When Marcel Duchamp titled and signed a metal rack for drying bottles (Bottle Rack, 1914), a snow shovel (In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915), and most famously a urinal (Fountain, 1917), he called attention to the essential supremacy of the artist. Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ operated firstly on the notion of artist authority, where simply choosing the object and designating it as art is considered a creative act; and secondly on the understanding that the contextual setting often determines how an object or image is perceived. In other words, if it’s in a museum, it’s art. Throughout his career, Thomas Ruff has explored both aspects, questioning the distinctions between his dual roles as artist and photographer, as well as probing photography’s capacity for appropriation by taking functional imagery, such as that from science or journalism, and altering it to operate as art.
Alongside Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth, Ruff has been a key figure in the prominent Dusseldorf School of Photography – also known as the ‘Becher school’ – since the early 1980s. Under the tutelage of the photographers and conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher at the city’s Staatliche Kunstakademie, this generation of photographers took the methodical, taxonomic approach of the Bechers and applied conceptual modifications, veering from the pure ‘straight’ photography of their mentors to produce works that functioned more self-consciously as art, and ushering in a new era for photography where the medium was not simply accepted as art but embraced. Given the renown of Ruff and his Dusseldorf School contemporaries, it is somewhat surprising to discover that ‘Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979–2017’, which runs at The Whitechapel Gallery from 27 September to 21 January 2018, is the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in London.
Retrospectives are often treated as opportunities to show the development of an artist’s output and to reveal commonalities that are perhaps less evident when individual works or projects are exhibited in isolation. Ruff’s oeuvre, however, is not characterized by any obvious linear development, nor does he favour a particular style or subject; he takes on whatever strikes his interest in the moment. In fact, walking through this exhibition, the only apparent common denominators are a tendency toward the ultra-large format, a preference for producing in series, and perhaps the power of the artist – of Ruff himself.
Although not in chronological order, the Whitechapel’s exhibition starts with some of Ruff’s earlier series, such as Sterne (Stars) (1989–92) – the first in which Ruff abandoned his camera in favour of existing photographs. In three huge (2.6 by 1.9 m) prints from the series, images of the night sky captured by a high-performance telescope at the European Southern Observatory (situated in the Andes, Chile) are recast as abstractions through Ruff’s careful cropping, where the whiteness of star clusters become patterns against the pure blackness of space. Adjacent to these in the ground floor gallery, are equally large examples from Ruff’s series, ma.r.s. (2010–ongoing), in which he similarly transformed NASA satellite images of Mars’s surface into abstract patterns by digitally altering the perspective and introducing highly saturated colours. In both instances, raw scientific information becomes aesthetic expression.
Further examples of Ruff’s use of existing images are scattered throughout the exhibition. In series such as jpeg (2004–ongoing) and nudes (1999–ongoing) Ruff employs imagery from the internet and pornography to explore the fundamental building block of the digital image – the pixel. In both series, images have been enlarged to such an extent that the original subjects are unrecognizable. Like the brushstrokes and impasto of impressionist paintings, the pixels themselves become the subject. Similarly, in Substrate (2001–ongoing), Ruff has digitally altered single frames from Japanese anime to create painterly abstractions. In all of these series, shifts of meaning occur through Ruff’s careful cropping, enlargement and digital manipulation, but equally significant is the movement from their original contexts – the science lab, the newspaper and the film or TV screen – onto the gallery wall; by simply changing their contextual settings Ruff has thereby changed their meanings.
To be clear, not all of Ruff’s projects involve appropriated imagery. Well-represented at the Whitechapel exhibition are many of the series in which Ruff has acted as both artist and photographer, such as Interieurs (Interiors) (1979–83) in which Ruff documented the living spaces of family and friends in Dusseldorf, Häuser (Houses) (1987–91), a study of suburban German buildings which references architectural photography, and L’Empereur (1982), where Ruff is artist, photographer as well as subject, posing for his own camera in impossibly contorted positions.
Also featured is the famed Porträts (Portraits) (1986–91), the series which first brought Ruff international attention and the one with which he is most often associated. Sometimes referred to as ‘the passport photos’, these enormous portraits feature expressionless sitters, shown from the shoulders up, in front of a neutral backdrop. Viewing these portraits online does them no favours, as the screen nullifies their size and scale, making them appear bland and underwhelming – like passport photos. Their potency comes instead from being viewed on the gallery wall, where their incongruous size contrasts with our conventional perception of ID pictures. The unforgiving frontal headshot, normally (and mercifully) presented in miniature is here blown up larger than life, showcasing the sitters’ every blemish, but also rendering monumentality to a typically pedestrian form. Once again, meaning has shifted, but in this case it is not the image that has been subjected to appropriation and alteration, but rather the form itself.
Ruff has continued this exploration of photographic forms and processes in more recent series, such as Fotogramme (Photograms) (2012–ongoing) and Negative (2014), which are displayed in the Whitechapel’s upstairs galleries. In the former, Ruff recreates the camera-less process made famous in the 1920s by Man Ray and Lázló Maholy-Nagy, this time by digitizing the technique. The original photogram method, in which objects were placed on photosensitive paper and exposed to light in order to create shadow patterns, was notably limited by its mechanical nature and rendered typically small, black and white images. In his own versions, Ruff has dispensed many of the photogram’s characteristic elements, such as the photographic paper, the small size, the monochrome and the technique itself, choosing instead to make large-scale digital paintings that essentially mimic the look of traditional photograms. Similarly, in the latter series, his negatives may look like traditional tonally-reversed images, but they have been created from original 19th century positive prints, whose sepia tones Ruff has digitally reversed into blues and whites. In both series, Ruff has recreated the aesthetic of traditional photographic forms by breaking every rule of the processes that defined them.
Meaning, as Duchamp perhaps cynically demonstrated, is precarious. But in no medium is this more evident than in photography, where despite the evidential nature of its subject and its subsequent association with fact, the meaning of a photograph is rarely fixed. As a photographer, Ruff is implicitly aware of and engaged with the specifics of his medium and its processes, but at the same time, the enthusiasm with which he traverses its boundaries in order to create works that reach beyond the merely photographic is both compelling and revealing. In photography, as in the readymade, the line between the applied and the aesthetic can be a thin one, but as the Whitechapel’s retrospective seems to illustrate, that transformation is ultimately located in Ruff’s own interferences – for this is where information becomes object, where the photograph becomes art, and where the photographer becomes artist.
Main image: Thomas Ruff, 16h 30m / -50° (detail), 1989, c-type print, 2.6 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: © Thomas Ruff