A portrait of the artist as seen through his own words and actions, If One Thing Matters: A Film About Wolfgang Tillmans stays close to its subject, following the Turner-prize winning photographer at work (in the studio, curating exhibitions) and at play (dancing in London’s discotheques)—though mostly at work. Director Heiko Kalmbach’s camera remains pretty well fixed on Tillmans throughout the film and, with the notable exceptions of a school teacher explaining the photographer’s oeuvre to an indifferent class of field trippers and an oh-so-brief interview with one of the artist’s assistants, leaves Tillmans himself to explicate his work—or not—as he sees fit.
While wisely eschewing questions of direct interpretation (he clams up when an interviewer asks him to define the meaning of a particular picture), Tillmans outlines a fascinating, if partial, philosophy of his work. What interests him in the photographer’s art is the alchemy of the process. When he was snapping his first photos as a teenager, he recalls, he became mesmerized by the ability of the lens to bring meaning to a dumb piece of paper, to transform an everyday object into a subject of semi-permanent gaze. For Tillmans, this process of transformation, what he calls the “development of the picture,” is an ongoing progression that only begins with the actual photographing (which takes up just two to three days out of his every working month). The meaning of the artwork is only fully realized in its exhibition and, if the balance of time Kalmbach devotes to Tillman’s curatorial duties is any indication, much of the photographer’s efforts are spent in painstaking supervision of every detail of his frequent shows.
Because Kalmbach adopts such an off-the-cuff observational approach, not every moment in the film rings with the force of revelation. And while the banality that comprises much of an artist’s working life (“It’s all part of the job,” says Tillmans) is part of the point, the film occasionally feels like pretty slim pickings for a 72-minute work. But then the director breaks out an inspired digital composition that gets right to the point of the photographer’s art (as when he frames Tillmans and an assistant against a giant blow-up in a gallery, the two seeming to enter into and interact with the work) or outlines the unique challenges of the creative process (a potentially disastrous video shoot for the Pet Shop Boys finds sudden inspiration in the sewer rats that populate a London tube station) and makes us realize that there’s more than a little to the artist’s “developmental” approach after all. At such moments, Tillmans’s faith in the transformative powers of the photographic image seems very wisely placed indeed.