Born in 1958 in Zell am Harmersbach, Germany, Thomas Ruff attended the Staatlichen Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf from 1977 to 1985. Ruff rose to international prominence in the late 1980s as a member of the Düsseldorf School, a group of young photographers who had studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher and became known for their experimental approach to the medium and its evolving technological capabilities. Ruff in particular made a radical break with the style of his teachers, establishing a distinct approach to conceptual photography through a variety of strategies, including the use of color, the purposeful manipulation of source imagery—originally through manual retouching techniques and eventually through digital methods—and the enlargement of the photographic print to the scale of monumental painting. Working in discrete series, Ruff has since utilized these methods to conduct an in-depth examination of a variety of photographic genres, including portraiture, the nude, landscape, and architectural photography, among others. Highly influential to subsequent generations of photographers, Ruff's overarching inquiry into the "grammar of photography" accounts for not only his heterogeneous subject matter, but also the extreme variation of technical means used to produce his series, ranging from anachronistic devices to the most advanced computer simulators and covering nearly all ground in between.
A solo presentation of the artist’s work was on view at K20 - Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf in 2020-2021. Works from tableaux chinois, alongside fifteen other series dating back to 1989, were included in after.images - Works 1989-2020, a major solo exhibition of the artist's work curated by Martin Germann at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, in 2021.
In 2018, Ruff's work was featured in Photography Spotlight, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that celebrated the opening of the museum's new Photography Centre. The artist created a new body of work titled Tripe as a special commission to inaugurate the space.
Ruff's work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at prominent institutions worldwide, including those organized by Whitechapel Gallery, London (2017); The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (2016; traveled to 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan); Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2016); Stedelijk Museum (2014; traveled to Kunsthalle Düsseldorf); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2012); LWL-Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster (2011); Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Spain (2011); Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2009); Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg, Germany (2009); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2009); Műcsarnok Kunsthalle, Budapest (2008); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2007); Sprengel Museum Hannover, Germany (2007); Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva (2004); and Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City (2002).
In 2001-2002, Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 to Present opened at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Germany. This major solo exhibition of the artist’s work traveled through 2004 to Museet for Samtidskunst, Oslo; Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany; Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Artium Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo, Vitoria Gasteiz, Spain; Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal; Tate Liverpool, England; and Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw.
Work by the artist is held in museum collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Dallas Museum of Art; Essl Museum, Klosterneuburg, Austria; Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; K20 - Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; National Museum of Photography, Copenhagen; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.), Ghent.
Since 2000, Ruff’s work has been represented by David Zwirner. Previous solo exhibitions at the gallery in New York include press++ (2016); photograms and ma.r.s. (2013), Thomas Ruff (2010 and 2007), New Work (2005 and 2003), l.m.v.d.r. (2001), and nudes (2000). In 2016, New Works was Ruff's first solo show at the London gallery. Transforming Photography was presented at the gallery’s Hong Kong location in 2019. The artist’s first exhibition at David Zwirner Paris and his eleventh with the gallery was on view in 2021. Ruff lives and works in Düsseldorf.