David Campany makes this summary of Thomas Ruff’s practice:
“At first glance, Thomas Ruff’s four-decade engagement with the photographic image appears remarkably varied. It runs from formal and carefully crafted photographs of domestic interiors, to the appropriation and re-presentation of old photographs; from highly detailed portraits made with a large-format camera, to blow-ups of low resolution image files found online; from the slow and considered photography of urban buildings, to the manipulation of images beamed from the surface of Mars; from resolutely analogue photographic practices to computer-generated images that stretch the definition of photography to breaking point.” (Blazwick, 2017: 190)
In an earlier article he says this about the effect of Ruff’s work:
“The photographic art of Thomas Ruff makes very particular demands on us and offers very particular kinds of pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual. His work seems cold and dispassionate, wilful, searching and perverse but at times surprisingly beautiful. Whether he is working with found photographs or shooting his own, the results are similar. He makes images that are at once familiar clichés and estranged visions of our collective photographic order. Ruff’s art dramatises photography for us as an image form that is always as public as it is private, and as anonymous as it is personal. The viewer may find themselves switching between thinking about the particular image they see before them and contemplating the state of ‘all photography’ in its terrifying and sublime totality.” Campany (2008)
In the introduction to the catalogue to accompany his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2017, curator Iwona Blazwick says this about Ruff:
“It is notable that the German artist Thomas Ruff does not say that he takes images, but rather that he works with them. Ruff makes art about photography and the way it mirrors the fast pace of technology, culture and politics, or the slow time of cosmic phenomena.” (Blazwick, 2017: 9)
She continues by impressing the importance of Dusseldorf to his work, partly due to his attendance at the Dusseldorf academy, partly due to the fact this is where he still lives and has his studio, and partly because of the city itself, having been rebuilt after 1945, Dusseldorf traces the evolution of modern architecture from the utopianism of the Bauhaus to corporate modernism:
“This backdrop helps us to understand much of the subject matter of Ruff’s work. Following in the footsteps of Bauhaus photographers he pictures the modern built environment – but it is uniform, alienating, blank. His portraits are billboard scaled yet refuse the dynamics of desire. He uses the history of photography as a bank of found images re-envisioned, to reflect on the picturing of current affairs, pornography, surveillance, history, disaster, publicity – and the relation of those pictures to the viewer. Ruff embraces rapid changes in digital technologies while recalling the analogue experiments of the early avant gardes. Travelling no further than his studio he embarks on an enquiry into the scientific observation of the extra terrestrial. And like so many sculptors of his generation, he pays close attention to the essential nature of the image itself, giving it the physicality of an object and the autonomy of the abstract.
At a moment when our mobile phones and devices offer a portal onto a twenty-four-hour deluge of photography, Thomas Ruff asks us to stop, experience and evaluate its histories and procedures, one image at a time.” (Blazwick, 2017: 9)
Although conceding his practice is both far reaching and wide ranging, Cotton (2014) describes Ruff’s as having a ‘deadpan aesthetic’, a depersonalised style which:
“Regardless of his ostensible subject matter, which includes architecture, stellar constellations and pornography…he brings a spectrum of photographic image types into play. Rather than a signature of his photographs being found in a single approach to the medium, Ruff raises a more interesting issue of how we comprehend different subjects through the photographic form. He experiments with the way we understand a subject because of our knowledge or expectation of how it represented pictorially.” (Cotton, 2014: 105)
Sarah E. James describes Ruff’s series as being self-consciously modern and modernist in their choice of subject matter as well as their representational modes. Ruff is a forensic interrogator of art’s modern genres such as portraits, landscapes, nudes abstracts and interiors and his recurring theme is their transformation by technologies of reproduction. (Blazwick, 2017: 178)
Sean O’Hagan has this to say about Ruff’s approcah to photography in general:
“There is nothing straightforward about Ruff’s engagement with the medium. Instead, his images are often oblique, referencing art history from modernism to the present, and increasingly engaging not so much with photography as with the image culture that it is now enmeshed in … Ruff makes photography about photography.” (O’Hagan, 2017)
For ‘Interiors’, Ruff photographed the homes of his friends and family in an anonymous but competently professional style devoid of any personal flourish. There are no people featured in the images which suggest order and restraint through their impersonal style which follows through to their titling of a number followed by a letter. David Campany observes:
“In the subject matter and the photographic approach, there is a conformity to unspoken standards. Calm, serious and anonymous. Any competent photographer could have made these pictures, although only Thomas Ruff did. So much of photography is to do with the choice of motif.” (Blazwick: 190)
“These middle-class interiors are visual cul-de-sacs: each mirror reflects a wall, every open door leads to another that is closed, corners block our gaze. Their impenetrable aspect is amplified by the physical absence of the inhabitants; human likeness is limited solely to the occasional portrait photograph, which, in retrospect, seem to be prophetic in character. Here, Ruff’s distanced objectivity, inherited from the Bechers, hold in ways it cannot hold in later images; perceptually, at least, we can go no further than the photographer allows us to see.” (Rehberg, s.d.)
