On the Cover: Wolfgang Tillmans Guest Edits Aperture's "Spirituality" Issue
“At this time I feel a strong need for the affirmation of spirit in photography in published form,” Minor White wrote to a colleague in 1966. “Aperture is the only place it can possibly be published at this time. Too bad for photography but that is the way it is.” A photographer and influential educator, White also cofounded this magazine and served as its editor from 1952 to 1976. His approach to seeing and making images was deeply informed by a belief in the possibilities of transcendence, by a longing for the metaphysical. More than four decades on, when we asked Wolfgang Tillmans to guest edit an issue, he proposed a theme resonant with this history. “I immediately knew that it should be spirituality,” he says, “because I strongly sense that the political shifts in Western society in the last ten years stem from a lack of meaning in the capitalist world.”
Throughout his work, Tillmans has examined the modes and messages of photography. His vision is capacious. He has trained his endlessly curious and often-loving gaze on everything from blue jeans splayed over a railing and fruit arranged on a light-splashed windowsill to friends and lovers, a Shaker community in Maine, the Concorde gliding across the sky, and astronomical phenomena. His large-scale abstractions delight in color, pattern, and the chemical foundations of the medium. This inclusive way of seeing unfolds in dynamic constellations of pictures in his self-described “multi-vectored” gallery and museum installations. Small, framed images hang beside large, bull-clipped prints. His varied processes encompass inkjet prints, photocopies, and tear sheets from magazines—a reminder that Tillmans often worked with influential music and style publications, like i-D, in the 1990s. “There is no definite or permanent answer in photography,” he has said. “I like the way it’s constantly in flux.” But what is never in flux is the discipline, precision, and ethic of care Tillmans brings to his art.
Recently, that care has extended to activist work around political crises unfolding in Europe: migration, Brexit, the uncertain future of the European Union. As guest editor, rather than consider spiritual awareness as an inward-looking exercise of self-betterment, or as a feature of organized, hierarchical religion, Tillmans poses the questions: How is human connection a form of spiritual engagement? And what is the relationship between spirituality and solidarity? The answers take many forms—protests in Hong Kong, dance floors in London, or spiritual healing in Johannesburg. In the hours following the release of the first-ever image of a black hole, a billion people shared the astounding picture that reminds us of the staggering scale of the universe, and of our own fragility, our finitude, our need to make meaning through experience. “Solidarity,” Olivia Laing writes in this issue, “is founded on the notion that what connects us is more powerful than what keeps us apart.”