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Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff retrospective begins a three-year tour

The German photographer compares his serial working method to “a scientist carrying out a series of experiments”

Having opened the first leg of a six-nation mid-career show in Baden-Baden (until 13 January) after two substantial, successive auction records for his work and recently short-listed for next year’s CitiBank Photography prize, Thomas Ruff’s reputation is likely to blaze a meteoric trail over the next couple of years.

Although he has long been admired in Europe and the US, the British have barely begun to track his progress as one of the brightest stars, not just in photography, but across the firmament of contemporary art. The Baden-Baden show, curated by Matthias Winzen, will move to the Museum Folkwang in Essen (17 February 2002-14 April), followed by museums in Oslo, Munich, Dublin, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain), Port (Portugal), Liverpool and New York.

Active since the late 1970s, Ruff’s first UK exhibition took place only this September at London’s brand-new Essor Gallery. Persistence and intelligent analysis are key factors in Thomas Ruff’s creative strategy, instilled, no doubt, in that hotbed of artistic excellence, Düsseldorf’s Staatliche Kunstakademie (then under Joseph Beuys), by the intensely focused teaching style of Bernd and Hilla Becher—famous in their own right for their serial, large-format photographs of post-industrial archaeology—who nurtured a good half-dozen leading German photographers, as celebrated, yet different, as Andreas Gursky, Candida Hoffer and Thomas Struth.

A calm, undemonstrative man with a quiet sense of humour and enough confidence to avoid the clichéd exaggerations of current artspeak in favour of clarity and concision, Ruff, now 43, comes from the Black Forest area of Germany. He began his long apprenticeship with the Bechers (1977-85) a year before his friend and neighbour Gursky joined, at his urging. He still shares with Gursky half of a studio building in Düsseldorf, a city he describes as “boring—so, very good for working!”

Two years later, he began his first series “Intérieurs” (1979-83), domestic views shot in natural light inside his parents’ home and those of friends and relatives back in the Black Forest; these images were taken exactly as found, and inspired by the authenticity of Eugène Atget and Walker Evans. In true Becher fashion, the middle-class 1950s and 60s design environments these photographs record became a collective portrayal of a whole generation.

Meanwhile, Ruff was attracted by the possibilities of portrait photography, a genre that had then fallen into disuse among artists, and started on his first “Porträts”(1981-85). After much deliberation, he opted to invite friends and acquaintances of his own age to sit under carefully controlled conditions. Each would chose a colour background and be photographed in their everyday clothes, strictly without facial expression or any sign of emotion other than a normal, serious and calm demeanour.

Two later series of “Porträts” (1986-91, and 1998) dispensed with coloured backdrops, becoming pale and neutral and very much larger. Whereas the first were intimate (24 x 18 cm), these grew to more than two metres by over a metre and a half, severing their links with typical family snapshots and, effectively, creating a paradoxical distance of inescapable immediacy. He remarked: “at this size there is so much colour in the face and the clothes that I have chosen to do without the coloured background.”

Every microscopic detail, down to skin condition, came under close scrutiny, yet very little was revealed about the sitters themselves, whose expressionless portraits were subsumed within the collective category of a benign rogues gallery, allowing Ruff to legitimise his stance that “photography can only depict the surface of things”.

A serial approach, shared by many Becher schooled photographers, lies at the heart of his methodology. Despite the diversity of his subject matter, Ruff seems, far and away, its (and their) most determined adherent. He recently told Friederike Wappler: “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 photos—like a scientist carrying out a series of experiments…it is not enough to make a portrait of just one person…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’s why I work in series.”

The main thrust of his apposite experiments may be construed to mean that photography is a medium searching for a worthy subject.

Architecture became a central motif with “Haus” (1987-91), when Ruff explored 1950s to 1970s vernacular German architecture to sober effect, against uniform grey skies, selecting visual clichés from his surroundings in order to extend his portrayal of a generation into the built environment. Some were digitally manipulated.

Ruff introduced several crucial elements after 1990. In “Blaue Augen” (Blue Eyes), 1991, he replaced dark eyes in twelve portraits with piercing blue ones, persuasively subverting the supposed authenticity of portraiture. “Andere Porträts (Other portraits)”, 1994-95, made for the Venice Biennale of 1995, took the layering process further. Large, black and white screen-prints from slides made with police photo-fit equipment created uncannily disquieting, hybrid likenesses composed from two faces.

When Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron asked him to portray their buildings for the Architectural Biennial of 1991, he chose the Ricola storage depot in Laufen, got another photographer to make the pictures to his requirements, then combined the material on a computer, eschewing straight documentation in favour of an ideal representation.

Further collaboration ensued.

Fascinated by astronomy, Ruff obtained negatives of the night sky from the archives of the European Southern Observatory in Chile to make huge, near-abstract compositions animated by white dots against infinite black. Scientific information became an aesthetic backdrop to romantic notions, with titles reduced to numerical coordinates denoting place and time.

Similarly “Zeitungsfotos” (Newspaper photos), 1990-91 grew out of a 2,500 strong collection of captionless press images which he had cut out and stored over ten years, having chosen them for their pictorial qualities, rather than news value. For “Nacht” (Night), inspired by the eerie green night photography seen on TV during the Gulf War, Ruff used an image intensifier and photographed sites in Düsseldorf between 1992 and 1996. Familiar places became disquieting, blurred, greenish images of potential crime scenes, correlated to wartime media armchair voyeurism.

Sexual voyeurism became the source, downloaded from internet porn sites, for the most democratic variety of sexual proclivities possible when he was researching new ways to represent the classical nude for an ongoing series started in 1999. The low resolution material, once enlarged and altered by computer manipulation, allows Ruff to distil poses whose formal qualities transcend their origin in the sex trade (an attitude he judges to be “more honest” than prudish alternatives in mainstream photography) to become highly aesthetic, yet real, “nudes”.

Ruff’s recent work employs a multi-layered procedure. His altered images of iconic 1920s and 30s buildings by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “l.m.v.d.r” (1999-2001) were made in response to two requests, for an exhibition in Krefeld and last summer’s “Mies in Berlin” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The buildings and interiors became a palimpsest for “layer, after layer, after layer, after layer” of archive material; his own photography and computer manipulation transforms the two-dimensional document into a virtual, yet extremely painterly, reality.

At first sight, the highly abstract, extremely colourful ink-jet prints with amoeba-like shapes from his latest series, “Substrat” (2001), are not photographs, save in process. Instead they result from his experiments with pixels, being “completely digital”; “the original source is comics,” he says. Only then does one notice their sculptural qualities and acknowledge that Ruff has perhaps arrived beyond “the surface of things.”

The source of Ruff’s particular vision, allied to his great technical know-how and formal ability, stems from his curiosity about the world at large and an acute sense of the creative possibilities afforded to visual communication by advanced technology, all of it married to relentless craftsmanship and the sheer inventiveness, evinced by successive series, with which a mature intellect engages in a child-like affinity for serious fun.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Technically Ruff'