1x1 ON WOLFGANG TILLMANS: TO LOOK WITHOUT FEAR
Edinburgh builders, a, 1987
A dark curtain hangs over the left third of Edinburgh builders, a, as if it had been pulled away from the window to reveal this scene: outside, scaffolding hugs a building with six of its own windows, and two workers stand one above the other on the lowest visible platforms. They seem to be in the process of layering more sticks to fill out the construction frame: the lower figure, crouching slightly, holds a stick upright, perhaps handing it to or taking it from the bending figure above. The interaction is practical but reads as intimate, given the builders’ proximity, the verticality of that stick, the vulnerability of the upper figure, the ambiguity caused by the striations in the photocopied image, and the voyeuristic feeling induced by the dark curtain.
Hung on the first wall of Wolfgang Tillmans’s MoMA exhibition, Edinburgh builders, a is among the earliest works included in the show. In fact, Tillmans made this image before he himself owned a camera.1 He took it with his mother’s camera, just before he turned twenty, and printed it as a laser photocopy as part of his early experiments with that device. It lays the groundwork for some of his ongoing material and thematic interests: interruptions of structures, machinic impositions on images, representations verging on abstractions, private scenes made public, and queer re-readings of bodily relations. (The last is most evident in his project Soldiers: The Nineties, Installation V [1999/2022], where Tillmans blew up newspaper images of men in camouflage hugging or smiling together on the frontlines.)
That we should attend to both this image’s subject (a potentially homoerotic scene) and surface (the photocopier’s gingham-like mark-making) is emphasized by the companion images Tillmans has produced from it. Installed alongside the image at MoMA is Edinburgh builders, b, another photocopy zoomed in so that the two figures occupy most of the frame and the cross-hatching of the ink echoes the intersecting elements of the scaffolding. Not on view are Edinburgh builders, c—which zooms out from a to show more of the window frame of Tillmans’s home, emphasizing the photographer’s position relative to the figures and offering a clearer view of a similarly removed third builder standing above and to the right of the central duo—and Edinburgh builders, d, which zooms further in from b to focus on the dark head and muscular arms of the crouching worker, and which might seem quite abstract if one hadn’t seen the other images first.
Later in the show, one might think back to Edinburgh builders, a after encountering Silver 89 (2011) and Silver 152 (2013), both of which feature rows and columns of variegated grayscale streaks. These works are part of a series Tillmans started in the 1990s by running photo paper through a processing machine, a cleaning technique turned compositional tool, and then enlarging the resulting chemical traces.2 But that exercise seems more formal, absent the stakes of interrupting or leaving traces on the surface of the photo. The Edinburgh builders pictures conjure a larger scene: one could imagine young Tillmans trying to get a closer look but further obfuscating his view with his breath on the glass. The close-ups convey both frustration and desire—to see, to feel, to know, to capture.