Wolfgang Tillmans at JFK, 1998
Touring Wolfgang Tillmans’s magisterial exhibition at MoMA, I was delighted to encounter his portrait of director John Waters, whom he photographed for the January 1997 cover of Index Magazine, of which I was the publisher. We had asked the then-twenty-eight-year-old Tillmans to shoot the first year of Index covers, sensing that his paradigm-changing approach to photography would help us to convey the unpretentious authenticity we sought to capture in the interviews and portrait photographs of Index.
The youthful Wolfgang was already someone who attracted our respect and admiration. His approach to his work was even then imbued with his unique all-embracing and compassionate sensibility that has enabled him to produce a body of work with deeply-felt humanitarian ethics for three decades. This integrity is at the heart of the tremendous attraction that so many people around the world feel for his work.
Wolfgang was both extraordinarily generous, willing to jump on a plane from London to do a photograph for us in New York. At the same time, he was certain of his vision, insisting that he, not the editors, make the final selection of the photo chosen for each magazine cover.
Of course, if you’re publishing a small independent magazine, there will always be funny stories to tell. In 1998, Wolfgang agreed to come to New York for a week in order to photograph Bianca Jagger for our June cover. We had set up an appointment with Bianca to do the shoot a day or two after Wolfgang arrived, but Bianca canceled the shoot and then canceled again and again … and again. Finally, I called Bianca and told her that we were desperate to get her for our cover, Wolfgang was about to return to London, and we had to get her photo before he left.
Bianca replied that this would be absolutely impossible. She explained that she was about to get in a car to JFK to fly to India on a humanitarian mission. In despair, we called Wolfgang and told him the bad news. To our astonishment, he immediately volunteered to jump on the train-to-the-plane to Kennedy to intercept the elusive Ms. Jagger before she disappeared. Back at the office, we waited anxiously as the minutes ticked by, doubting that Tillmans on the train could beat Bianca in her car to the airport.
But he did. He caught up with Bianca at the British Airways first-class counter. Wolfgang called her name and released the shutter just as she turned her skeptical gaze in his direction. The photograph is one of Wolfgang’s lesser-known masterpieces. It has the psychological and spatial complexity of a great Caravaggio painting. Bianca is layered between three men. In the foreground, a dark-gloved white male luggage-handler looks back at her. Juxtaposed directly to the right behind her face is a red-haired check-in clerk with his neat moustache and wire-rimmed glasses. Further back, cropped against the left edge of the frame, another baggage handler, a young Black man, turns to look at her. Against all odds, Wolfgang succeeds in capturing the complex interplay of bodies that we all encounter in the chaos of airports, nightclubs, hospitals, and other public spaces.