In 1997, the photographer immortalized the passenger jet Concorde at the moment of takeoff. Twenty years later, his series is a reminder of delusions of grandeur in a divided Europe.
While Wolfgang Tillmans’ work was on view at Tate Modern in London last spring, the photographer spoke up to denounce the idea of Brexit. Far from being politically engaged, his series on the supersonic jet Concorde nevertheless reminds us that Europe has its share of grandeur and its share of misery. Invented in the late 1960s, the Concorde was the pride of French and British aviation until its brutal fall from grace during its final flight in 2003. The plane crash of July 2000, followed by financial difficulties, had put an end to the adventure.
But, in 1997, Tillmans had understood that this was a spatial conquest that was a game-changer for humanity, plunging us straight into an age of absolutely delirious technological prowess. That’s the message of Concorde, glowing red in his photographs. Like some sort of a giant insect, the elongated silhouette of the jet rips through the sky, powered by fiery reactors, a white contrail streaking in its wake across the blue expanse, leaving us feeling small.
It makes us feel small because Tillmans presents it from the ground level, looking up at the takeoff. The success of the series lies perhaps in this very gesture: he invites us to watch the mechanical bird from afar, as if we were unable to climb aboard, as if we were alien to this machine, as if it were the prerogative of a select group; the UFO of a band of extraterrestrials. By placing us on the ground, like spectators, Tillmans invites to adopt a different point of view than those who are aboard and forces us to take the distant position of a simple passerby watching the plane soar as he walks down the street. The photographer himself admits that he wanted to record the fascination with a machine that he finds magical, a sort of utopia spawned by the imagination of engineers in the late 1960s and which, in his mind, is sorely lacking today.
In this series of fifty-six photographs, the airplane is thus a pure specter. It pops out of nowhere, splices the horizon, touches the expanse of the sky, and at the same time captivates us. It’s a burst in the celestial territory, a pinprick. We follow it with our eyes, catch a glimpse of it, and guess at the lightning speed with which it carries away its passengers. Page after page, this turns into a guessing game. We look for it like for Waldo. Where is the plane? Sometimes we try to find it and it’s no longer there. On some photographs, the sky is plain empty. There is just a white trail, and sometimes nothing at all. Here lies perhaps the whole magic of the Concorde series: it inspires us to turn our eyes once again toward the clouds even while it represents the supersonic wing-beat as an enigma that continues to resonate to this day.
Wolfgang Tillmans, Concorde
Published by Walther König