Words by:

In the weeks leading up to UK’s EU referendum, it’s likely that you encountered one or more of Wolfgang Tillmans’ contributions to the Remain campaign. In a short space of time his posters, adorned with straightforward declarations about the benefits of the European Union and the advisability of remaining a part of it, achieved a kind of ubiquity across art schools, cafes and galleries.

Likewise, his t-shirts will in all probability have popped up on your Instagram feed: Daniel Craig has one, and so do I. In a short space of time, the iconic photographer became the art world’s voice of Remain: other artists may have felt as strongly, but none put nearly as much effort into persuading the UK that we shouldn’t leave as he did. The energy expended in the campaign was not spare. The recent emergence of his political voice, he tells me, didn’t happen to coincide with a career lull. It wasn’t “to fill a gap.” In fact, with a major Tate exhibition scheduled for early next year, an ongoing exhibition at his London gallery, Maureen Paley, and an EP to be released, the added workload – if nothing else – was a testament to the strength of his belief in the European Union.

“There are now forces at work in the world that hadn’t really been so vocal,” he tells me in his studio. “I guess they’ve been around, they’re always there, that sort of people of course exist – but they didn’t have the upper hand.” For the last 70 years in Europe that’s been the truth. The results of Friday, 24 June – Independence Day to some, a day of numbing shock to others – may illustrate a shift away from that.

It remains to be seen. There were compelling liberal arguments for Brexit, but the bile spewed subsequently suggests that they’re unlikely to find a voice, that the nasty rhetoric: “Send ‘em back,” was what swung it – that now the so-called ‘undemocratic’ neoliberal superstructure of the EU actually doesn’t look that bad, after all. As Tillmans observes in a moment of what seems to be characteristic pragmatism, “the EU didn’t set out to be a neoliberal force, it only adapted to the reality in the world.”

I meet Tillmans a week before the referendum, in his studio behind a Georgian terraced house in the nicest bit of Central London, south of Islington and west of Shoreditch. As he leads me to the large open room, accessible through a courtyard, downstairs, the surroundings are instantly familiar from their recurrence in his photos.

Another courtyard opens out of the right-hand side of the studio. Henry Gorse, our photographer, opens the French windows and inspects it. One of Tillmans’ assistants asks if we’ve seen “that photo of a weed” – apparently it was shot out there.

Along the left wall the campaign posters are arranged, asserting “No man is an island/No country by itself.” and “For 60 years the EU has been the foundation of peace between neighbours/After centuries of bloodshed.”

Tubes filled with them, ready for distribution, are stacked at the back of the studio; tables piled with t-shirts ready to be couriered – these I think to Birmingham. And then elsewhere sit plants, and more plants, a picture of a seal pup balanced on a radiator, and a red towel hanging over another. The shifting quality of light passing through the room’s skylights marks the passage of time. So does the ashtray, which fills up with the butts of Gauloises. Halfway through our conversation it becomes necessary to pause, go outside and take pictures before the sun goes completely down.

Throughout his career, Tillmans has documented spaces precisely like this: artists’ living quarters; incidental little reminders of life in the form of window boxes and orange peel, or rumpled clothes. His visual language is so assertive, and so uniquely his, that it has come to inform a generation of photographers. Having made his name taking pictures that did rather more than the usual for i-D in the 90s, he became the first non-British national to win the Turner Prize in 2000.

“Photography has this incredibly powerful ability to make something tangible – a moment in life that then tells a greater truth”

His career has run concurrently with a shift in the currency of images so profound it has become the subject of innumerable exhibitions itself. Within the boundaries of this historical democratisation of images, where photography has become something free and instant, with many platforms for dissemination, it’s difficult to understate Tillmans’ influence.

In the introduction to a 2002 survey of his work, critic Jan Verwoert describes how Tillmans’ work has never been exclusive to the gallery; his practice spans installation, books and pop-culture outlets. Through this postmodern ubiquity, Tillmans’ visual language has seeped into culture; tasteful photographs of plants in front of a white background have informed not only myriad Instagram posts but studio-chic interior design as well. Ditto his photos from nights out, friends posing for snaps, the insouciant and frank gaze often elicited by the artist has dictated how people look into the camera, influenced what they wear and where they go.

In this way, Tillmans has influenced more than just a way of taking pictures – his impact on a generation’s way of seeing has resonated down the line, snowballed with the elevation of his kind of 90s counterculture to a contemporary art-school mainstream. The subsequent feeling, sitting in his studio surrounded by potential photos, is a kind of inverse uncanny: a familiarity in strange surroundings.

One reason for the strength of Tillmans’ images lies in their honesty. Whether they document a social scene, a moment with a lover, a sophisticated telescope, or an Ethiopian market scene, Tillmans engages with his subjects directly and subjectively. There is no attempt to present anything dispassionately, but through the implicit acknowledgment of his own presence as photographer, decision maker, and documenter, he truthfully presents his subjective view.

A political example of this can be found in his new show at Maureen Paley. The ground floor is dominated by a powerful image of the Atlantic, weighty and angry and roiling. Elsewhere in the room is an image of a fragment of a medical procedure, tubes carrying blood outside the body. In a corner is a cluster of the sort for which he has become known: pictures arranged, printed to different sizes. These installations invite narrative reading, but also confound it. Their logic is not linear, but rather rhizomatic. In this sense they broadly reflect his practice. He has motifs or subjects to which he returns to and pursues outwards, over time.

