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Royal Museums Greenwich acquires artist Wolfgang Tillmans photographic prints
Dr. Marek Kukula & Dr. Melanie Vandenbrouck look at Tillmans prints. Photo: ©National Maritime Museum, London.

LONDON.- Royal Museums Greenwich has acquired three photographic prints from the ESO series by Turner Prize winning artist and fine art photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans.

The three works depict the process of capturing astronomical images, a theme still prevalent at the Royal Observatory Greenwich today, with the hosting of the annual Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition and exhibition. The prints were purchased directly from the artist via famed London gallery, Maureen Paley, for $23,040 (£13,893.12).

As a teenager, Tillmans was a keen amateur astronomer and his work frequently reflects this interest with the inclusion of various astronomical subjects and themes. The newly acquired prints detail the aesthetic appeal of astronomical images while also exploring and questioning the photographic techniques by which they are produced - a theme directly linked to the long tradition of astrophotography practiced in Greenwich from the 1870s onwards. Prominent Royal Observatory astronomers like Walter and Annie Maunder were pioneers in the field, but also commented publicly on the problems and pitfalls of photographing the heavens. Tillmans’ astronomical artworks show how this debate continues to be relevant in the 21st century.

Wolfgang Tillmans (born 1968) is one of the most influential photographers of his generation, becoming the first non-UK citizen to win the Turner Prize in 2000 and one of the Royal Academy’s most recently elected Academicians (December 2013). The acquisition furthers the collaborative relationship between Royal Museums Greenwich and Tillmans, who previously lent several C-type prints from his Transit of Venus (2004) series along with the large-scale work in flight astro (ii) (2010) for 2013’s exhibition, ‘Visions of the Universe’, at the National Maritime Museum.

The acquisition of the prints complements the long history the Royal Observatory has of photographing the heavens and exploring how photography can influence the way we perceive the world around us. The Observatory pioneered the use of astrophotography for monitoring the Sun, gathering data on eclipses and transits and identifying new astronomical objects that would be hard to detect with the human eye alone. Respectively, Tillmans' ESO series was taken at the facilities of the European Southern Observatory in Chile and shows stages in the processing of digital images of galaxies, taken with some of the world's most powerful telescopes. In many ways ESO is the twenty-first century successor to the Royal Observatory, and continues its pioneering spirit. Tillmans’ work reminds us that a photograph is never just a photograph - our view of the universe is always filtered through layers of processing and interpretation.

Having secured the prints RMG will initially research and digitize them, before they are displayed in the 17th-century Queen’s House in 2016 as part of the building’s 400th anniversary.

Dr Melanie Vandenbrouck, Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich, said: “The merging of arts and sciences is hundreds of years old but has really come back to the fore in recent times. By their subject matter and aesthetic appeal, Wolfgang’s ESO series is connecting in very beautiful ways two of the purposes of historic and contemporary Greenwich that are encapsulated by the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House.”

Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, said: “The Royal Observatory has long been concerned with making precise, scientific representations of the night sky, but many of the astronomical images in the Greenwich collection are also highly artistic and I think Wolfgang's work adds a wonderful new dimension to the Museum, combining the artistic and scientific heritage of both the Queen's House and the Observatory. For me, Wolfgang's photographs show that there is beauty in the scientific process itself.”

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