“Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth,” writes the author Olga Tokarczuk in her kaleidoscopic novel Flights. Our lives are not a cleanly assembled, linear narrative of cause and effect. Our minds play a constant game of memory telephone, describing the present by comparing new experiences with old ones, bouncing between the past and present while imagining the future. From the outset of his career the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, whose first museum survey in New York, To look without fear, opens at The Museum of Modern Art this September, has consistently questioned and subverted the prevailing conventions of photography, art, genre, subjectivity, and presentation, pioneering new approaches to the medium.

“I see my installations as a reflection of the way I see, the way I perceive or want to perceive my environment,” Tillmans says. Displaying constellations of images in different sizes, formats, and colors, throughout the walls and floors of galleries, he sought to build connections in response to the context of the work and the experience of the viewer as opposed to the prevailing tradition of hanging single, framed, photos consecutively along its white walls. This survey of his work will present iconic photographs alongside rarely seen, but significant bodies of work that emphasize the ways his long-standing concern for social themes and togetherness are linked closely to his constant experimentation and investigation of the medium. Across seven galleries, MoMA will display work from his early days chronicling youth subculture and nightlife in the early 90s to later experiments with darkroom abstraction, video, digital photography, sculptural collaboration, and even his first album of what he calls ‘audio photography.’ “For me,” Tillmans has said, “the photo has always been an object.” In an era where we have gotten conveniently comfortable with accepting the digital image as the final form, Wolfgang Tillmans’s work reminds us how engagement with place and people can be transformational. —AN