Wolfgang Tillmans, Truth Study Center, mixed-media installation, 2005?06

Visitors to the Hirshhorn who aren’t familiar with Wolfgang Tillmans will likely ask themselves, Who does this guy think he is? The German-born photographer has worked as a portraitist, an abstractionist, and a conceptualist without getting attached to any one way of operating. As a result, the new retrospective of nearly 20 years of Tillmans’ work veers all over the place, featuring club scenes of sweaty, shirtless young men with close-cropped hair, didactic political statements made from newspaper clippings, and huge, heroic abstract experiments with color and line. In all of his works, Tillmans likes to cultivate visual noise, blowing up Polaroids, found newspaper photos, and faxes in order to create grainy, blurry images that look like tourist snapshots—or spidery bursts of dark wandering lines against monochrome backgrounds.

Traditionalists can expect to be offended by Tillmans’ disregard for technique and by his unusual presentation. Most of his pictures are unframed, attached to the wall with binder clips and nails or with strips of Scotch tape. Ranging in size from 6 inches square to 8 feet tall, his pictures are placed at eye level, down near the floor, and above the viewer’s head—Tillmans arranged them himself and apparently likes to put some photos just far enough away to be hard to see. Conservatives will bristle at cheeky homoerotic pictures of soldiers, a bleak memorial for the victims of organized religions, and a video installation that is basically an empty dance club. Who is Tillmans? Surely he’s just another postmodern prankster toying with his audience’s expectations.

But Tillmans is in earnest. Though his subjects can seem randomly chosen—his 2003 Tate Britain show was called “If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters”—there’s nothing in this show that isn’t carefully considered and keenly felt. Tillmans cultivates an offhand look in his work, but at every turn, he has employed dodges, second guesses, and strategies of inversion to complicate his relation to both photography and the world around him.

“What I like to get to,” Tillmans said in a recent interview with Hirshhorn assistant curator Kristen Hileman, “is a sense of connection with the viewer, so that the viewer doesn’t look for my personal life and narrative in these installations but is feeling connected to individual points in what they see….If a point of contact like that happens, that is like a moment of solidarity between people that I look for.”

That search for connection led Tillmans to take portraits of friends and acquaintances. In the case of Richie Hawtin (1994), the Canadian DJ and electronic musician (aka Plastikman) sits in a shadowless space filled with warm diffuse light. He has a clean-shaven head, tattoos, and thin wire-rimmed glasses. He sits in what looks like a Boomer family room, perched on the edge of an orange cabinet; hovering around his head and shoulders is a flock of old family photos in thin wooden frames. On the mantel, there’s a little toy cannon; to his left, a doll is angled toward him, as if observing him with interest.

It’s a personal and disarmingly direct portrait—and also a sociological study, revealing an utterly conventional lower-middle-class upbringing, with every detail evenly illuminated. As he does in so many of his portraits, Tillmans insists on a feeling of intimacy while at the same time relying on a seemingly neutral, minimal documentary style, one that devalues photography’s possibilities for romantic expression.

That approach has earned Tillmans criticism for exploiting a “snapshot aesthetic.” But not all of his portraits take on the look of disinterested documentary. In Blood Dancer (1992), a young man’s torso emerges from the darkness; his hair and dark jeans disappear into the surrounding black space. The man is grinning, but he appears uneasily propped up; a disembodied hand clasps his, helping him remain vertical. Streaks of red fluid dash down from his shoulder, across his chest and abdomen.