Thomas Ruff: Selected Press

For photographers who’ve made a living showing large format photographs in galleries and museums, the small-screen future of the medium can be a touchy subject. Generally, they either admit that the medium is in its death throes, or hold steadfast that Instagram and its increasingly destructive digital milieu is a seperate beast altogether. The German photographer Thomas Ruff believes in the former.

Thomas Ruff: In a sense I would say that photography is dead. People post on Instagram because they want to stay in the present––they expect photography to communicate the present. But as soon as you post an image, it’s the past. Even if it’s only two or three hours. When Kim Kardashian posts an image, it’s already the past.

In his most recent series, tableaux chinois, presented at David Zwirner Gallery Paris, Ruff takes images of Maoist propaganda and distorts them using a variety of digital techniques like pixelating, blurring, or layering. In one piece, tableau chionois_17, a pastoral painting of Mao postulating on a bench has been blown-up to the point of looking like it was downloaded using a dialup internet connection circa 1999.

Patrick McGraw: Why Chinese propaganda?

Thomas Ruff: The tableaux come from a general fascination with propaganda. Russian propaganda is quite hard, but the Chinese propaganda is kind of sweet – I call it naive propaganda. So I took these photos and gave them a digital structure to make them more contemporary. I wanted to play on the idea that technologically and economically, China is in the same same position as the western world, but ideologically they are living in the 1960s.

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In the airy splendour of his studio in Düsseldorf, custom-designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, Thomas Ruff opens a drawer and pulls out a small photographic print. It is an image from the 1920s of a woman, Ruth Snyder, in the process of her execution by electric chair. The composition is strange: too much foreground and awkwardly angled.

Ruff, one of the world’s most feted photographers, explains: the chilling picture was taken covertly, by a journalist who had strapped a camera to his right ankle. Then Ruff shows me the print that was used in the New York Daily News, expertly cropped and straightened.

It is less dramatic, I say to him. He agrees. The drawer is full of photographic negatives, the first and original versions of a whole assortment of historical incidents, in their raw, unvarnished forms. “Nothing can compete with negatives,” he says quietly.

That purist streak lies behind Ruff’s latest series of photographic works, freshly commissioned by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to celebrate the opening of its new photography centre. Tripe/Ruff is a collabor­ative series, of sorts. The German photographer has taken his inspiration from a set of architectural and topographical images of monuments in India and Burma taken by British photographer Linnaeus Tripe in the 1850s.

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"The photographic plate is the true retina of the scientist," the French astronomer and keen photographer Jules Janssen famously asserted in 1888. He had every reason to feel so passionate about the then futuristic medium, which he himself helped developing thanks to his studies in mechanics. Some years earlier the astronomer had managed to shoot the first photograph ever of an entire comet; at the beginning of the 20th century he would publish a groundbreaking series of photographs of the solar surface.

As a young student just graduated from high school in the 1970s, Thomas Ruff was uncertain whether to take astronomy in Heidelberg or photography in Düsseldorf. Astronomy had fascinated him since childhood but eventually Ruff chose photography. At 59, he is now a renowned photographer, one member of the so-called Düsseldorf School, together with Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Struth, who all studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher during the 1970s at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. Astronomy still fascinates him.

His current exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery — Ruff’s first major retrospective in London — pays homage to his longtime passion for the cosmos, featuring series of works directly influenced by his obsession with the universe.

In the late 1980s, frustrated by the unsatisfying quality of his own images, Ruff accessed copy negatives of photographic plates of the sky at night taken by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. He cropped and enlarged parts of the original images and printed the resulting pictures in large-scale formats. Simply titled Sterne (Stars) (1989-92), this series retains much of the original character of the negatives employed, which is to say the images keep something of the look of a scientific document, in spite of the artist’s editorial interventions.
At the same time, though, Ruff’s pictures impose themselves as monumental works of art, shown as they are in large formats (a radical decision in the 1980s that positioned these photographs into the realm of fine art).

There is little difference between Jules Janssen’s photographic studies of the solar surface and NASA’s satellite images of similar inaccessible worlds. In both cases, photography is employed as a medium to access places that would  otherwise be unreachable, engaging with innovative technology to reveal something about the unknown.

With his practice, Ruff acts on the positivistic approach that consider photography as a revelatory medium, taking the whole conversation to a higher level, investigating the language of photography and its possibilities, digitally acting on the images to test their limits.

