Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans: Concorde Series

Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is shut the fuck up. Which is what I’m going to do. This post was always going to be about the strange beauty and depth of these photographs, not my rantings about them. But the clincher was when I came across words far better than mine could have ever been.

In a short piece published in 2003 in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper, Wolfgang Tillmans wrote about the photographs himself. The context, why he took them, and what the Concorde meant to him. I’ve pasted the full text in this post, below. The only words of mine required are a very brief introduction of Tillmans and then it’s all him, in his own words.

Tillmans was born in Germany in 1968 but spent a great deal of his life in England. He was the first Non-Brit to win the Tate’s Turner Prize. He has also won the Hasselblad Award. Over the decades, his reputation has only grown and he is scheduled to have a major retrospective at MOMA in 2021.

CONCORDE was completed in 1997. The small, but excellent, book of the images is still available on Amazon. This is the link.

As promised, I will now shut up. All words hereafter are the photographer’s own. And he should know a whole lot more about these photos than any idiot with a blog.

From The Guardian, Oct 17, 2003

Everyone knows that Concorde was always an anti-social instrument, and environmentally unsustainable – and yet it somehow still carries sympathy. I think the sympathy has more to do with the idea, and the shape of it, the outside of it. And so, for my photographs, it was important to me only to focus on that utopian idea, not the idea of luxury and privileged access. It was important not to contact British Airways, or Heathrow airport, to get special permission – the whole point of the project was about this democratic symbol in the sky, something on which we can all project our dreams for a better future through technology. The dream that one day everything might be like this.

In the 60s, people extended their imaginations well beyond the limits of what seemed reasonable – an idea, I think, that has been taken away from later generations like mine, raised in the 70s and afterwards. This explains the sentimental element in my work: I realised that Concorde was, in a sense, the only remaining bridge from now to an age when there was a completely different optimism about the future. I had been aware of Concorde ever since I was a boy growing up in the Rhineland in Germany, and I had always instinctively recognised such utopian symbols as meaningful for me. But many utopian objects from that time seem rather cheesy now. Concorde is the only one that still has the same attraction.

So in the spring of 1997, for a few weeks, I became a planespotter. It was a fascinating thing, standing under the flypass near the perimeter fence of Heathrow, or in Richmond or Clapham, watching the very distant dot in the sky as it approached, and trying to make out: is it Concorde? Or just an ordinary plane? I had a particular problem with the McDonnell-Douglas MD80s: from afar, they look similarly back-heavy. But it was beautiful to spend hours looking up in the sky – I’ve loved the sky since childhood – waiting for it to happen, and then it would happen, and then you just had to go for it.

The landings are rather gentle. But the takeoff was so fast and frightening I just kept my finger on the motor-winder button and shot as fast as I could. The noise made you want to fall to the ground.

This, of course, was before the crash: Concorde still seemed like a perfect machine that would go on for ever – the original space-age item, still running as scheduled, as planned, into infinity. It never delivered on its democratic promise. But I think that shows how the appeal of an idea can be stronger than its actual usefulness. And the fact that the concept was fundamentally flawed makes it very human.