interesting conversations with doctors and that they’ll realise I know a little bit more and keep the conversation going.

Q. You mentioned the word fragility and Jop van Bennekom, the founder of Fantastic Man, that you work with a lot and have done an interesting project with recently has asked, ‘When speaking about your work, vulnerability and fragility are often mentioned. What does vulnerability mean to you?’ Jop van Bennekom, founder of Fantastic Man
It's something that I’ve been aware of from an early age and to experience that this is what we all are. Those who don't acknowledge it and fight it may appear stronger at first but are actually weaker. I was very touched by a shaker, a group of quakers in Maine where I had an artist residency in 1996. Sister Ruth, a ninety year old, got up in a meeting and said 'For when I’m weak, I’m strong' and I made that a title of my book. I found it so true. People fight their vulnerability. I’m not saying you should be weak, you should look after yourself and control your life as much you can but you need to know where to stop - the interplay of accepting fragility and vulnerability. It’s that duality.

Q. Charles Asprey, a collector and gallerist, asked a question that relates to your friendship and collaboration with Isa Genzken. 'If her alter ego is the rose, what’s yours?' Charles Asprey, art collector
That's a nice one, I wanted to say 'Concorde' but because Charles owns the work. It is wrong to say that as a supersonic jet but more in the terms of the collaboration idea. Since this feels like therapy that is just the word that came out. 'Concorde' like togetherness. For example two countries in this case that have collaborated on an ambitious project. Well my alter-ego since my teenage days was called 'Fragile'. That was my artist name as a dream musician, which then didn't materialise but I identified with this word. It is incredibly beautiful but it is funny. It is twenty years next month that I published the book, took these pictures around Easter 1997.

Q. Lutz actually has asked a question. He talks about how you both spent your teens dreaming about living in England and that is was the ultimate goal and when you were living there it felt like the most amazing place in the world. People say that reality is never as good as what you imagine but in your case London really was perfect. So with all the recent changes, how do you see it now from a human standpoint, as well as creatively? He said that he feels like the current situation will make creativity explode again, as always when times are hard but what do you think about that? Lutz Huelle
When I look at London of course I see thirty years of experiences and that street corner or underground station is many different years. If I came to London now I don't know if I would feel as welcome and if it's still the place that is offering the space for imagination without money as it did thirty years ago. Yes, London is always bigger than anything because it is like an organism that is made of so many diverse people. It’s irrepressible, but that is not true. We had a panel discussion at the Tate on Saturday about the loss of free space and privatisation of cities and there was a consensus. It was pointed out that it is an Anglo-American Neo-Liberal drive that has pushed English and American cities, London in particular, more to the complete privatisation of everything and so it is not all good in London now. It is a real problem. It is squeezing out people and expression and ultimately diversity and it is hard to change. That is where one can get involved, not like when the next time you hear social housing is being earmarked to be demolished in your neighbourhood to make room for another luxury housing project. You can go to your counsellor, you can go to your local MP and say something. But a man that is tired of London is tired of life. I still love it and it is a great moment to be here now with the exhibition on.

Q. In exhibiting your work, has it been an advantage or disadvantage that English has increasingly become the language of global business? How would you encourage the revitalisation of foreign languages - including German, French, Italian and Spanish that have so lapsed in the last forty-four years - in the UK? Boris Johnson, UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
I think native English speakers are at a loss, which they don't notice because the whole world seemingly speaks English. Of course we all speak it with terrible accents or make terrible mistakes. It is the world's revenge; you have to listen to all these butchered versions of your mother's tongue. The problem for native English speakers is that you go abroad and you find it much harder to pick up foreign language as people speak to you in English. What you get from them, for example in Berlin, where there are a vast number of native English speakers, you only get half the picture. The Germans they talk to can only often express themselves in a limited way, so they don’t get the full range of thought and humour and nuance. German's do have a great sense of humour contrary to prejudice but if you can’t read the newspapers and you are not part of the culture of the language, you are missing a lot. I think that learning languages, for me was a huge eye opener. I am happy that I don’t only speak English but I have a French perspective on language.

Q. So people have to make the effort to learn? Lou Stoppard
They have to. Everybody learns English plus other languages and only the English don’t learn other languages. Imagine what that does to your brain, the synapses'. If you're only speaking one language you are limited. There's a play of words, a sound and it is beautiful to know other languages.