The exhibition at Whitechapel — for once a well-balanced and tidy show with some blank spaces on the walls to rest the eyes — displays Ruff’s long-time engagement with the primary genres of photography, from photo-journalism (Newspaper Photographs, 1990-91; jpeg, 2004-8; press++, 2016-) to portraiture (Portraits, 1981-91), going through pornography (Nudes, 1999-2012) and interior photography (Interiors,1979-83), muddying the waters of our perception in every image, manipulating each of them one way or another.

In this discourse, Ruff even questions the modernist tradition. His fotogramme series (2012-15), for instance, digitally reworks Man Ray’s and László Moholy-Nagy’s famous photograms (photographic images made without a camera by placing various objects on a light-sensitive surface, later exposed to light). Ruff re-enacts those pioneering experiments with photography using a completely digital process, replacing the camera obscura with a custom-made software.

The resulting images, abstract combinations of shapes and colours still as highly aestheticized and elegant as their modernist models, provoke questions on the veracity and history of photography.

What is the role of photography when it manages to mimic and challenge —and possibly replace — even historicized images?

In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Ruff has gathered together an enlightening selection of quotes from various theorists and artists. One of them in particular, by the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg, resonates with the works in the show:

“We cannot observe without disturbing the phenomenon under observation, and the quantum effects that have an impact on the medium of this observation lead automatically to an ambiguity in the phenomenon under observation”.

With each series, Ruff pushes the boundaries of photography further and further. His photographs are precisely the result of the observation process described by Heisenberg: ambiguous traces of their subjects, they constantly bring the focus of the public back to their nature as crafted images.

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LONDON — Thomas Ruff was explaining how pleased he was about his forthcoming retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery here when we were interrupted by an unearthly shrieking. A fire alarm had gone off; we and the technicians installing the show would have to be evacuated. Dumped politely but unceremoniously on the street, we continued the conversation on the sidewalk, with Mr. Ruff broadcasting his thoughts to pedestrians and passing traffic.

The incident was unplanned (a false alarm), but had a twinge of poetic justice. Revered in his native Germany and among the photographic cognoscenti, Mr. Ruff, 59, has often seemed a little outside the art-world mainstream. While contemporaries including Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth — both of whom trained, like Mr. Ruff, with the pioneering conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher — have become stars of the market and familiar names in museum collections worldwide, Mr. Ruff's work, though far from unknown, is not seen nearly as often as it should be. The Whitechapel exhibition is the biggest Ruff retrospective the English-speaking world has yet seen.

One reason might be that Mr. Ruff's work is as challenging to describe as it is absorbing to look at. Since the late '70s, his art has taken a brain-scrambling multitude of forms: monotonous photographs of German apartments, luridly colorized mappings of Mars, retouched pornography scoured from the web, Man Ray-style "photograms" made with a supercomputer and copies of early-20th-century still lifes doctored to look like negatives.

He made his name in the late 1980s with a series of gargantuan, passport-style photographs he called "Porträts" (Portraits) — and depending on your perspective, the title is either a straightforward description or a mockery of the whole genre (or perhaps both). In recent years the artist abandoned his cameras altogether, preferring to trawl through archives and manipulate pre-existing photographs, rather than taking images of his own.

Invariably produced in obsessive, multiyear series, with inscrutable and number-heavy labels, Mr. Ruff's images are as quizzical as they are conceptually serious. One critic has compared him to the minimalist Donald Judd because of his fascination with structure and form; another to Marcel Duchamp, master of the droll artistic one-liner.

Mr. Ruff thinks it’s simpler than that: He merely records what he sees. "What I do is react," he said. “I think, 'Oops, this is strange, I have to make an investigation.'"

The headquarters for this one-man reconnaissance mission is Mr. Ruff's studio in the industrial German city of Düsseldorf. An airy, cathedral-like space, designed by his old friends Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it is crammed with a fantastical array of objects. Old lighting rigs sit cheek by jowl with model spacecraft, dinosaur skulls next to lunar atlases. Some he collected for research, Mr. Ruff explained when I traveled out to meet him a few weeks earlier, but most were for fun. "Inspiration," he said wryly, through a cloud of cigarette smoke. "For the artist."

