On an overcast summer’s day in Düsseldorf, Thomas Ruff arrived back from a lunchtime walk accompanied by a small brown poodle, whose trips across the floor to check out the weather would be our only interruption that afternoon. Ruff works from a beautiful studio designed for him in 2011 by the Swiss architects Herzog de Meuron, who designed Tate Modern.
This is the second they’ve done for him; the first is in a nearby building they converted a decade earlier for him and the artist Andreas Gursky, who, like Ruff, was a student at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the early 1980s. Photographs back then show Ruff with a head of long wavy hair, but now, at 59 a compact figure of medium height, his hair is neatly cut short. As he shows me round the enormous space lit by a tracer-line of halogen lights high above us, he offers the dog an exit to the garden, which it elegantly declines.
Despite the studio’s volume, there is relatively little of Ruff’s work in evidence. Instead there are objects from the collection he’s made over the years — a group of model spaceships, what looks like a life-sized dinosaur’s skull, an Ed Kienholz TV sculpture and, on the floor, a stack of 1920s German travel books bought recently at auction. On one table there is a computer, papers, books; on another a scale model of the interiors of the Whitechapel Gallery, where his retrospective opens later this month.
“He’s got this huge thinking space — I find it quite thrilling,” Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, told me. “Really, there is very little photography going on there. But a lot of thinking, a lot of figuring out, and a lot of models, bits of this and that. It’s like he’s sitting there thinking about it all, shuffling it around and figuring how to absorb it into his own repertoire.”
Over the past four decades, as photographs have become so important for the internet, social media and, not least, contemporary art — Ruff has produced series of works that are the result of his investigations into the nature of photography itself: its structure, its uses, its genres, its meanings. His is the generation that made the shift from analogue to digital photography, and only a small percentage of his work involves him being behind the camera. As the objects in his studio suggest, he is as interested in found, pre-existing images as in producing new, “original” ones. And the question as to what can be “original” or “real” in a post-digital world flooded with images is only one of the discussions his works have raised.
Born in 1958 in a small town in Baden-Württemburg, he’d dreamed as a teenager, he says, of becoming “a travelling photographer working for National Geographic”. But after school he had applied to the Kunstakademie because he’d thought “beautiful photographs must be taken at an art academy where they did those beautiful paintings”. What he didn’t realise was that his professor there would be Bernd Becher, who, with his wife Hilla, was responsible for some of the most influential photographs in contemporary art.
“I grew up in the Black Forest and the cheapest way to take photographs was to take slides,” he explains. “You don’t have to pay for a print. You don’t have to develop it. So I only took slides and they were mainly landscapes — from the Black Forest or holidays when I went to Italy or to Greece or Spain with my friends. I knew National Geographic and all those photo magazines, and my photographs were more or less imitations. I just sent a box with what I thought at that time were my 20 most beautiful photographs to the art academy and, yes, Bernd Becher accepted me.
“I didn’t know the work of the Bechers. I had no knowledge of contemporary art or contemporary photography. I knew only these colour magazines. And I was totally shocked when I realised that Bernd Becher would be my professor, because” — he laughs, referring to the Bechers’ own precise black-and-white photographs — “I thought, these are the most boring industrial photographs I had ever seen!
“But already in my first year I realised, OK, I’m wrong, he’s right, and when I asked him, ‘Bernd, why did you accept me, because it’s the opposite of what you do?’ he said, ‘Oh, Thomas, I just thought how you work with colour is interesting . . . ’ ”
From his very first works as a student, Ruff has produced discrete series, groups of visually related works around a particular interest. He sees them more as pieces of a puzzle rather than a logical progression of ideas. “Some pieces fit together; sometimes there is no connection between them. A lot of my work comes from — you can call it private interest. I see something that upsets me, or makes me laugh or makes me think, what is this strange thing? Then, when I start working on it, I think, oh this is not only interesting for me, but it could also be interesting for another audience.”
One of his earliest series was of domestic interiors, for which he used his own apartment in Düsseldorf, and the houses of his parents, friends and relatives. The pictures were tightly framed to emphasise the style of the furniture, the carpets, wallpaper, cabinets, cushions, ornaments, all period signifiers of Wirtschaftswunder, the West German economic boom of the 1950s-1970s. Together they formed a kind of index of postwar petit-bourgeois life.
Since then, Ruff has produced series that range from the large colour portraits that first brought him international recognition, to studies of postwar German buildings (the “exteriors” to his interiors), to experiments with photomontage and press photographs, and to works sourced from Nasa and other space organisations. He has downloaded jpegs from the internet, decompressing them to create large, pixelated images that emphasise the mathematical structures that allow them to be so easily and widely shared.
He has made 21st-century photograms and created digital negatives from 19th-century prints. He has conjured random magnetic curves with 3D software that represent, as he explains, “the image before it becomes visually recognisable; Photoshop before Photoshop”. All of this adds up to a sort of lexicon of ways in which photography is seen and understood; or, as the critic David Campany has put it, a “visual primer” for our times.
For all the heterogeneity of Ruff’s later output, the pictures that brought him to critical attention — and for which he is probably still most widely known — are the series of portraits of his fellow students that he began to make in 1981.
“The idea was to make portraits of my friends and colleagues at the art academy and I wanted to treat them all the same way: everybody is unique but, at the same time, no one is more important than the other. Our heroes as students were the minimal and conceptual artists, but at that time the portrait had almost disappeared from this part of contemporary art, so I wanted to try a new minimalistic contemporary portrait.”
