Thomas Ruff: Transforming Photography
David Zwirner is pleased to present work by German photographer Thomas Ruff, on view across two floors of the gallery’s Hong Kong location. The exhibition will provide an overview of the artist’s prodigious career, ranging from seminal early series to a new body of work.
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 at the renowned Kunstakademie Düsseldorf 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 nature of photographic representation 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. As he has noted, "I always want to take the medium of photography into the picture, so that you are always aware that you are looking at an image—a photograph—so, in the picture I hope you can see two things: the image itself, plus the reflection—or the thinking—about photography…. It is as if I am investigating the grammar of photography."1
On view will be examples from a number of key series including sterne (1989–1992), nudes (1999–), Substrate (2001–), jpeg (2004–), phg. (2012–), tripe (2018), and flower.s (2018–).
This will be Ruff’s tenth solo exhibition with David Zwirner since joining the gallery in 2000. On the occasion, a new publication on Ruff’s work, featuring an interview with the artist by Okwui Enwezor, is forthcoming from David Zwirner Books, and will be available in both English-only and bilingual English/traditional Chinese editions.
1 Guy Lane, "Thomas Ruff Interview," Foto8 Blog (October 24, 2009), accessed online.
Image: Installation view, Thomas Ruff: Transforming Photography, David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2019
"Over the past four decades, as photographs have become so important for the internet, social media and, not least, contemporary art—Ruff has produced series of works that are the result of his investigations into the nature of photography itself: its structure, its uses, its genres, its meanings. His is the generation that made the shift from analogue to digital photography, and only a small percentage of his work involves him being behind the camera. As the objects in his studio suggest, he is as interested in found, pre-existing images as in producing new, ‘original’ ones. And the question as to what can be ‘originaL’ or ‘real’ in a post-digital world flooded with images is only one of the discussions his works have raised." —Liz Jobey, "An interview with the artist Thomas Ruff", Financial Times, 2018
"I think photography is a very complicated medium, even though it seems to be very simple. On the one hand, there is the idea that it is a kind of pencil of nature, a machine capturing reality, and on the other hand, there is the complexity of the personality of both the photographer, who is deciding on the clipping, and the viewer, who is looking at and interpreting these images." —Thomas Ruff in conversation with Okwui Enwezor. This interview is included in the publication accompanying the exhibition, published by David Zwirner Books
Alongside photography, Ruff has long been interested in astronomy. Frustrated by his inability to create images of the night sky without specialized equipment, he purchased a collection of negatives from the European Southern Observatory (an international research center in Chile) that were taken between 1974 and 1987 as part of a mapping project, which he used to print large-scale, nearly abstract starscapes from 1989–1992.
"His approach is neither the romantic’s nor the stargazer’s; rather, he looks at the density of the stars—at the distribution, in other words, of tone and pattern. The sky becomes a place, a plane, of esthetic decision-making, with the factor under consideration being the relationship between the noncolors black and white. Perhaps more simply, the sky becomes a ground to be sampled." —Annelie Pohlen, Artforum
"‘Around 2002 I discovered that if you compress digital files using JPEG compression, the system creates what I felt was a very interesting pixel structure. So I started an investigation, asking myself—How does it work? Where does it come from? And then I decided to create whole images with this kind of abstract structure. The pictures I chose are mainly downloaded from the internet, but some are my own photographs taken with a small digital camera—and others are from books or postcards that attracted me. I had to re-scale the files to a very small size and then compress them as the worst possible quality JPEGS. Then I get my image. Mainly I let the technology do it, but of course where there are parts or colors I do not like I alter the result until I have a result I’m happy with." —Thomas Ruff in conversation with Guy Lane, Foto8 Blog, 2009
The Substrat works reflect Ruff’s interest in virtual imagery that no longer seems to depict reality, but instead transmits visual information electronically.
"The title Substrat provides the key to understanding the series, and indicates that Ruff is engaged in creating a new genre of abstract photography. In biochemistry, a 'substrate’ is a molecule modified by an enzyme, while in linguistics, a ‘substratum’ is an element of a language identified as being a relic of an earlier language that is now extinct. The word also refers to geological layers. In short, a substrate is a layered structure that is subject to intervention." —Valentina Sonzogni, "Substrat," in Thomas Ruff, 2009
"‘When I started [the nudes],’ the artist recalls, ‘it was just an investigation into the history of photography—there wasn’t any social context I was interested in or aware of—and nude photographs are a very important genre.. .I had already started investigating the structure of the digital image and I realized that if you calculate those files in a higher size and you shift the pixels, then it becomes kind of painterly.’" —Thomas Ruff in conversation with Liz Jobey in the Financial Times
"Ruff downloads images from free internet sites in their original size and format. He then manipulates the images, which are highly pixelated because of the low resolution of the originals. Using a digital retouching application, he modifies the pixelated images, changing and occasionally eliminating details to produce new compositions." —Valentina Sonzogni, "nudes," in Thomas Ruff, 2009
Begun in 2012, Ruff’s phg series is a collection of digitally rendered compositions that are reminiscent of the analog photograms made by the Surrealists in the 1920s by arranging objects on top of light-sensitive paper. "It’s camera-less photography," Ruff explains. "You don’t see the objects, but only shadows, which reminds me of Plato’s cave. The goal was really to make a kind of ‘new generation’ of the photogram.... I tried different types of photograms: some with lenses, some with spirals… I can imagine that [Laszlo] Moholy-Nagy would have been absolutely glad if he could have used my technology! The photograms are not so much about the perception and influence of photography in our daily lives. Maybe I just want to recall that artists used techniques in photography that enabled them to make completely artificial and abstract photographs and that these techniques are, unfortunately, nearly forgotten." —Thomas Ruff in conversation with Michael Famighetti, Aperture, 2013
Ruff’s work featured prominently in Photography Spotlight, an exhibition at the V&A in London celebrating the opening of the first phase of the museum’s new Photography Centre last year. As a special commission to inaugurate the space, Ruff created a new body of work titled Tripe/Ruff, based on Linnaeus Tripe’s paper negatives of India and Burma from the V&A’s collection.
A British army captain, Tripe was one of the first photographers to have surveyed the landscapes and buildings in India and Burma (now Myanmar) in the mid-nineteenth century. As Ruff explains in a video about the commission, "I’m very interested in the history of the practice of photography. I think in the very beginning the photographer had to solve a lot of different problems—papers, chemicals, printing techniques... I’ve never thought about the paper negative. I’m really surprised, astonished, and fascinated [by] how they made such beautiful photographs."
In 2018, Ruff began working on the flower.s series using a combination of digital manipulation and analog techniques to approximate "pseudo-solarization." Also known as the Sabattier effect, this is a technique invented in the late 19th century and favored by the Surrealists (in particular Man Ray), in which the light and dark areas of an image are partially inverted during a complicated printing process. To create these works, Ruff uses a digital camera to photograph flowers or leaves arranged on the surface of a light box before manipulating the composition in Photoshop to alter the tones. He then prints the image onto aged paper, imbuing the compositions with an antiquated feel.
"I realize there isn’t just one way to take a photograph—there are a thousand different ways," Ruff says. "I think photography is still the most influential medium in the world, and I have to deconstruct these conventions."