Thomas Ruff is a German photographer associated with the Dusseldorf School of Photography. Over the course of his three-decade career, it is his medium that has served as his subject matter. Constantly circling a curiosity about 'visual systems', Ruff's work is rooted in a belief that photography need not portray the truth of an image; rather, it is the image itself that needs to be authentic.Read More
Working in self-contained series, Ruff gained renown with 'Porträts' (Portraits) (1981—1985/ 1986—1991), expressionless images of his friends and colleagues that he later enlarged to a towering scale.
One of six children, Ruff was born in Zell am Harmersbach, a small town in the Black Forest, Germany. He was an academic child, excelling in maths and science and developing a keen interest in astronomy. As a teenager, Ruff dreamt of becoming a travelling photographer for National Geographic, and it was his imitations of the magazine-style landscapes of his local surroundings that got him a place at the Dusseldorf Art Academy.
Ruff studied at the Art Academy from 1977 to 1985 under influential photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Ruff, who had little knowledge of contemporary art at the time, believed it was important to study around sculptors and painters in order to recognise the 'limits and advantages' of photography. He similarly recalled Bernd Becher telling him, 'If you work with a medium you should reflect the medium in the work itself.' Like his Dusseldorf School contemporaries Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Höfer, Ruff inherited the exacting objectivity of his tutors but focused it primarily on the method of producing artwork, rather than the artwork's intended meaning.
Thomas Ruff's practice intentionally explores the fundamentals of photography, both in terms of its classical genre conventions— the nude, the portrait, and the landscape—and its technical constraints. Half of his artworks are now created from behind a computer screen as opposed to a viewfinder, shifting the notion of authorship by drawing from archival and internet source material to demonstrate how photographs are created and manipulated.
In 1979, Thomas Ruff worked for a commercial photographer to finance his studies, taking photographs for brochures for the building industry. Driven by this exposure to his local environment and the work of documentary photographer Eugène Atget, his response to an assignment set by Becher to photograph chairs resulted in a series of tightly cropped, small-scale interior scenes, using his own apartment and those of relatives and friends. In Interieur 13B (1980), the viewer's eyes are drawn to the quaint décor and distinctive furniture in a snapshot of post-war West German prosperity.
Thomas Ruff's 'Porträts' series began in 1981 with a series of small portraits of his friends and colleagues at the academy, asking them to face the camera, their gaze fixed straight ahead. His aim was to create clear and detailed photographs that acted as a generational portrait but without the crucial information that usually accompanied such documentative images.
Initially the artworks were arranged in rows, not unlike mugshots, but it was when they were enlarged to monumental proportions that they gained widespread acclaim. In Portrait (T. Bernstein) (1988), the two-metre print was mounted directly to a sheet of Plexiglas to enhance the sheen of the skin and make visible every pore, amplifying the strangely intimate experience of regarding a stranger's face at such close range.
Ruff's 'Sterne' (Star) series marked a significant turning point in his career, not only because it indulged his lifelong affinity for astronomy but moved away from the camera viewfinder to the archive, relinquishing his ability to 'pull the trigger.' Sourcing over 1000 photographs from the European Southern Observatory in Chile in the form of 29cm negatives, he enlarged, cropped, and reorientated the swirling compositions, tying them together with the astrological coordinates in the title, as in Sterne (Stars) 20h 00m/-35° (1992/2016).
Ruff's 'nudes' series spanned much of the late 1990s to 2012. It again explored an historic genre of artwork and photography but in what Ruff hoped would be a much more honest way. Starting with a cursory Google search of the words 'sex' and 'fetish', he noticed the compositional quality of some of the thumbnails. Ruff had already started investigating the structure of digital images by this time and realised that if he enlarged the files, the pixels would shift and eventually become painterly. The result, as seen in nudes ab06 (2006), gives a sense of movement and an almost dream-like quality in the blur and large scale of the artwork.
In 2016, Ruff won the Artist of the Year award at American Friends of Museums (AFIM), New York. He won the PHotoEspaña 2011 Award and the International Center of Photography Infinity Award in 2006. In 2003, Ruff won the Hans-Thoma Preis from the Hans-Thoma Museum.
Thomas Ruff has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include Thomas Ruff: after.images — Works 1989—2020, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung (2021); Thomas Ruff, K20 — Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf (2020); Thomas Ruff: Serien, Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich (2019); Thomas Ruff, National Portrait Gallery, London (2017); and Inbox: Thomas Ruff, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014).
Group exhibitions include Le supermarché des images, Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing (2021); Mindbombs, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany (2021); Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago (2020); Fact and Fiction in Contemporary Photography, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha (2020); and Bauhaus and Photography: On Neues Sehen in Contemporary Art, Museum für Fotografie — Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin (2019).
Annie Curtis | Ocula | 2021