Tuesday, 18 December 2007



The photography of Thomas Ruff belongs to The Düsseldorf School, reflects his training at the Academy there under Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers stressed a documentary approach, an awareness of design and history to the most mundane or overlooked artefacts (see also Post 41). For Ruff the pictorial standards for such cataloguing have in turn become the object of his work, so that subjects or topics are often secondary or deliberately distanced. A category of picture, or genre, is revealed in his work by revising typical or expected features in some way, emphasising some, introducing or omitting others. He thus extends documentation to the means of collection, pictorial categories themselves. His contribution is by far the most radical of the school and effectively signals the dissolution of the Bechers’ project, to some extent the limits of traditional photography.

Ruff’s development is usefully contrasted with that of fellow student Andreas Gursky. For Gursky it is the Bechers’ wide angle restraint and frontality that inspire further additions to categories of architecture and civic planning, by retreating to loftier vantage points. Ruff’s approach is quite the opposite. Initially he concerns himself with intimate décor (crucially introduces colour relations) and notably portraiture confined to head and shoulders, against a blank background under flat lighting. It is obviously the format of official identification records, yet since the photographs are taken with a large format camera, allowing high resolution to negative and are printed to roughly life-size, the effect creates a curious jarring to the familiar format.

The pictures are so much more than the little ID of a passport or badge that the format now seems intensely artificial or arbitrary, the sitters, all the more unknown or anonymous, for the greater scrutiny. In fact it is the ID format itself that is now displayed, simply through a shift in scale and resolution, and takes on prominence as a fiercely exclusive, even confrontational genre. Much is made of the sombre expressions of the sitters, but given the dedication to neutrality and facial features, a stony concentration seems only appropriate.

Gursky also quickly adopts colour and then digital manipulation (inspired by Jeff Wall) in furthering his grand and intricate designs. For Ruff the ID format confirms the potential of photographic formats and techniques rather than prompting other brackets of individuals or groups. He is also drawn to digital options, but only as his interest switches to found pictures or established categories that can be manipulated or re-presented through them. In the 90s Ruff adopts infrared or night imaging and applies it to nondescript architecture, sometimes comic garden ornaments to showcase a military or police format and the work echoes the uneasy dedication of the ID format in its narrow focus, its gritty green chiaroscuro. Other works from the time use police ID modelling software to create fictive suspects and elsewhere stereoscopic presentations, while the range of found imagery stretches from studies of the night sky to political montages and modernist architecture. Official records of the stars are presented in greatly enlarged prints and sharpened focus, but as with the portraits, the effect is also of content distanced by the new context, a specific configuration of stars rendered as an abstraction, a rigid range of dots, distant and decorative.

Architectural themes continue throughout Ruff’s career. He turns to public and high rise housing, office blocks and warehouses. But here the ‘distinctive’ features tend to rely upon setting for scale, colour and other circumstance, are less strict in composition, less distinctive as format. Found works dispense with the formality, so to speak, proceed from publication and further function. Ruff tints portions if only to alert us to their altered or revised status, the presence of further print options. A Mies van der Rohe house for example is cleverly sentimentalised, or imbued with advertising hyperbole.

Ruff’s attention thus steadily shifts to digital and printing options. In the new century stock shots of equipment are similarly tinted, disengaged from illustration. In the Substrate series, comics are filtered through Photoshop to pure, but perfunctory abstraction. More recently web sourced imagery ranges from catastrophes to tourist spots and historical episodes, all stretched beyond pixel integrity in printing and rated for popularity and access by this pictorial economising. Lastly there are nudes drawn from porn sites, and these are blurred, somewhat like a Gerhard Richter, but do not quite filter photography from pornography. Ruff’s project has led him to new tools and an impressive range of themes, the work however is in matching them.

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