Ruff studied under Bernd and Hiller Becher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf in the 1980s, and his ‘Portraits’ series can be read as a translation of the Becher’s deadpan, yet exacting, style but applied to people rather than industrial landscapes. Angier (2006) describes the series like this:
“large-format colour portraits stare at us from the centre of the frame. Their eyes are almost vacant. The lighting is flat. There are no shadows. The background is blank, often a kind of sickly white that suggests the way fluorescent light behaves with colour transparency film. The images are printed larger than life. The faces convey no sense of drama. The pictures are confrontational, but do not feel confrontational. They mimic the straightforward head-and-shoulders format of the familiar ID photo.” (Angier, 2006: 106-7)
The reading that the portraits are simultaneously blank and bland, while also have a confrontational tension is interesting and chimes with Ruff’s belief that a photograph is unable to accurately capture objective reality – the closest a photograph can get is imitation. Despite the fine detail, sharp focus and large size at which these photographs are printed, the subjects lack of expression and the lack of context means the personal presence of the sitter can only be guessed at: “Their faces are alive with textural detail, but they remain hidden.” (Angier, 2006: 111)
Foster (2012: 569-70) sees a counter conceptual approach in Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ – a direct response and refutation of the Neue Sachlichkeit/New Objectivity beliefs of earlier German photographers such as August Sander who believed subjective rendering of physiognomy could make claims towards identity and character.
Bate (2015: 75-6) sees the series as an example of a ‘hyper-document’, a photograph which saturates the viewer with an excess of visual information. The size and detail of the images make it possible for the viewer to scrutinise the subjects, yet, they remain anonymous apart from the caption of their first name. The style and format are reminiscent of passport photographs which has connotations of nationhood, identity, state surveillance and control of free passage. Bate suggests that the effect of this is to place the viewer in the place of the passport officer and attempts to understand what the person is like through the limited information available is only possible by constructing our own meanings:
“The document seems blank, inert and denotative, despite the information it clearly contains. But it refuses to give up any meaning, unless we invest it with one ourselves.” (Bate, 2015: 76)
Unlike the earlier “social typology portraits” of August Sander, who drew a link between the appearance of his subjects and their profession, trade or class, Ruff’s portraits can not be read through the appearances of the sitters:
“Ruff’s work is postmodern, sceptical of certainty of meaning. It throws the idea of the document into question precisely through its excess of visual information claiming to be a document of something.” (Bate, 205: 76)
A boyhood obsession for Ruff was astronomy. For this series, he used negatives from the European Southern Observatory archive to make his own prints which he captioned using the reference accorded to them by the Observatory. Ruff employed industrial printing techniques normally used for advertising to print the images at a monumental scale measuring 260x188cm, the original images measured 30cm square. Despite Ruff’s “editorial interventions”, Dama (2018) points out that the images retain the original character of the negatives and look of a scientific document. Iona Blazwick observes:
“The epic format of each of Ruff’s starscapes asserts a phenomenological relation to the body of the viewer. We usually view the night sky looking up. Ruff tilts the galaxy onto the vertical plane so that we confront it face to face. The proportion and size of these photographs exceeds the scale of the body. We stand, enthralled, on terra firma. yet the immersive scene we survey is a vast, wheeling geological realm of zero gravity. It is also devoid of human presence, arguably of anything living at all. We are confronted with our complete absence. The stars glitter, radiant pinpoints of energy; yet are signals of extinction.” (Blazwick, 2017: 199-200)
Ruff selected which parts of the negatives to use for the final images carefully and deliberately:
“He selects each image to create a dynamic counterpoint between voids of darkness and clusters of light. The monochrome abstraction of white dots on a black background is punctuated by the eruption of cosmic flares, luminous nebulas and the geometric beauty of diamond-shaped or spiralling haloes.” (Blazwick, 2017: 200)
Newspaper Photographs (1990-1):
Throughout the 1980s Ruff collected photographs from German newspapers amassing around 2,500 by 1990 and decided to use them as the basis for a new series. The clippings were selected by Ruff if they caught his attention in some way as interesting or archetypal. He rephotographed the 400 images he selected from the larger set with a large format camera, removed all text and printed at a scale of 2:1. The images were captioned with a number between 1-400. The enlargement process meant that the materiality of the newsprint source material was accentuated with the printing process becoming particularly apparent. The subjects of the photographs varied from famous, if not notorious, leaders of the 20th century such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and, pictures of old film stars or even of industrial machinery. By removing context, the images are stripped of the intended meaning they had when presented in the news, and yet, gain new meaning in the way Ruff presents them.