Born in a small town in the Black Forest, Mr. Ruff first went to Düsseldorf in 1977 to study at the city’s art academy. He knew almost nothing about conceptual art, even less about the Bechers and their "anonymous sculptures"— severe, black-and-white photographs of industrial structures, each shot in exactly the same manner. It was nearly a year before he had the courage to take any photographs of his own. "At first, I thought, I’m at the wrong place," he said.

When Bernd Becher set Mr. Ruff a quintessentially Becher-like assignment, to photograph chairs, the results were underwhelming. Stuck for other ideas, he turned his camera on other corners of his dingy student apartment. When he sorted through the prints later, one color photograph jumped out: a white sink, backed by wallpaper in a migraine-inducing pattern. Austere yet oddly beautiful, both rigorous and whimsical, the picture worked. "I showed it to Bernd, and he said, 'Oh, this is something you should continue.' So I continued."

Mr. Ruff spent his remaining student years persuading relations and friends to let him invade their homes. What emerged was a kind of archaeological survey of late-1970s German interior decoration — ornaments, pot plants, beds, tables, fireplaces, all the more fascinating for being so blandly unremarkable. The owners are nowhere to be seen; instead, their possessions — those eye-watering curtains, that alarming umbrella stand — tell us everything about the stifling respectability of their lives. Mr. Ruff called the series simply "Interieurs" (Interiors). "I like to call a thing what it is," he said.

Although "Interiors", and the series that followed, "Haüser" (Houses), made Mr. Ruff's reputation in a modest corner of the contemporary art scene, it was another decade before he began to make waves, with "Portraits." This project had begun in the early ’80s, when he asked friends and acquaintances to pose unsmiling, facing the camera square-on – portraiture stripped back to its most exacting, Becher-like essentials.

At first Mr. Ruff printed the photographs small, arranging them in stern rows like criminal mug shots. But when he had the idea of blowing them up to superhuman size, seven feet tall, a mysterious alchemy took place. Not only were viewers able to scrutinize every monumental pore and wrinkle, "they became completely different images. Not just a blowup, something far more interesting and stranger," he said.

Reviewers were thrilled. The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung talked of how Mr. Ruff had shattered the laws of documentary photography, offering "proof that it is impossible to reproduce things realistically.” Reviewing an exhibition at 303 Gallery in Manhattan in 1988, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith remarked that they “create an unusually pure yet frightening experience of scale."

Though Mr. Ruff was gratified by this success — for one thing, he was able to give up commercial work — he was also having a crisis of photographic faith. Posing people in the studio, trying to create a "perfect" image, he realized that although these portraits looked honest, they were in fact almost completely artificial.

"There was still reality in front of the camera, but I arranged it,” he recalled. "That was more or less the first time that I thought, ‘O.K., photography is not always as true as Bernd and Hilla Becher always told me.’"

Where once he had been taught that pictures never lie, now the artist set out to prove that they rarely did anything but. One project involved borrowing a "montage unit" used by the police to create identikit images of suspects; Mr. Ruff employed it to tamper with some of his portraits. In the early 1990s, inspired by TV images of the first gulf war, he bought a night-vision lens and started taking sinister photographs of bridges, roads and factories in and around Düsseldorf, as if the city were being scoped out for an attack. (This led to a more serious brush with the police, who one night spotted the photographer emerging from a bush and demanded to know what he was doing.)

In recent years, Mr. Ruff has become increasingly fascinated by the ways photography operates online. One series, "jpegs" (2004–08), is made up of low-resolution images printed as high as nine feet, emphasizing the beguiling, blocky matrices of their structure. Another, "nudes" (1999–2012), 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. Though Mr. Ruff is hardly the only contemporary artist to be interested in how images operate in the digital age, few have examined the subject with such encyclopedic rigor.

"Photography is much more complicated than people think it is," he explained, adding that he was particularly proud of an addition he'd made to the Whitechapel catalog: an excerpt from a reference book that itemizes the numerous forms photography can take. (The list begins at “aereophotography” and “astrophotography” and runs to "X-ray photography.") Like much else Mr. Ruff does, this is both a joke and entirely serious — a statement about how difficult it is to pin down what photography actually is, or does.

But then part of Mr. Ruff's point is that the art form has always been elusive, even evasive. Drawer after drawer in his studio is filled with historical photographs telling various kinds of half-truths: 1960s paparazzi snaps of the British royal family stippled with airbrushing, images taken automatically by space probes, publicity shots scrawled with cropping marks. He seemed delighted with an 1898 photograph of the Shroud of Turin, a sober documentary record of an object that is most likely a hoax.