Q. Do subcultures still exist? Stéphane, Switzerland
Of course they do exist! It is a question of how they are reported and defined and again on this panel on Saturday, Dan Hancock spoke about the penalisation, the shutdown, the police criminalisation of the London grime scene. It is being celebrated by people in the government as showing great British art and music but in fact the actual clubs where black artists are performing have to fill in a form, a '696' I think it was called. You basically have to fill in questions that allow the police to racially profile the event about to happen and if they deem it dangerous or risky they can shut it down. So a lot of venues are not playing reggae or grime because they can't get the license for it. That is subculture. I’m sorry, it is not subculture. That is the repression of subculture. It is funny that Stéphane asks this question because of course there are, how can there not be subcultures. Sub is an under category of the culture, which is of course questionable to what that is. It is more the impetus behind this question is perceived powerlessness, maybe of today's generation and perceived total atomisation. We are all only individuals and there is no cohesion in subcultures. So yes, your feeling is real but you can do something about it. You can meet and people have to meet in real life.

Q. I have a question about subcultures that relates to your youth and things that matter to you. Charlie Porter has asked 'Which was the first nightclub that mattered to you? Can you describe it, and can you see links between that club and the parties you enjoy today?' Charlie Porter, writer
The first gay nightclub I went to was Manhattan in Brighton when I was fifteen, when you could go to clubs as a teenager. All I remember is that the DJ desk was a grand piano which was pretty fabulous. The club that was the first one that excited me was called Relax. They played house music before I knew it in 1986. Then a club called Front in Hamburg with DJ Klaus Stockhausen who played acid house before it was known to me as that. So Relax and Front, they were both small but with good sound systems and a mixed gay, straight, anything goes attitude which I think is the best. It wanted something. It was extreme about music, interested in excellence and sounds and providing a good quality to people, which is often missing in clubs in London where there is no generosity.

Q. Terry Jones, the founder of i-D, also asked a similar question where he said, ‘I have fond memories of your big smile in Florence at the 'i-D Now' exhibition in Palazzo Corcini, January 1992, where you were dancing to a Thomas Fehlmann mix. If you were to choose five dance tracks, one for each decade, eighties till now, who are the DJs and what are their mixes and where are you dancing?' Terry Jones, founder of i-D
Francois K's remix of The Pets Shop Boys song Rent is incredible. In the noughties, The Hacker remix of Air’s Don't Be Light, which happens to be the soundtrack of my video of the moving lights called Lights Body. In the nineties, Miss Kittin and The Hacker’s First Album. That is shocking you don't even know them. You really should check out 2001’s Miss Kittin and The Hacker’s Stock Exchange Woman, it is an amazing song. It’s terrible every time I get asked what music do you listen to I go blank.

Q. Maureen Paley has asked, 'What is your most favourite place in the world? Maureen Paley, Wolfgang Tillmans' gallerist
There's a photograph which is actually in the Tate exhibition entitled The Most Beautiful Place I've Ever Been and it is on the Cape Verde islands, the island of Santo Antao. There's a crater and in the base of the crater is super fertile land. Even though the other Cape Verde islands are really dry because it is a crater there are trees on the rim of the crater that harvest humidity from the clouds. It is like this incredibly fertile and green agricultural land. I just thought it was so completely out of this world, descending into the crater that was in clouds. You couldn’t see anything, it was just fog, then as you descended suddenly this archaic agricultural landscape was unfolding.

Q. Sometimes when you are in a situation like that or say when you are in a nightclub being so happy. How do you find the balance between living the experience and documenting it? Because you must have to interrupt your own pleasure sometimes to take a picture. Lou Stoppard
My approach to photography is that I like to master it or know exactly what it does or be close to knowing what it does so that I live my life through my eyes. I am not a walking camera. I’m actually thinking about the real three dimensional world but sometimes when I recognise something of interest or as a form of cultural meaning I take the camera and briefly put it between my eyes and the subject and take a picture. It is only a brief interruption so it is not really interrupting the thought process or the process of enjoyment when I’m travelling. Yesterday, I had this high alert walk through London, which I know so well but sometimes I have these moments where I see everything seemingly afresh. That is the incredible thing about photography. I have thirty years of visual education and awareness at the tip of my finger but in that second it is all active. When you are painting you have to layer and layer it but the incredible thing about photography is that it does make a usable picture. Sometimes the subconscious mind is faster than the conscious mind.

