Substrat 16 III 2003
Nudes Obe06 2001
Thomas Ruff enrolled at Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf in 1977 where he received both criticism and advice under the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Whilst there, he started to develop a wider approach to the medium of photography, as well as experimenting with various techniques.
He continues to develop new series of works, subjects that he chooses to investigate simultaneously. While these subjects may appear to be distinct from one another they are linked by Ruff’s conceptual approach to image-making and a fascination with the processes of photography and image manipulation, as well as the viewers’ perception. In each instance he examines how the subject has been approached by other photographers. He also looks at different techniques in order to exploit what they can offer. These processes inform his decisions on production and how the final image will look.His first series Interieurs (1979-83) comprised views of domestic settings. Ruff was concerned with capturing an ‘essence’ of these spaces so that those who encountered the photographs would then identify with homes of a certain era –their furnishings acting as signifiers. So, while each space was denoted as individual -a result of the home-making of the inhabitants- the series could also be read as a collective image of a particular period. It was while working on Interieurs that the artist developed an interest in portrait photography. He asked friends and acquaintances to sit for him and photographed them all under the same conditions. Ruff allowed the sitter to choose a coloured background but asked them to wear their normal, everyday clothes and maintain as neutral a facial expression as possible. In this way, with each individual photographed to the same condition the series began to resemble an investigation into the human face, a standardisation of race. As Ruff continued to develop the portraits he chose to replace the coloured backgrounds with a pale, neutral backdrop and also greatly enlarged the format (from 24 x 18 centimetres in the early works to 210 x 165 centimetres). He later revisited the genre of portraiture experimenting with swapping the subjects’ eye colours in Porträts, or overlaying images to form a new individual in the Andere Porträts (realised as screen prints). His tireless investigations into these distinct series have included architectural photographs where the artist applied some of the same stylistic and compositional devices used in his portraits to individual buildings. By employing a calm, rigorous pictorial structure, and largely avoiding foreground, the emphasis is placed entirely on the building photographed. Once more, as with the earlier series Interieurs, the inanimate serves to convey the essence of place and era as the artist concentrates on the characteristic features of a building.
His particular approach to photographing architecture led to a commission in 1990 by the Swiss-based architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron for their representation in the Venice Architecture Biennale. Jacques Herzog described Ruff’s photographs of the Ricola Warehouse as being ‘like a passport photo’ linking it visually and explicitly to the portraits. In this instance Ruff employed image manipulation, something that he had avoided so strenuously in Porträts, in order to allow a greater clarity of composition. The photographs resulting from the commission show a view of the building that cannot be perceived in reality; the viewer could never stand at a distance which would allow them to see the entire building without incidental elements blocking their view.
His collaboration with the architects extended to his involvement in the design for the façade of the library for the Fachhochschule Eberswalde using newspaper photographs from the series of the same name.
Ruff’s role in these projects in turn led to a further commission in 1998 by Julian Heynen, to photograph buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the 1920s and 1930s. This represented a direct challenge to the artist’s established working methods in architectural photography. He had previously photographed buildings almost incidentally, choosing them for their rationality, their anonymity, their ability to represent the visual cliché of ‘the building’. Now he had been asked to engage with buildings that were universally known and admired. This challenge prompted Ruff to subject the photographs (which eventually formed the series l.m.v.d.r.) to a series of manipulations that rendered the famous facades almost incidental and effectively lowered their status to backdrop for a composition. In this way he was able to prompt the viewer to re-examine the architectural clichés associated with such a great architect, whilst still maintaining the integrity and artistic achievement apparent in the buildings.
At the same time that Ruff was working on the portraits and houses he decided to use visual material from other sources. A childhood interest in astronomy prompted a desire to make photographs of the night sky, however this desire was hampered by the inability of the artist’s existing photographic equipment to record clear, sharp images of the subject. He overcame this technical limitation by buying copies of 600 negatives that were held in archive of the European Southern Observatory. He used these negatives as a type of source material, selecting small sections of the negative and reproducing them in large format. By doing this Ruff aimed to clarify the pictorial structure and, at the same time, change the status of these cold, scientific images to that of individual artistic images, hence opening up their viability for interpretation. Notions of romance or passing time are invoked by the photographs which, nonetheless, maintain the title assigned to them by the scientists.
With Zeitungsfotos (‘newspaper photos’ 1990-91) Ruff continued his use of found source material by using newspaper photographs that he had collected from the German press over several years. He had been prompted to keep images which appealed to him as interesting, unusual or absurd. He chose to re-photograph and enlarge the images, isolating them from their accompanying text, and framing them as image in their own right. Again Ruff was addressing a cliché of representation; again he subverted the status of the original allowing for wider possibilities of interpretation.
The advent of the Gulf War in 1991 gave rise to a proliferation in images taken with a night-vision camera being broadcast on television news channels world-wide. Ruff decided to use an image intensifier to portray the nocturnal cityscape of Düsseldorf as a theatre of war. Although the scenes that the artist photographed were comparatively innocuous, the concentration of war imagery in the media imbued the blurred and uncertain images with a sense of foreboding or unease. If one considers the influence of cinematic devices employed in the genre of film noir or by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock with the film ‘Rear Window’ the unspoken threat is increased.
Thomas Ruff’s intense interest in the political developments in Europe during the 1990s led him to develop a series that was much more overtly political in nature than his previous works. An interest in the political posters of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the work of John Heartfield, prompted him to work on the series Plakat (‘poster’, started in 1996). He decided to use existing photographic images with a political content while updating the ‘cut and paste’ techniques used by practitioners such as Heartfield by using a computer programme to digitally re-master the works. Ruff employed the accompanying text of the propaganda poster using it to comment on developments in European politics of the time. His work differs from the posters of the early part of the century primarily as a result of his use of digital technology. The space of the collaged posters appears very different to that of the works by Ruff since he is able to merge and adjust the different layers resulting in a strange spatial perception.
Nudes forms the most recent series that the artist has worked on and draws together every type of image manipulation that Ruff has, thus far, experimented with. He accessed images via the internet and used them as the basis for departure in this series. He was influenced by the poor resolution offered which gave the pictures a coarse, pixellated finish. He was also interested in the way that many of the pictures held striking similarities to classical nudes thereby relocating aesthetic sensibilities in an entirely different area. Ruff subjected the images to a digital re-mastering programme which allowed him to soften lines and blur details, to adjust colour or remove incidental objects. Through these processes the images appeared to be even more artificial and contrived while the surfaces were rendered more painterly and abstract. In this way the boundaries between illicit and classical became uncertain and the content of the photographs could be re-appraised.
Throughout his artistic career Ruff seems to have been driven by his interest in the medium of photography and how defined boundaries may be extended. His approach is typified by an interest in the ‘non-truth’ of the photograph, often coupled with an emphasis on the surface of the image. He confronts viewers with fundamental questions: What does photography have to offer us? How does our perception work and how is it affected by the dimension of time? Can there be such a thing as photographic truth? All these questions are addressed and deftly handled by the artist through his continuing investigations into the medium of photography:
‘Every photo makes a claim. In order to prove that the visual claim is right, I have to set up a whole series of similar shots – like a scientist carrying out a series of experiments. Apart from that, I am convinced that it is not enough to make a portrait of just one person if you want to get an idea of the human being. In order to have as comprehensive a picture as possible, you have to make portraits of as many people as possible. The same applies to houses, heavenly bodies, newspaper photos, night shots and so on, right down to sexual fantasies. A single picture is too little, that is why I work in series’ .