Back in London in the gallery, fire alarm safely silenced, we meandered through the rest of the exhibition. Every so often, Mr. Ruff paused to advise on the positioning of a picture, or have a quiet word with the lighting engineers. He seemed content with how the show was coming together: a fitting testament to an almost 40-year quest in search of nearly every kind of photographic image-making.

When I asked him if he had a favorite, half-expecting another droll wisecrack in response, he replied with what appeared to be complete sincerity. "No," he said quietly. “They are all my babies."

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On an overcast summer’s day in Düsseldorf, Thomas Ruff arrived back from a lunchtime walk accompanied by a small brown poodle, whose trips across the floor to check out the weather would be our only interruption that afternoon. Ruff works from a beautiful studio designed for him in 2011 by the Swiss architects Herzog de Meuron, who designed Tate Modern.

This is the second they’ve done for him; the first is in a nearby building they converted a decade earlier for him and the artist Andreas Gursky, who, like Ruff, was a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the early 1980s. Photographs back then show Ruff with a head of long wavy hair, but now, at 59 a compact figure of medium height, his hair is neatly cut short. As he shows me round the enormous space lit by a tracer-line of halogen lights high above us, he offers the dog an exit to the garden, which it elegantly declines.

Despite the studio’s volume, there is relatively little of Ruff’s work in evidence. Instead there are objects from the collection he’s made over the years — a group of model spaceships, what looks like a life-sized dinosaur’s skull, an Ed Kienholz TV sculpture and, on the floor, a stack of 1920s German travel books bought recently at auction. On one table there is a computer, papers, books; on another a scale model of the interiors of the Whitechapel Gallery, where his retrospective opens later this month.

“He’s got this huge thinking space — I find it quite thrilling,” Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, told me. “Really, there is very little photography going on there. But a lot of thinking, a lot of figuring out, and a lot of models, bits of this and that. It’s like he’s sitting there thinking about it all, shuffling it around and figuring how to absorb it into his own repertoire.”

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Speaking recently at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Thomas Ruff said he used to "really believe that photography captured reality."

This would have been when Ruff was in his early 20s—he’s 58 now—and deeply under the spell of his teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. The Bechers, husband and wife, were famous for their straight-on, rigorously composed black-and-white photographs of 20th-century industrial "types"—the water tower, the grain silo, the blast furnace, the coal mine tipple, the storage tank. For the Bechers, this systematic approach demonstrated what photography did better than any other medium while combatting "the gooey and sentimental subjectivist aesthetics "that photography too often embraced.

Come the late eighties, though, and with the onset of digital photographic technology, Ruff grew miffed that "reality did not look as I wanted it to look." His ambition was to produce "an ideal photo," not "the great and authentic reproduction." Let the Walker Evanses of the world do that. If a parked car or a large tree was somehow compromising the particular view of a building Ruff was determined to photograph, he no longer considered waiting for the car to be moved or striding to another vantage point. Thanks to the miracles of Photoshop and other digital manipulations, what offended the eye could be plucked from the image, banished to the electronic ether.

Since then, Ruff has become less and less interested in whatever truth claims photography may have, and more and more famous internationally as a result. For him, photography is a playground, a realm/reality unto itself, with an ever-expanding array of processes and potentials that are as interesting as the images they produce (and sometimes more so). Today, he likes to call his lens-based work "investigations," as in: "I make investigations that ask people to become aware of what they're looking at."

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Object Relations grounds photography in an era when it was a thing you made with a machine and held in your hand.

In that very German way, Thomas Ruff, just 18, arrived at the crossroads that would define his life's pursuits: astronomer or photographer? A or B, nothing halfway or in between, please.

Ruff chose B, carving out one of the most notable careers as an artist in the medium of the past 30 years. But A, with its strange melding of scientific precision and deeply philosophical imagination—what might be, far beyond our limited range of view from this tiny speck of dirt—haunts most every image he makes, whether way out there or right here on Earth.

Object Relations, the new show of Ruff's work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is less concerned with all that than it is Ruff's hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up approach to a medium that's becoming less tangible and material by the day. Look at Instagram and you'll see what I mean, as old images replace new moment by moment, washed away in a sea of likes before they have a moment to stagnate.