Q. I wanted to know if you ever had a difficult time making an image or even picking up your camera? If so, what was your experience and how did you move on? Does that happen often, where you almost can't document something? Michael Seleski, Montreal
I mean not fully answering the question but you know there is a question of morality of photography like can a picture be stolen? Or what kinds of pictures can you take? Sometimes when I worked on the project A New World, it roughly started at the end of the noughties and it led to this period of travelling, making short trips around the world to different locations. I realised there are situations where you have a cultural responsibility to get the picture, because if you don't it will disappear like it's a story untold. Which one could say who cares? Sometimes not every photograph is a comfortable one and it is embarrassing. I find photographing often embarrassing because you're revealing your interests. Sometimes when it is stranger you have to negotiate your interest with your intrusion and not wanting to intrude. To overcome that embarrassment you have to feel a certain sense of urgency like you need this picture and you want to talk about it and that is important.

Q. Someone has asked a similar question, Whitney Harrison from London, which said ‘although you’ve been considered an autobiographical artist, your work is sometimes known to be ‘unusually personal’. Has there ever been a point when you’ve not wanted to share something you’ve documented because your personal connection to it was too strong? Whitney Harrison, London
I don't see myself as an autobiographical artist at all. Of course my work altogether over thirty year's paints a picture of a life lived. For me the question is; can I make a picture of this or with this? It is not that I want to tell what food I have eaten or say that these are my friends. When I photograph my friends I show them as humans. I photograph them because their presence and openness has allowed me to grasp a sense of humanity that flickers up briefly and they allow me to photograph that. When I see that I see humanity, a universal quality in the specific person. I am not saying that these are my cool friends, like cynical critics have sometimes written. It is just when I was twenty five, twenty five year-olds happened to be most accessible to me so I recognised their fragility, humanity or dignity in them. I would feel that it is so immodest to constantly talk about what I am I doing. Autobiographies are of course not immodest but they are generous because they take serious duty in telling history. There are lots of things that are too personal. I don't necessarily want to talk about my private life like that bum in the Tate exhibition. It doesn't matter who that is, it could potentially be anybody but if you only approach it as a general idea it is lacking the personally intensity, embarrassment or urgency that is perceived as autobiographical. I want to just get that feeling and the viewer so that they feel it could be theirs.

Q. So you don’t find people presume they know you better than you do or they presume they understand your personality or your life, because they see your work as being a documentary of all of your life? Lou Stoppard
You can pick out preferences and places but I think what the particular quality, or what I realise now and seeing the people's reaction to the show for example or in general is that there is a surge in my work in recent years; from a new generation, a younger generation. There is a connection there and it has to do with them recognising themselves. Like I recognise myself in the music that I love. I didn’t love them because I saw Bernard Sumner sing this or Mark Almond sing that. Artists somehow translate something particular into something that then resonates with others so they can recognise themselves. That gives the sense that they are not alone which is ultimately what I'm most afraid of, being alone in this world. The solidarity of people, even if it shines up occasionally here and there is what lights up an otherwise hostile nature.

Q. I’m going to ask another question from Simon Baker because it relates to some of the pictures you have taken of your friends. He’s asked, ‘how much agency do the subjects have in the portraits, especially those photographed repeatedly, can you think of these works as collaborations? Simon Baker
Yes, for example with Isa Genzken, the German sculptor, she actually did ask me in 1993 to collaborate on a series of portraits of her. Even though it is all photographed by me, she was the initiated director asking me to do this and choosing the location, which was the Cologne cathedral and calling it Atelier 11. She was modestly declaring the cathedral as her studio and we have taken pictures together ever since. She actually sometimes just appropriated my pictures and put them into collages. Of course anybody when they are part of a staged scenario like Phillip Marshall pissing on a chair in 1987, he enacts something, he is a collaborator in that way even though just like a film director it is this person's film, I asked them to do this. Sometimes people bring things to pictures that I could never have brought and I am very grateful. There are many contributing factors even though I design my exhibitions and lay out my books. I decided a lot but I would have only gotten half as far if it wasn’t for the great advice from people and collaborators. I do seek out bad criticism, as I want to hear the bad news, it is the worst thing when people only want to hear the good news. I always interested in what could be the problem.

Q. Has anyone ever written a criticism that you've thought was totally wrong? Lou Stoppard
Yes. It was so ridiculous. Sarah Kent of Time Out, when I was nominated for Turner Prize. She was describing me as this shallow guy shuffling around with his friends on the tube and everything was seemingly lightweight. I had just come out of three years grieving over the loss of the love of my life and it was just so fucking ridiculous. The wilful misreading, because the work, the instillation, it was full of life and love. It had gravitas, it was a life lived. To neglect this, it does hurt but fortunately people have really gotten over that and thank God I never shied away from light, like always having the mix of seemingly light subject matter and heavy subject matter.

