Wolfgang Tillmans’ Fresh Perspective on Architecture Photography

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

Anyone can stand on the sidewalk and take a picture of a bridge with their iPhone — search #architecture on Instagram and you’ll get millions of results of varying quality. What separates a follow-worthy photographer from an amateur is his or her ability to make familiar scenes meaningful, elevating a snapshot into cultural commentary.

Wolfgang Tillmans strategically captures what the eye regularly sees to reveal the relationship between humans and architecture’s most basic elements. His seemingly straightforward approach is anything but, imbuing these fundamental constructions with a sense of the profoundness that transcends the mundane.

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last year’s Venice Biennale’s Central Pavilion, “Elements of Architecture,” showcased the ways in which these elements — the ceiling, wall, ramp and toilet — make up the greater architecture we experience daily. On view now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tillmans’ “Book for Architects” is a two-channel video installation of 450 still photographs, taken in 37 countries over ten years, that debuted in the pavilion last June. The images are projected onto black perpendicular walls in a serenely darkened exhibition hall, giving the viewer a chance to reflect on the functions of the juxtaposed architectural features shown in each loop.

Tillmans, 47, is widely recognized for his portraits and abstract images. The German-born artist was both the first photographer and the first non-English recipient of the Tate Modern’s Turner Prize in 2000.

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Book for Architects” reveals a lesser-known side of his oeuvre. The photos in this series show everything from iconic structures like the Flatiron Building to striking skylines to decaying houses with cardboard covering empty windows. Shot with a standard lens rather than the popular tilt-shift lens that emphasizes perspective in architectural photography, his images aren’t glamorous; nor are they perfectly composed. But they do raise the thought-provoking question of just how much of our environment is constructed?

These elements may include the familiar repetition of red bathroom tile to a swirling staircase to snaking pipe lines. Tillmans’ says he looks at architecture with a “warm eye,” meaning he is open-minded and allows himself to be affected by his relationship with his surroundings.

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The installation made a strong impression on Beatrice Galilee when she saw it in Venice last summer. Appointed as the Met’s first Daniel Brodsky Associate Curator of Architecture and Design last spring, she felt that it resonated on a global scale. “Bringing [the show] to a major encyclopedic institution such as the Met, which covers over 5,000 years of artistic practice, gives the work a radically new context and brings a range of views different from those who typically tend to attend architecture exhibitions.”

Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now, New Yorkers and tourists alike can contemplate Tillmans’ various elements of architecture and hopefully begin to see their own world differently. “People tend to get a little mesmerized by it and stay for a while,” Galilee said of the show. “It’s a truly original experience to see architecture through Wolfgang’s eyes and the sequencing of images together create a strike work of art whose focus is undoubtedly architectural, but also extends to political, sociological, and anthropological interests.”

The show is 40 minutes long and is located in Gallery 919 of the Modern and Contemporary Art wing, on display through July 5.