Ruff's practice is to look more closely. "I think he's really dealing with the physicality of the photographic medium," says Sophie Hackett, the AGO's associate curator of photography, who stewarded Object Relations into being. "His works are very labour intensive. He’s a problem solver."

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Before there was Photoshop, there was the back of the photograph. The white space on the back of a photo is where newspaper editors would scribble notes about how to crop an image or where to place it in the article; it's where newswires would often paste or type a caption, thus assuring that the text could not be separated from the image it described.

A series of works by German photographer Thomas Ruff brings those back-of-the-photograph scribblings to the front. Using mostly spaceflight-related newspaper images from the middle of the 20th century, Ruff used digital tools to make it look as though the markings from the back had been placed on the front. In one piece, a space traveler's helmet is marked with an Associated Press stamp; in another, an editor's notes, written in red pencil, make an arc across the sky above a rocket that looks poised to launch.

The new images are aesthetically striking, and they also reveal more about the history of these images than the front of the photos could do alone. With the addition of the editors' scribblings, the images remind viewers not only of the early days of the space race, but of the people who were reporting on it, who kept the world informed. It's a project that probably could have been done with press images that were not related to spaceflight, but the combination brings up a discussion about the history of space and photography.

The aesthetic appeal of Ruff's photo collages is, of course, entirely subjective—I happen to think they're quite lovely. The black-and-white images that Ruff chose all seem to show moments of calm that come between moments of intense action in spaceflight: There's the quiet surface of the moon passing below a spacecraft; a rocket not yet ready to launch. They work well as photo collage backgrounds.

I know it's more than just the aesthetic beauty that I'm personally responding to. I am a space reporter, and the writing and markings on these images were made by my occupational ancestors. I can imagine all too well the panicked atmosphere that might have surrounded them as they quickly scrawled on the back of photographs, making urgent decisions about how best to tell these stories. These editors worked hard to make themselves invisible, to let the stories stand on their own, but Ruff has brought them out into the spotlight.

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"When I was 19 and wanted to go to university, I had to decide to study astronomy in Heidelberg or art photography in Düsseldorf," Thomas Ruff says when we meet in Chelsea. The artist chose photography, yet while walking through his solo show, "press++," at David Zwirner, themes of space exploration resound. Large-scale photomontages depict American press photographs, culled largely from the '40s, '50s, and '60s, that Ruff digitally combined with their reverse, more logistical sides. The results include images like a rocket blasting off superimposed with typeface, and a black-and-white astronaut's face interrupted by a red, sideways stamp. The size of Ruff's final montages allow viewers to investigate original editors' notes, pencil drawn alterations, and informational writing, instilling each press photograph with new meaning—or alternatively speaking, destroying each photo's original intent.

Ruff began "press++" last summer, and one might see it as a combination of and response to previous series, including "Newspaper Photographs" (analog newspaper photos stripped of textual context) and "jpegs" (digitally disseminated images also devoid of context), as well as many others that have dealt with the overarching theme of the universe. For example, the 58-year-old's "cassini" and "ma.r.s." series are both based upon NASA imagery of Saturn, and copperplate engravings found in 19th-century electromagnetism books inspired his "zycles" series. The current space- and war-themed show at David Zwirner, however, serves merely as an introduction to "press++."

"This is the premiere of the series," Ruff says, as later this year he will have solo exhibitions debuting new works in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and in Japan at the The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. "I have some architecture, some from ballet, from the arts, Leonardo DaVinci...I have beautiful fashion photographs from the '50s," he continues. "I want to go through the whole newspaper, from the front, big international news to economics and culture."

When Ruff decided to attend university for photography in 1977, he found himself studying with Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, alongside students including Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, and Andreas Gurksy (with whom he now shares a studio). Since the beginning, even when he was known for his portraiture and architectural series in the '80s and early '90s, Ruff consistently returns to question the construction and meaning of an image.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: How long have you been collecting these images, and where did you start finding them?

THOMAS RUFF: I've been collecting these photographs since I don't know when, for a long time, for different reasons. You can find them on eBay and when we were browsing through the shops there were images that attracted me. One of them I got at my studio and I looked at the back and thought, "Wow, the back looks are as interesting or even more interesting than the front, maybe I should bring these two things together." In the front you have the information of the image, and in the back you have things like that [writing]. Sometimes part of it is lost and you have informational stems and sometimes you have writing of the editor saying, "The cropping should be like this." These are all historical images because these days they're all digital. They don't exist anymore.

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