Even if you’ve never heard of Wolfgang Tillmans, chances are you’ve encountered his work.

For one, the German photographer is behind the image that graces the album cover of Frank Ocean’s 2016 album, Blonde. In the image, Ocean sports short green hair and appears to be standing in a shower, holding his head in one hand, with white tiles behind him. He’s shirtless, and droplets of water glisten on his skin. The photograph conveys motifs that permeate Tillmans’ work: melancholy, intimacy, nostalgia and queerness.

Tillmans is also the photographer behind a famous 2002 image called The Cock (Kiss). Taken at a gay nightclub in London, it is an intimate, close-up image of two men kissing. Though it is 20 years old, the image’s power continues to resonate: Following the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, it made viral rounds on the internet. Like the Blonde cover, The Cock (Kiss) explores themes often found in Tillmans’ photographs: youth, innocence and joy.

"Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees," a 1992 photo by Wolfgang Tillmans
This 1992 photograph of Tillmans’ childhood friends first appeared in i-D magazine. Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London
Two men kiss in a nightclub
Wolfgang Tillmans took The Cock (Kiss) in a gay London nightclub in 2002. Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

The dots in Tillmans’ work are connected in “Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear,” which opens at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) this week. Over 400 of Tillmans’ photographs are on display, making it the largest exhibition of his 35-year career.

Born in West Germany in 1968, Tillmans began taking pictures as an adolescent. In 1990, he moved to England for art school, and he started landing gigs for magazines like i-DInterview and Butt to document underground club and gay scenes with his camera. “To Look Without Fear” includes celebrated images from this time, such as a double portrait of his friends Lutz and Alex sitting in a tree, appearing to wear nothing but large raincoats.

Also on display are two photographs of painter Jochen Klein, Tillmans’ partner at the time. The two lived together until Klein died of AIDS-related complications in 1997. These images stand out: One is an arresting black-and-white photo of Klein with a buck, and the other, taken a few months before his death, shows Klein in a bathtub. As critic Jason Farago writes for the New York Times, the image shares aesthetics and emotional tones with the Frank Ocean image seen on Blonde.

In those early days, “[w]e were getting up into a new age,” Tillmans tells the New York Times’ Matthew Anderson. “The new ’90s, a new Europe, breaking down borders, we’re in this together: That’s where my language came from.”

"still life" by Wolfgang Tillmans
still life, New York (2001) Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Tillmans’ evolution throughout the 2000s and 2010s is well-captured in “To Look Without Fear.” Some of the works on display didn’t involve a camera at all, but were created by shining lasers and hand-held lights on photosensitive paper. Most images since 2008, including the Ocean portrait, were taken on a digital camera.

“We decided to lay it out in a roughly chronological order, even though I am known for hanging older and newer works together to let them cross-pollinate,” Tillmans tells W magazine’s Arthur Lubow. “It was interesting at this historicizing moment to have a room devoted to the ’90s, and to realize that the ’90s, which seem to me to be within grasp, are now 25 or 30 years ago, and many visitors will have never experienced them.”

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear
Tillmans prints and hangs every image in his exhibitions himself, using binder clips and tape. Emile Askey / The Museum of Modern Art

Like all of Tillmans’ major shows, every image on display is the artist’s personal print, which grants him full control over the quality and size of each photograph. The unframed prints hang from MoMa’s walls with binder clips and tape, and while their asymmetric placements and scales give off the impression of a random scatter, Tillmans carefully calculated the placement of each one. The 417 works themselves appear similarly breezy and casual, while also communicating a razor-sharp precision.

To Look Without Fear” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 1, 2023.

Victoria Park (2007)
Victoria Park (2007) Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London
Lighter, white convex I (2009)
Lighter, white convex I (2009) Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London
Faltenwurf (skylight) (2009)
Faltenwurf (skylight) (2009) Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London
Lacanau (self) (1986)
Lacanau (self) (1986) Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London