Tillmans and Moriyama

Two exhibitions at the Tate Modern.

Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition at the Tate Modern is vast, consisting of 14 rooms which have ‘been specially configured by Tillmans as a personal response to the present moment’ (booklet accompanying the exhibition). It shows a range of images from all his work since 2003.  The Tate says in describing it ‘This is Wolfgang Tillmans’s first ever exhibition at Tate Modern and brings together works in an exciting variety of media – photographs, of course, but also video, digital slide projections, publications, curatorial projects and recorded music – all staged by the artist in characteristically innovative style.’ (Tate, 2017) and “He’s not a prophet, but he sees where things might go because he has an eye for the world,” said Chris Dercon, director of the Volksbuhne Berlin and co-curator of Tate Modern’s Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 show (Smyth, 2017).

I found it overwhelming in the number of images shown and oddly underwhelming in my emotional response to them. My thoughts could be summed up as interesting but cold. Some of the individual images were compelling such as the image of his studio with a portrait of a man hung above all the chaos. An image made by ‘passing monochromatically exposed photographic paper though a dirty photo-developing machine’ (Tate Modern, 2017) was surprisingly reminiscent of an EEG (a tracing of brain waves) – an odd conjunction of patterns, the EEG describing life and thought while the image by Tillmans showing ‘the potential of the photographic processes……to be used as a form of self-expression’ (Tate Modern, 2017).  Other images I found fascinating were some of the portraits such as ‘Anders pulling splinter from his foot, 2005’ and the images of a curled piece of photographic paper ‘paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse 2014’. The final room dealt with borders and their fluidity, especially the contrast between the simple border between sea and sky versus the shipwreck caused by refugees. In the present moment of shifting borders with Brexit and hardening borders in the USA this is an important political statement, and, of course, much of Tillmans’s work should be looked at in a political context.

In a review for The Guardian Laura Cumming says ‘Tillmans’s eye is empathetic, pensive and patient, but always determinedly indeterminate. He is as far from Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment as can be. He doesn’t go in for metaphor or simile; he doesn’t try to sum anything up, nail it down or catch it by the tail. He wonders at the beauty of a pear glowing in late afternoon sun as much as viscosity of the plastic bag from which it came. He homes in on the inner seams of discarded jeans. Even when photographing a momentous starry night he can’t help noticing the camera’s own distortions. Not every star in that sky is natural………. The inconsequential is made tangible, permanent.’ (Cumming, 2017) and in a further review by O’Hagen, Tillmans says “For a long time in Britain, “there was a deep suspicion of my work. People saw me as a commercial artist trying to get into the art world, and the work was dismissed as shallow or somehow lightweight. There are still many misconceptions about what I do – that my images are random and everyday, when they are actually neither. They are, in fact, the opposite. They are calls to attentiveness” O’Hagen says ’his photography has been marked by its shifts in style and by his determination to avoid the traditional. His exhibitions can appear wilfully haphazard both in terms of their seemingly unrelated subject matter – portrait next to still life next to abstraction next to landscape – and his eschewal of the accepted norms of the gallery show’ (O’Hagen, 2017).

On Tillmans website http://tillmans.co.uk/book-downloads you can access several catalogues and books of his work that are less expansive and more focused, I found these more accessible, possibly I was suffering from overload in the exhibition.

Daido Moriyama

Moriyama’s images are on show at the Tate Modern as one of the Artists Room Collections, which are travelling collections jointly owned by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland. There are a relatively small number of images on display which concentrate on his monochrome photographs of the intense life occurring in cities shown as large panels.

Moriyama (born 1938) is famous for his street photography, which show bold and gritty details, often close-up. He has published many photobooks which are very detailed and intense, usually with full-bleed images, these are mainly monochrome however there are several colour images, tending to be cleaner, which punctuate the intensity of the flow. ‘Daido Moriyama’s art is a far, far cry from any formal academic quality…. blurred, blotched and saturated…. his photography becomes an autobiography, a means of expressing personal experiences’ (Remy and Moriyama, 2012). A recent one ‘Daido Tokyo’ focuses on Shinjuku. He says, ‘many pose the question “Why Shinjuku?” ….. I answered on impulse …… the truth is “because it was there” ….. light and shade, obverse and reverse, truth and falsehood: each accompanies the other’ (Moriyama, 2016).

Moriyama explained how he used photography to convey his subjective experience: “By taking photo after photo, I come closer to … the fragmentary nature of the world and my own personal sense of time” ………. Moriyama’s approach included re-photographing images, working without a viewfinder and embracing printing errors. The resulting photographs are blurred, scratched and grainy. By pushing the medium to the limits of legibility Moriyama attempted to go “to the end of photography”. (Moriyama, 2012).

Phaidon’s publication Daido Moriyama gives a series of his images with accompanying explanatory text by Nishii. He quotes Moriyama as saying ‘one of photography’s essential qualities is its amateurism, and another its anonymity’ (Nishii, 2012). The text about each image describes where and when it was taken, and gives some thoughts about what might have been going though Moriyama’s mind, and how the image links in to the style of photography prevalent at the time the image was taken. While these side-notes are fascinating I found that they detracted from the impact of the images as I ended up looking at them from a technical and historical point of view rather than an emotional or aesthetic one. The mass effect of looking at the original photobooks is lost.

I was fascinated by this exhibition as I am interested in Japanese photographers and the marked differences in style from European and American photography although I suspect this is an over-generalisation. Unlike the Tillmans exhibition I found the images full of emotion, warm and sometimes amusing. It felt as though Moriyama was really engaged with his subject, involved rather than simply observing, that he knew the people, in reality as this is street photography, it is likely that many of the images were of strangers.


Comparing the work of two photographers there are multiple similarities: both have a huge oeuvre, both take images of almost anything, from close details of parts of people (I noted very similar images of the back of a man’s neck in the Tillmans exhibition and in Moriyama’s Remix) via more formal portraits to pictures of street rubbish and both produce photobooks as a primary way of showing their work. Tillmans concentrates mainly on colour and Moriyama on monochrome. However, when looking at the images on the same day, and then exploring a wider number of images several days afterward there is a very different feel. Tillmans images seem to be making ‘a point’, often political and usually fascinating while Moriyama’s are simply what he sees, telling an intimate story about a place.


Cumming, L. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017; Eduardo Paolozzi –  review from the chaos of time. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/19/wolfgang-tillmans-2017-review-tate-modern-eduardo-paolozzi-whitechapel-gallery [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Moriyama, D. (2012). Daido Moriyama. [online] Tate. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/display/media-networks/daido-moriyama [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Moriyama, D. (2016). Daido Tokyo. Paris: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Nishii,K. (2012). Daido Moriyama. New York: Phaidon

O’Hagan, S. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘I was hit by a realisation  – all I believed in was threatened’. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/feb/13/wolfgang-tillmans-photographer-interview-tate-modern [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Remy, P. and Moriyama, D. (2012). Daido Moriyama – remix.: Edition Mennour.

Smyth, D. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 opens at London’s Tate Modern. [online] British Journal of Photography. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/wolfgang-tillmans-2017-opens-at-londons-tate-modern/ [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Tate Modern (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans, 2017.

Tate. (2017). Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/wolfgang-tillmans-2017 [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].

Tillmans, W. (2017). home. [online] Tillmans.co.uk. Available at: http://tillmans.co.uk/ [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].


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