Updated: Apr 15
‘I’ve found that portraiture is a good levelling instrument’, reflects the Remscheid-born photographer Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘it always sends me back to square one.’ This sense of the portrait as a window onto the basic intimacies of being up-close with another is plain to see in the thirty ‘Karl’ photographs that were included in the central nervous system series at Maureen Paley in autumn 2013. When Tillmans produced these works he was mid-way through a macro photographic study entitled Neue Welt – new world – that utilised advanced digital technologies to document diverse global territories and communities.
Instead, this series of zoomed-in portraits course through our emotional sensory networks as we get right up against a single man, Karl, at various peripherally urban sites – from Parisian suburbs and Cambridge Heath Road in east London, to the aimless leisure of Zürich’s Seebad Utoquai. It is here, which might suggest through its name a utopian dock of youth, that Karl rests after a swim on a damp white towel and we trace the weaving furrows of veins that protrude and arc across his whiteish forearm. The works of the ‘Karl’ series, which often only feature snapshots of his body, feel at once erotic, joyfully cosmopolitan and open – they are documents of doing in grittily voguish European cites – and are seemingly always closing off from us and the world that the photographs inhabit.
In Leonardo (2013), Tillmans depicts this young man in profile – mature for twenty-five, spry for thirty – gesturing with his delicate index finger to an unnameable part of his head just behind the ear which marks the terminated gradation of his razed hairline. We are close yet separate; the intended communication of the figure’s signal lost on us. The spot-lighting from behind illuminates the pale curvature of the sitter’s neck, the contoured bridges of half-clenched fingers and, most of all, that very focal point we are called to inspect. Much of the rest of the portrait – the eyes, nose, and mouth – are in shadow. Leonardo feels strangely theatrically staged, like a mimed demonstration of feeling, and the suggestively mononymous title of the portrait might allude to the Renaissance polymath, artist, and anatomist who both researched the bodily proportions of the male form and depicted it through portraiture. But is also clear that we are intruding. We are called as an accidental audience into this profound confidence like an adolescent man shyly asking a near-stranger to examine a place of discomfort in public.
The portrait’s dramatic lighting and deliberate gesture recalls the chiaroscuro compositions of the Renaissance, in which solidity of form is best achieved by the light falling against it. Of course, the startling contrasts of chiaroscuro are common to black and white and low-key photography, but more is at stake for Tillmans here. ‘Making a portrait is a fundamental artistic act, and the process is a very direct human exchange’, Tillmans said. ‘The dynamics of vulnerability, exposure, embarrassment, and honesty do not change, ever.’ The Renaissance profile convention tended to facilitate our gaze on a seemingly passive other, caught somewhere between solitude and coyly encouraging the knowing onlooker beyond. Whereas, in Leonardo, the viewer is called to attend to the sitter’s vulnerability – not only by the instructional finger but by the eyes, barely legible and nearly totally in darkness, that imploringly look out to us from their nervous corner. Tillmans makes us complicit in the bonds of disclosure and intimacy, vulnerability and exposure, that necessitate the face-to-face encounter with confidant and stranger alike.
The epigraph to central nervous system is a fragment from JG Ballard’s prose-poem ‘What I Believe’, in which he defended his belief ‘in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.’ Infusing this faith in his own work, Tillmans’ ‘Karl’ portraits are tender studies of human vulnerability and the unspoken languages that continue to call, and require, us to take attend to the other.
By Matthew Holman.
 Wolfgang Tillmans in 2001, central nervous system press release, courtesy Maureen Paley.
 JG Ballard, ‘What I Believe’, Interzone, #8, Summer 1984. A prose poem, originally published in French in Science Fiction #1 (ed. Daniel Riche) in January 1984.