The Cars.
Wolfgang Tillmans
Walther König

Photobook Review

Published by Photomonitor
September 2021.

©  Wolfgang Tillmans. Walther Koenig Books, 2015.

Of all the everyday technologies that could likely baffle, startle or puzzle intelligent life beyond Earth, cars seem the most likely to be able to generate genuine intrigue. Cars, by their very nature, make up such an essential part of day-to-day life, existing in every country and continent the world over, so much so that they’re seldom given a second thought as far as their technological magnitude, the power of their design and even their place as socio-political beacons. Cars are indeed beasts— poised, primed and subservient, reliant on humans for being fed, watered and maintained; their oily engines, innumerable pipes and networks of electrical wires, not unlike the vital organs, guts and capillaries of the most loyal working animal. They are microclimates, in which owners are granted the temporary illusions of invincibility, immortality and empowerment. They are personal combustion engines, ones taken for granted, even more so in a world where visiting the Earth's atmosphere in the name of excursion is a possibility. So with all of this in mind, how could one accurately portray cars in and of themselves, in a way that not only encompassed these points, but did so with a universal perspective free of bias, slant or agenda? Wolfgang Tillmans’ monograph, The Cars rose to such a challenge and indeed succeeded, breaking both cultural barriers and artistic genres in the process.

With the concept of being a car owner existing as one of the most widely enjoyed liberties of the modern world, Tillmans seeks to document this phenomenon by way of a universal human perspective, showcasing images from the likes of villages, towns and cities the world over— busy London high-streets, sprawling Emirate intersections, busy Indian car garages are all paired amongst one another smoothly. Romantic, dusky landscapes, sit beside desert-filled arid sunny ones and futuristic, solemn inner-city scenes, awash with bright artificial lights from tunnels and parking lots, heavy with the futuristic connotations of the most cynical Cyberpunk films. Fierce-looking, brand-new Lamborghinis sit menacingly alongside docile Fiat’s, hard-working Suzukis, nondescript Skodas and mysterious Lifans. Yet, Tillmans goes beyond just pretty photographs of vehicles and their owners by analyzing these machines with a near scientific meticulousness. For the artist, the ergonomics of these cars across their various country-wide markets; specific details such as their headlight designs, colours, dimensions and popularities all serve not only as tells of manufacturing consciousnesses, but of extended human ones— who do we seek to be when we are seen in these vehicles? How dominant or subservient do we wish to be perceived on the road when we are, say, reversing out of a parking space, or dropping our spouse off at work? Our personalities— our wants, needs and desires shape cars in every single way, with Tillmans’ chronicling of such a wide and indiscriminate range of them, demonstrating this rather curiously; his staple, polished, editorial approach to image-making, narrowing the visual gulf between otherwise opposing photographic styles.

©  Wolfgang Tillmans. Walther Koenig Books, 2015.

The publication itself, published by Walther König, is as sleek and satisfying as the images seen across its one hundred and twenty eight pages. The fluidity of heavy, glossy paper stock from cover to content, not only enhances his trademark take on fine-art photography, but almost allows it to potentially transcend a mere monograph; a car brochure, an automotive magazine or even a car manual serve as appropriate potential doppelgängers for the resulting photobook, its moderate typeface, sharp, succinct and formal, with a small f. The only discernible, potential critique comes at the hands of the sheer volume and range of angles (literally and metaphorically) of which the overall edit is made up of; some images seem misplaced at first, until slowly the minuscule blot of a vehicle can be seen in the distance, or the vantage point presented slowly reveals itself to be that from a backseat. Yet it is this same breadth of perspectives that helps to paint a picture of car ownership that is not only varied and valid, but intricate, poetic, sympathetic and somewhat romantic. We are shown unidealised slices of fleeting lives, lived freely the word over; people shopping, cruising, socialising and celebrating amongst their trusted mechanical companions. We are shown busted bumpers, flaccid airbags, tape-mended light sockets and even crashes— much like trained working animals, cars are finite and fallible, prone to failure and able to serve us as long as they can be mended and operated upon successfully. Then there are the visual imperfections: interrupted photographs, off-kilter shots and exaggerated crops, often giving little context to the snippet of impressive technology within the image, glistening and agonisingly pristine.

Much like the most curious of extraterrestrials, the artist's images often read as if spying on these machines, with an undying thirst to know more about them, compulsively documenting their entirety in order to solve some of the bigger existential questions. Why, as dangerous as we know them to be, do we still desire them? Why as environmentally destructive as we’re shown them to be, do we still revere them? With each snapshot, close or distant, Tillmans seems to answer by relearning, almost as if stockpiling technological data for a post-human future.