Ruff began his Porträts (Portraits) series, his breakthrough body of work, in 1981 while he was still a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. His subjects—frequently his friends, fellow students, and colleagues—are always expressionless, set against a neutral background and often looking directly at the viewer, as if posing for a passport photograph. As the artist notes on this series, “My intention was not to make sentimental, narrative images, but rather sharp, objective photographs in the tradition of the objective photography of the 1920s. It was an attempt to let the people and objects portrayed speak for themselves and not be altered or modified by the filter of my own interpretation. The false, polished images in advertising photography make me suspicious.”1
While early works in this series were printed on 7 x 9 1/2 in (18 x 24 cm) paper, Ruff introduced a larger-than-life format in 1986 (82 3/4 x 65 in; 210 x 165 cm). Intensifying the print’s physical presence was a way to further interrupt a straightforward association between the photographic image and reality.
1 Thomas Ruff cited in, “Interview with Thomas Ruff by Bernd M. Scherer,” in Thomas Ruff. Identificaciones. Exh. cat. (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes / Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, 2002), p. 74.