What Makes a Picture a Picture?

Technology has made it so everyone can be a photographer, but that means it is even more difficult to make an iconic photograph. Photo School is a new monthly column that will teach you all the things you need to know about photography, without the hassle of having to attend art school. Because who needs an MFA?

'Nachtstilleben (Night Still Life),' 2011 (negative); 2013 (print). Wolfgang Tillmans, German (active London), born 1968. Chromogenic print, Image and sheet: 53 1/8 × 79 3/4 inches (134.9 × 202.6 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Until recently I didn’t know much about Wolfgang Tillmans’s work, but I knew he was supposed to be really great. In art school I had only noticed a few Tillmans photos of European club culture, and I’m ashamed to admit that I never really “got it,” though many of my peers seriously worshipped him. Luckily, there’s a show currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) geared toward introducing Tillmans’s work to a broad audience who, like me, may not immediately gravitate toward it. 

Who better to fill this embarrassing gap in my photography knowledge than Nathaniel M. Stein, Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the PMA? Stein came up with the idea for the show, titled In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans, on his first day working at the Museum, after he noticed and fell in love with a recently acquired still life while touring the storage facilities. The exhibition positions that monumental photograph, Nachtstileben (Night Still Life), as a hub onto which pictures by other artists from the PMA’s permanent collection are connected, in addition to other works by Tillmans on loan from Andrea Rosen, his first New York gallery. Stein and I walked around the exhibition, from piece to piece, and as the connections became clear to me, I started to understand what all the fuss is about.

VICE: So, the show started with this picture (above) called Nachtstilleben (Night Still Life). It was acquired by the museum last year?
Nathaniel M. Stein:
 Last year, 2013, so we are very excited about it. It was the first work by Tillmans in the collection. He obviously is a massively important contemporary photographer, but for some of our core photography audience, this is something that may seem a little bit outside the established aesthetic, a little bit challenging in some ways. So, part of the project for us is to bridge why we as curators think this is exciting and fantastic, while our audience on first glance might be like, “What?” The point of the exhibition is to get the photograph out there, to get people’s eyeballs on it, but also to talk about what Tillmans is about, by looking at things from the collection in connection to ideas that come out of his work. Beyond the fact that it’s just a drop-dead amazing photograph, there’s a lot going on. I actually think Wolfgang Tillmans is some sort of a genius, like on an intellectual level, so there’s a lot going on there intellectually.

Installation view of ‘In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Why do you think Tillmans may be hard for people to access at first?
All the reactions people have to this picture can be used as entryways into understanding it. People could look at the photographs and say, “Oh that’s a gigantic snapshot”—meaning that they are perceiving that there is something going on in the way the aesthetic of the picture works, the way that it is apparently organized that’s different than what they are used to seeing in an art museum as a photograph. They also may have the reaction that it’s just a bunch of junk, not conventionally beautiful subjects of artwork. And the both of those things are interesting ways to start a critique.

Actually, there are references to a language of still life symbolism all over that picture. Almost all of the objects in the picture have resonance with traditional still-life symbolism.

You mean like still lives in painting?
Totally. Like batteries, a scale, gold—all just modern versions of very old still-life symbols. The compositional components of the picture are absolutely jaw-dropping. I mean, there’s this crazy reference to the classical triangular composition, there’s also these really amazing shifting planes. It’s very stark, and bold. Then it becomes a question about why. This is one of the things Tillmans pushes us to do, to think about how this has become a picture. Does it become a picture because we have some idea that he carefully arranged all of this stuff and put it together in this composition? Can it rise to the level of being a picture if what he’s done is simply to recognize this in the world? Because I think that is probably more what happened here. 

What is it that makes fragments of the world coalesce into something that counts as a picture? He’s challenging us to think about that. 

Installation view of ‘In Dialogue: Wolfgang Tillmans’ at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


I recently collaborated with @mfaboston for a mani and I couldn’t help but be inspired by Under the Wave off Kanagawa, also known as the Great Wave, by Katsushika Hokusai.

The tough thing about being inspired by a great work of art is that you just have to cross your fingers and hope you do it justice!! I admire and love this painting so much! ❤️ The @mfaboston is going to have a Hokusai exhibit next year! I can’t wait to see it!! 🌊

I used Orly Instant Artist water-based paints for this manicure! #boston #nailart #ninanailedit

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, Gauguin - The MFA

I walked around the corner of the gallery and there it was: this painting. The painting painted during Gauguin’s Tahiti period, when he went to do art for art’s sake, when he painted an entire hut, lost to time, when he lost his mind, when he went broke…it’s all encapsulated here, in this painting, the sufferings and tribulations and lives of the people he knew there. So astonishing.

In the past year, my first in a prestigious Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, I have often felt conspicuous as a writer of color. I have felt a responsibility to speak up when race is discussed, but I have also resented this responsibility. Lately, I have found myself burying my head. It bothers me to no end that the pressure is beating me, and yet it is.

Like many writers of color, I read Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC” on the New Yorker blog, and identified with his anger and sadness at the loss of voices of color to the “white straight male” default of the writing workshop — a group of writers gathering to critique one another’s work. I have had “good” and “bad” workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.

—  Matthew Salesses, When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself, NPR, July 20, 2014
Lots of things get in the way of art. Discouragement is at the top of the list, along with the need to earn money and the birth of children. It’s hard to tell, when you’re new at writing, whether you might be foolish to continue to pursue the dream, or whether the more foolish choice would be to put that dream to bed. Luck plays a role, too, as it does in every other aspect of life. Continuing to find a place for art in one’s life is a continual challenge.
—  The Rumpus Interview with Julie Schumacher, author of Dear Committee Members