At first glance, Thomas Ruff’s engagement with the photographic image appears remarkably disparate. It runs from formal and carefully crafted photographs of domestic interiors, to the appropriation and re-presentation of old photographs; from highly detailed portraits made with a large format camera, to blow-ups of low resolution image files found online; from the slow and considered photography of urban buildings, to the manipulation of images beamed back from the surface of Mars; from resolutely analogue photographic practices to computer generated images that stretch the definition of photography to breaking point.
Ruff studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, under Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German photographers renowned for their typologies of anonymous industrial architecture (formal black and white photographs of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, and the like). Ruff has retained the Bechers’ analytical and systematic approach, but he is interested less in types of subject matter than types of image. Visual culture is structured by photographic conventions and standardized uses of camera technologies. Ruff selects different image types and makes his own versions of them. He relies on presentation in the space of art to set up a critical distance that allows viewers to consider his images in relation to the images that surround us daily.
In 1981 he began photographing his friends. In the “Portrait” series, all personal insight and psychological depth is put aside in favor of plain neutrality. The images appear to be more technically precise versions of the generic identity card or passport photograph. Calm, serious, and anonymous. They were made at a time of heightened paranoia in both West and East Germany. The Cold War was still a real source of fear, as were the national security services that kept a close eye on citizens. In 1986 Ruff began printing them big (160 x 120 cm), the shift in scale adding to the estranging effect.
In 1992, shortly after the end of the Gulf War, Ruff began his “Nacht” series. These images were made using a light-amplifying camera of the kind that was commonly found in tanks and military fighter aircraft, and used for missions after dark. Ruff used the camera to shoot banal city scenes, but the technological aesthetic renders them sinister, as if these places are under suspicion, being watched and monitored. The green comes from the phosphorescent screen. Very few photojournalists were permitted to cover the Gulf War. Instead television and newspapers used images supplied by the Allied forces, made with specialized camera equipment.
Cameras record, and on that basic level they have a degree of objectivity. They are also prosthetic devices, extending and transforming vision. Whatever its artistic possibilities, most of photography’s uses are highly functional, and it is largely scientific, industrial, and military imperatives that drive the advances in camera technology. Nevertheless, all images have an aesthetic dimension. Ruff accepts all this, and sees his artistic practice as a kind of parallel commentary on the status of the photographic image in general.
Further works by Thomas Ruff in the Baloise art collection:
Inv. no. 0638, Nacht 9 I, 1993, C-print on paper, 139.5 x 144 cm
Inv. no. 0641, Portrait, 1987, C-print on paper, 159.5 x 120 cm