Cameron Foote makes this analysis of the series:
“By removing the captions that had accompanied the photographs in their original context, Ruff ensured that the images could only be addressed on their own formal terms and with the tools of visual memory
By omitting the text caption, Ruff reveals the caption that persists within the image itself. What is the response that a newspaper photograph is supposed to induce? How do photographs in the media operate as tools for ‘visual persuasion’? … The same image of the same event might be reproduced in different newspapers of different political persuasions with a vastly divergent interpretation applied to them. Nevertheless, this repeated reproduction may often serve to re-inforce the public perception of a photograph’s testimonial value. Images of reported events are often privileged over other forms of documentation, which eventually disappear into archives.” (Blazwick, 2017: 204)
Other Portraits (1994-5):
These images reappropriate and reimagine Ruff’s earlier ‘Portrait’ works through the use of a Minolta Montage Unit that was used by German police in the 1970s. This device works by amalgamating multiple portraits into one composite which often leaves features out of sync and exaggerated – the overall effect is somewhere between humorous and disturbing. The works have connotations with the Stasi as well as being a comment on physiognomics, surveillance and eugenics.
Sean O’Hagan makes this response to viewing two images from ‘Other Portraits’ in a retrospective of Ruff’s work he attended in 2017:
“two large monochrome head-and-shoulders studies … on first glance appear to be of a man and a woman. They are in fact composites of the two, one set of features imposed on the other. The results are unsettling, recalling blown up passport photos or criminal mugshots, but with a haunting – and haunted – quality.” (O’Hagan, 2017)
Cotton (2014) has this to say about ‘Nudes’:
“In his Nudes series of the early 2000s, Thomas Ruff dowloaded phonographic images from the internet and enlarged and enhanced the digital pixellation, creating photographs that depict the remoteness of the actual sexual acts. With their saccharine tonal ranges, these are beautiful images that demonstrate how idealization is key to the representation of a subject, and that potentially any subject (and here a relatively new form of image-making and viewing) can become a meditation on aesthetic form.” (Cotton, 2014: 213-4)
Angier (2006) makes this assessment:
“[The] series is so disengaged from corporeality that it is almost abstract. It is of course paradoxical that imagery based on pornography should be so lacking in physical detail, so devoid of any sort of punctum. Perhaps this lack of disruption and surprise is in the nature of digital image-making, regardless of its content.” (Angier, 2006: 198)
Dickinson (2017) describes the series like this:
“[nudes] repurposes pornographic images downloaded from the web. Digitally blurred, the images have a woozy, painterly quality at odds with the starkness of the sex acts they depict – a sardonic assessment of the male gaze, perhaps, as well as a commentary on the proliferation of online porn.”
This series was inspired by TV coverage of the 1st Gulf War which showed night vision technology used by the military and typified by a green cast and low definition. Ruff used a light intensifier with his camera to make his own version and produced images of urban surveillance that are particularly powerful because of the truth value these images are imbued with. (Campany, 2013: 122) The scenes Ruff captures in this series are not of war zones however, but of suburban areas. Under normal circumstances these would be boring and banal, but through the prism of the night-vision goggles there is a sense of potential threat – a potential for a crime.
Sean O’Hagan argues the images possess an “unreal aura that is oddly beautiful [with] noirish streets and buildings [seemingly] shrouded in a misty aquamarine glow that recalls 1950s sci-fi films or noir thrillers.” (O’Hagan, 2017)
For this series, Ruff appropriates anonymous electronic images from the internet and enlarges them to sizes far beyond the limits of their resolution to make an image that borders abstraction. The work can be read as a commentary on the ephemeral nature of a digital image that is never intended to take a physical form. The enlarged pixels have a resemblance to the way film grain was used as an expressionistic device to suggest immediacy and authenticity, but, the result is quite different, as David Campany observes:
“Pixels are quite different. They are grid-like, repetitive. When we glimpse pixels we do not think of authenticity. Instead, the pixels represent a cold technological limit, a confrontation with the virtual bureaucratic order that secretly unites all images in a homogenous electronic continuum, whether they are holiday snapshots or military surveillance.” (Blazwick, 2017: 196)
In an earlier analysis he states:
“Nearly all images are digital even if they originated in non-digital or pre-digital forms. Given this fact it is surprising how few of them ever wish to address the fact that they exist as masses of electronic information that take visual form as pixels. Ruff has done a great deal to introduce into photographic art what we might call an ‘art of the pixel’, allowing us to contemplate at an aesthetic and philosophical level the basic condition of the electronic image. Of course he does this not by showing us the images on screens but by making large scale photographic prints, blowing them up far beyond their photorealist resolution. This might be the first time some of these images have taken a material form.” (Campany, 2008)
In an interview, Ruff describes the genesis of the series:
“One day in 2000, I was downloading pictures from the internet to use in my work, and I noticed some of them were broken up into little squares. It created quite a painterly, impressionistic structure, and it rendered parts of what was often an ugly image very beautiful. I looked into it, and found the Jpeg file compression software was responsible.
