"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.