In this instance, in the corner on the ground floor, two pictures stand out. An image of a vandalised Spanish ATM, an act of civil disobedience, seems to reflect approbation on the part of the artist towards a protest directly leveled at the institutions that a cash machine represents. Nearby sits a shot from within – and of – the unattainable luxury of a business-class flight.

“A general strategy that I employ is to acknowledge my own entanglement of the world that I’m in,” Tillmans says of the obvious tensions on display and the demands of honesty within his work. “I find it more honest and more productive to work with the reality than to either break under the weight of inequality, or pretend I’m not part of the elite.” The fallibility admitted by presenting these two arguably conflicting viewpoints, the vulnerability it exposes, itself expresses the trustworthiness of Tillmans’ camera: that he is willing to expose himself to criticism protects him from it, expands the faith we can put in his integrity and, by extension, images.

Tillmans is not a documentary photographer. Rather, as argued above, he truthfully presents his experience – even going so far as to synthesise moments in order to present them truthfully. An iconic 1992 photo, Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees, shows a woman and man, in raincoats and nothing else, perched at different levels on the bough of a tree.

“Those are my completely staged scenarios that are made, intended, to look like they could happen,” Tillmans tells me. “There are gradations between worlds that I make, and that I record. And they are not mutually exclusive.” The artifice of the situation has no effect on the truth of the image – the image retains its power regardless of the circumstances of nude Lutz and Alex’s arrival up that tree. The formal or conceptual ways in which Tillmans seeks to express a truth in his pictures seem to circle back, at least in part, to a fundamental respect for the power of photography as a medium.

Before the shoot, we discuss the referendum at some length. It is unsurprising that politics casts a shadow over how we talk about his work, and afterward it feels like we return to a similar point, surrounding the truth. Not long after I arrive we discuss Ukip’s now notorious “Breaking Point” poster, wheeled out in support of the Leave campaign, which exploited the tide of human misery in a queue of refugees. We talk about the ethics of a photographer who’d allow his picture to be used like that, although it later becomes clear (in a Guardian article) that he had nothing to do with its repurposing. Through its formal straightforwardness, lack of stylistic affectation and ambition to present the facts as boldly as possible, the picture leaves itself open to manipulation; it is loaded with narrative potential, but in its neutrality it also risks misrepresentation – as the Leave campaign proved, the content can be totally subverted by context. A few callous and careful lines turn it from a sad but hopeful convoy to an invading army – a river, swarm, flood. Something bad and biblical; a cause to fight against.

Tillmans’ unique visual style, quite apart from giving his works texture and granting them ‘art’ status, uses subjectivity as leverage against recontextualisation. He precludes the possibility of his pictures’ misrepresentation by the unscrupulous through their scrupulous precision. “It’s not an endless Instagram feed, my work. It’s very, very particular,” he explains.

“Photography has this incredibly powerful ability to make something tangible, a moment in life that then tells a greater truth – that the world would be poorer, or at least culture would be poorer if that [truth] wasn’t added into the cultural dialogue.”

He is at the same time both pragmatic and realistic – he acknowledges the limits of things, from art to the EU, to truth. “People claiming truth, and they are not true – but on the other hand, of course, I’m not saying I know them all… But then there are truths – the Earth is a globe. Certain truths I want to be absolutist. And others we have to treat with a great sense of relativism, no?”

A week after our initial conversation, and the referendum result is out. A blow for the reasonable and pragmatic, a win for the heavy handed whose truths seemed convenient, and were rung out at the right pitch. Relativism is out, it would seem, for the nation when it comes to engaging the ‘truths’ of the Leave campaigners. Over email, Tillmans offered his comment, which is quoted in full below.

“I guess what we feel now, the sense of loss, is the feeling of having arrived in a new era after 25 years of supposed absence of ideology. An era where a completely irrational proposal can win 52% in a major country. It does not bode well for how the West will deal with the real issues of the future. 1.5 million refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have spooked 508 million Europeans so badly, they are willing to consider tearing up their unity. That Everyone for Themselves is the answer to our problems, is hard to stomach. We must make those who played a decisive role in this theatre of propaganda take responsibility. The ever so balanced sounding Labour MP Gisela Stuart, who originated the idea of the 350m pounds to be spent every week on the NHS, and her failure to rebuke her campaign fellows for twisting her words into an insane battle cry. The editors of The Sun, The Daily Hate Mail, The Telegraph, Sky News for spreading irresponsible lies and fabrications. Their paintings of a golden future outside of Europe drove millions to vote Leave. They knew that they were letting a racist genie out of a bottle. Boycott them, and everything they do. Anybody who had the slightest involvement with this toxic Leave campaign should be held responsible for the claims they can’t deliver anyway; for sending Britain and, for that matter, the special relationship with the US, down the gutter. Ask them ‘Why on earth did you do this?’”

Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition runs at Maureen Paley, London, until 31 July. His Tate Modern exhibition will run from 15 February – 11 June 2017