© the artist, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
This colour photograph by the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans shows a young man, Cameron, working at a London market stall. His gaze is direct, addressing both photographer and viewer. Characteristically for Tillmans’ portraiture, this photograph communicates on several levels.
In one respect this image of the market vendor is a timeless and beautiful portrait of a handsome young man, just as artists across the centuries have created. Whilst this is a highly contemporary image, its formal qualities also draw upon the conventions of historic portraiture. Throughout, there is typical attention to detail, including an element of traditional still life in the vivid, indeed cheekily suggestive green vegetables – the erotic symbolism often inherent in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still life painting is wittily referenced. Cameron’s dominant and firmly placed hand appears earthy and solid. The tones of the his skin emphasise both strength and vulnerability, moving the viewer’s eye from hand to face. A focus upon skin is a recurrent device in Tillmans’ figurative studies, revealing the artist’s awareness of the precarious state of existence that we all share.
In this sense Tillmans also intended the photograph to reflect the reality of young contemporary artists in Britain today, who have to work in other jobs to sustain their art practice. Cameron is a part-time vendor who is supplementing his art practice by working on a market stall. Whilst Tillmans frequently works with his subjects to choreograph what one might suppose are spontaneous shots, Cameron’s stance appears highly constructed and determinedly posed. Enhanced by the sitter’s gaze, this composition confronts the viewer with the reality of Cameron’s social and economic situation.
Wolfgang Tillmans has regularly used his work as a unique form of activism through art. He has described this as having being motivated by his personal experience of growing up in a world which was, as a gay man, divided into acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. He argues that whether people like, or feel disgust, at seeing two male lips touching each other has political significance, because it impacts on millions of people’s lives. Driven by this political understanding of sexuality, he has aimed to interrogate and expand just what it is we find beautiful or indeed socially acceptable through his art. His own sexuality has also informed Tillmans’ acute awareness of the need to constantly fight for progressive causes and defend civil liberties. He has also used his art to draw attention to economic and social inequality, and to highlight the repressive mechanisms used to sustain the power of capitalism, Catholicism and Islamic fundamentalism. More recently he has devised a poster campaign in support of the ‘Remain’ campaign for the British European Union referendum.
‘Cameron’, 2007, is an editioned, framed c-type photographic colour print. (It is number 3 of an edition of 10 plus 1 artist's proof).