1x1 ON WOLFGANG TILLMANS: TO LOOK WITHOUT FEAR
Icestorm is the signal work of the Tillmans retrospective at MoMA. It’s the cover of the catalogue and a cropped version comes up on MoMA’s splash page for the exhibition. I selected it because Icestorm radically combines traditional darkroom techniques and post-darkroom experimental processes that are rarely seen in photography.
Icestorm depicts a row of anemic looking shrubs growing in a liminal space—perhaps in front of a concrete wall. The overall color is sulfurous. (Tillmans frequently photographs non-heroic, anti-sublime “still lifes” such as this.) Bunched at the top of the image are clusters of red granules that don’t seem to belong in the photograph. I imagine that Tillmans made a C-print of the shrubs, dampened it, and then sprinkled granules of some sort of a chemical on the print. In this scenario the red granules turned the print its sickly yellow cast. Tillmans then dried the print, scanned it, and produced it as the inkjet we see in the show. Since Tillmans is reluctant to talk about darkroom craft, what follows is all conjecture.
Recently I read that a developed and fixed C-print, like the original print of Icestorm, could be made light sensitive again by combining a strong oxidizing agent such as potassium permanganate with color developer on the print. This chemical soup “redevelops” the emulsion and creates new colors. The “image” is made with chemistry, not light, and is commonly called a “chemigram.” I suspect that Icestorm results from this process, where Tillmans sprinkled potassium permanganate crystals on a print in a shallow tray of color developer, producing the red splotches and the overall yellow coloration.
Icestorm, if I’m correct, is one of a small group of experimental chemigrams Tillmans created in the early 2000s. In Icestorm Tillmans might have imagined a color photography created with just chemical means—a photograph made without light or optics. And what a beautiful idea that would be! But, however tantalizing the color chemigram process appears from the dry side of the darkroom, I know from experience how difficult it is to control permanganate and developer.
If Icestorm was a “one off” or a small group of experimental works, it’s important to remember that the print was developed twice, once in the color darkroom and then a second time under room lights in a chemical bath. Kaja Silverman, in The Miracle of Analogy, suggests that photographs never stop developing. With each new viewer, with every generation, photographs evolve and develop new meanings. In Icestorm, and in other experimental works, Tillmans both literalizes Silverman’s insight and shows us that false starts and experiments are worthy of our aesthetic attention. Icestorm, then, deserves all the second looks it gets.