Q. I have a lighthearted question from Michael Clark, the dancer and choreographer. He has asked, 'are you aware that I pinched some socks from your house on Fire Island?' Michael Clark, dancer
Oh, no!

Q. Do you have any young photographers you like? Takuya, Japan
Ones that come to mind are Harley Weir and Jamie Hawkesworth. Photography is one of the hardest mediums. It is easier to make a decent painting that one can look at than to make a really good photograph even though obviously technically it seems the opposite. When somebody stands out you can immediately tell. The incredible thing about photography is that it is a mechanical medium, there is seemingly nothing that the artist touches. You can tell a Juergen Teller or Cindy Sherman from a mile. We are all using the same medium and that is fascinating. That is testament to the psychological quality, the intangible quality that makes it to the lens. So when there is somebody that has a vision that stands out, I'm delighted and it happens not that often because it is such a difficult medium.  

Q. How do you capture a feeling? Vlad Iordache, Romania
I should also mention a contemporary of mine Yohan Lempert, he is well known but he is always young at heart. He has an incredible take on nature and human interaction and his work is super relevant and fresh even though he is fifty something. I was doing a Guardian facebook live the other week at the Tate and the interviewer had a great interest in bringing everything back round to youth culture and I was saying let's bring it back to this picture of Gustav Metzger who died last month at the age of eighty three. He was a real young spirit all his life that young people always felt attracted to. One has to really think that whole definition of young and old has really changed. It is not like you are as old as you feel, no wishy washy stuff like that. Like Isa Genzken is a lot older than me and a lot of artists really respond to her, it is a state of mind and what angle you look at things. For a moment at the Tate exhibition I had the title, How Does It Feel? Now it’s just called 2017, but How Does It Feel?just seemed too vague and also as if I can say that. I can only try because the moment you think you know, you think you’re definitely wrong.

Q. So you almost can't capture a feeling? Lou Stoppard
No you can! It sometimes takes a long time. In 1991, I took a picture thinking I wanted to describe the feeling of the air between my trousers, skin and legs and it failed. It didn’t transport it. Twenty six years later I took a photograph called The Air Between. I showed it for the first time at the Tate and suddenly you can really grasp that there is this three dimensional space, this warmth, between the skin and the leg. That is a three dimensional space, self awareness. You can only feel it yourself, nobody else knows what it is like but we probably feel a similar thing. This is good to communicate. When I feel that somebody else feels the same way, what we may call resonate, that is the ultimate success for the work. If that happens with five percent of the viewers or visitors that is great. 

Q. This relates to a question from Nick Knight, which is going to be my last question. You touched on it there and he said, ‘if you were writing your own obituary, what would you say you have brought to the world of photography?' Nick Knight, director of SHOWstudio
That’s a light one! I see myself as an artist working in a fifty thousand year tradition of picture making but I find that photography is the medium that allows me to do everything I want to say. That is testimony to the material, which to me has always been a miracle. It is incredible that there is an industrially produced piece of paper and you do something to it like expose it to light and it is transformed into an object of incredible charge. It is a nondescript thing and something is done to it and it becomes something of charge. Charge is really the word I use. That is often completely neglected in photography, people only think about the image. Photography for me is an embodied image. It is not nothing, it is a thing. From day one when I started to install the way I install, people thought it was a slacker grunge approach but in reality it was a minimalist approach. I wanted to show the object, consider photographs as flat cubes and to bring that more to the forefront that they are things and they have a body. That connection is something to do with the fragility and the beauty they have but also the fact they are constantly endangered and if I have spotlighted this, that would be nice if that was an obituary, many decades away.

Interview by:



Interview: Nick Knight

23 March 2006
SHOWstudio director and leading image-maker Nick Knight sat down with Penny Martin to answer questions from the public. Broadcast 23 March 2006.

Interview: David Bailey

12 February 2003
Acclaimed fashion and portrait photographer David Bailey answered questions from SHOWstudio viewers with Penny Martin. Broadcast 12 February 2003.

Interview: Peter Saville

29 May 2003
Legendary art director and graphic designer Peter Saville responded to questions from SHOWstudio viewers with Penny Martin. Broadcast 29 May 2003.
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