I started experimenting to see if I could create whole images like this myself. I found that when you blow them up to about 2.5 metres by 1.8 metres, it creates a nice effect: when you see it from about 10 or 15 metres away, you think you are looking at a precise photograph, but if you look closer, to within about five metres, you can’t recognise anything at all: you’re just standing in front of thousands of pixels.” (Benedictus, 2009)
The source material for this series is images captured by the NASA space probe the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Ruff appropriates the images from the NASA website, cropping them and altering the colours before printing them at giant proportions similarly to the earlier ‘Stars’ series. Iwona Blazwick makes this analysis:
“Ruff translates the data gathered by an unmanned machine and its complex interface of optical instruments into a singular image of great beauty. It is both alien and familiar, representing a kind of interstellar commonality with our own terrain. At the same time, it enters the territory of painterly biomorphic abstraction.” (Blazwick, 2017: 201)
This series reworks and remodels the abstract photographic approach of Bauhaus artists such as Làszlo Moholy-Nagy, defined as ‘New Vision’ photography, that was radical at the time but soon became popularised through fashion and advertising photography. Rather than making his photograms in the traditional sense, with objects placed on photosensitive paper in the darkroom, Ruff’s interpretations are made entirely in the digital darkroom using 3D modelling software. Despite the obvious differences in Ruff’s work and that the “classic photograms” made by artists such as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, David Campany observes that starting points appear to be similar objects:
“Ruff’s photograms, are a testament to the grip that modernist image making still has on the contemporary photographic imagination, even when that imagination is attempting to go beyond what we think of as photography.” (Blazwick, 2017: 197)
In an interview, Ruff describes the process of making ‘Photograms’:
“We create virtual objects like curved paper, lenses, glasses – any kind of objects I want … You don’t have gravity, so I can have objects floating around each other. And I project coloured light within the programme, so that the photograms are in colour … The 3D objects are hidden in the final artwork – you can only see the shadows they create on virtual paper. It is the perfect simulation of an old analogue darkroom … You have to ‘render’ the image … Rendering for 2,000 hours creates a high-resolution image. With a network of ten computers it still took us a couple of weeks to create one work. [It’s only when the image is printed] that it becomes a photograph.” (Sherwin, 2017)
This series is a return to the concerns about the construction of the press image that Ruff first explored in his earlier series ‘Newspaper Photographs’, except for ‘press++’ Ruff foregrounds this by digitally adding the editorial markings that are on the reverse of the photographs to the images. For the series, Ruff acquired photographs from the press agency archives of newspapers – many press outlets began to sell off these physical archives as digital scanning and storage meant that they became obsolete. Printed large, as is Ruff’s signature style, these marks gain a texture but meaning is difficult to divine as they often show an internal mode of communication between news desk, typesetter and picture editor that is now lost. As Cameron Foote observes:
“Divested of intentionality, the marks can only be read for their expressive characteristics, the sole unique and authored element of an image , which in its material form existed as a multiple, distributed to many different news outlets and interpreted by each in its own way.” (Blazwick, 2017:207)
- Thomas Ruff: Tate Website
- Thomas Ruff: David Zwirner Website
- Thomas Ruff: Gagosian Website
- Thomas Ruff Portraits: National Portrait Gallery Website
- Thomas Ruff: V&A Website
- Meet the photographer: Thomas Ruff (video – V&A website)
- Tripe | Ruff by Thomas Ruff (video – V&A website)
- Thomas Ruff: Saatchi Gallery Website
- Thomas Ruff: Ben Brown Fine Arts
- Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017: Whitechapel Gallery Website
- Thomas Ruff in conversation with Iwona Blazwick (video – Whitechapel Gallery Website)
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