He planned to do about 100 portraits and to make each one as clear and detailed as possible. Every person was photographed frontally, to just below the shoulders, with the head filling the frame. The subject could choose his or her own clothes, but they were all asked to face the camera without any expression — no smiling or “flirting” or taking a pose — and to look out levelly, straight ahead. The pictures were made in the studio under controlled conditions, using flash and a large-format camera that gave a precise, almost forensic amount of detail to the skin, hair, eyes. In their directness and emotional flatness what they most resembled were giant passport photographs, with all the connotations of political and social identity this carried. At the same time, they were notionally “harmless”; absolutely recognisable as healthy young Europeans but still, anonymous, even cold. Between 1981 and 1985, Ruff made them as 8 x 10in prints. But in 1986, he decided to enlarge them and produced them as huge, framed portraits measuring 5 x 7ft high.
Having stood before some of these giant portraits for the first time in the mid-1990s, I can testify to their effect. At first their impassive indifference felt almost like an insult. On the other hand, given the opportunity to examine the face of another human being at such close range was peculiarly fascinating, almost intimate, not unlike seeing yourself in a magnifying mirror, first repelled then driven to go closer.
When they were exhibited towards the end of the 1980s, some critics reacted violently, finding an implicit threat in their standardisation and impenetrability. Ruff was accused of using “anti-modern, nationalist aesthetics”. One critic, Ruff says, described the portrait as being “either fascist, National Socialist art, or Soviet realism”. (This made him so angry that in 1991 he made a new series of portraits, taking the bluest eyes from one and giving them to all the others. “I thought, this asshole, if he says I am a Nazi I will behave like a Nazi; I will grow blue-eyed children. But when I installed them in a row on the wall I thought, oh, they are not like Aryan Nazi portraits, this looks more like genetic engineering; they look like what parents want their babies to be.”)
The impact of the portraits on the art world was immediate. “OK, the Bechers were accepted in the art world,” Ruff says. “But there were collectors who would not even look with their ass at a photograph, and they stopped and they were shocked and they looked at the work. And that,” he says with evident satisfaction, “was the final emancipation [of photography] as art of the first degree.
“And then,” he adds with a smile, “of course it was our fault that, in the meantime, every photographer — even if it’s the most boring photograph, it is printed at the size of 180 x 230cm and we are guilty, we are responsible for this.”
What he is referring to is the effect he and his fellow Becher students — not only Gursky but, notably, Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer and Axel Hütte — had on the way photographs were shown. Having absorbed the Bechers’ precepts — clarity, objectivity, precision, a thorough theoretical grounding — they went on to achieve the kind of success in the art world other photographers could only dream about. In the years that followed, though their work would be increasingly divergent, they were collectively known as the Düsseldorf School.
I ask Ruff how crucial the Bechers’ work had been for him. “I have a simple answer to that,” he says. “When I was studying, Bernd and Hilla Becher were in a kind of historical position. What they did was perfect for them, but I didn’t feel I had to follow them on every point. It’s a question of generation. I thought, I really admire their work, but it’s probably not the right thing for me.”
What was important, he says, was the influence of the Kunstakademie as a place, one where artists such as Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter had studied and taught. “I think we were all so successful because we didn’t go to technical or photography school, we studied at an art academy. When I was a student I discussed my work not with my colleagues at the Becher Klasse, I discussed it with my friends who were sculptors, who were painters; they were not photographers. And because we had this wide range of media, we could look at photography much more precisely; recognise its limits and advantages and then develop a very precise photographic image.”
Was there anything he’d taken away that was still relevant to his work today?
“Yes, very definitely,” he replies. “There is one sentence I will always remember that Bernd once told me, which was: ‘Thomas, if you work with a medium you should reflect the medium in the work itself.’ And that was perfectly them. But it was also perfectly [the case] for a lot of other artists, like Gerhard Richter. If he does a painting, he’s thinking about painting. It’s an important sentence for every artist — be it a sculptor, a painter, whatever — you have to be aware of what you are doing and what kind of medium you are using.”
For Ruff, to a much greater extent than his fellow students, his medium has become his subject. “I can say that Andreas Gursky, or Thomas Struth — they are working in a completely different way. I am just curious about any kind of visual systems, and if I find a visual system or technology that I don’t know yet, then I get very interested.”
While still working on the portraits, he had already begun to investigate the possibility of photographing the night sky. Astronomy had been a passion since childhood. It had been a choice, he says, between astronomy in Heidelberg or photography in Düsseldorf. He still owns a telescope, still reads astronomy magazines. But the idea had been impossible. He had to find another solution.
“Until then,” he says, “I was the author of the photographs. I was the person who pulled the trigger. But with the stars, that was the first time I was unable to pull the trigger, because I didn’t have the equipment.” Instead he used existing photographs from the archive of the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. They supplied him with several hundred large negatives from a grid of the southern hemisphere. By selecting, cropping, enlarging them, reorienting the usual perspective, Ruff produced a series of towering prints with an all-over patterning of stars and swirling galaxies like the surface of a Pollock painting. Though there is an illusion of depth — the eye travels light years into infinity and back again — the viewer is confronted by a vertical wall. Time and space are compacted into a two-dimensional image.
This series (Sterne) marked a turning point in Ruff’s working methods. Rather than using a camera, he would increasingly work with existing photographs on the computer, sourcing them from archives or the internet. “That was the first step in not worrying about not being the author of the original source,” he says. “In the end, they are my pictures. I am the author of all those images. It’s just that the original source is not mine.”
However, Ruff didn’t give up the camera altogether. His interest in visual systems was soon piqued again, this time by a new kind of photographic image that has become familiar to us all. In 1991, like millions of people in the west, he watched the Gulf war live on television. This experience, of sitting at home watching the bombing of Baghdad or the launch of Scud missiles in real time, was completely new. “I thought it was quite perverse,” Ruff says. “And I felt guilty. The war was happening in the Gulf region, but what was it about? It was about our western oil interests. They were fighting for western industrial nations. So I thought, OK, I’m going to try to get one of these lenses.”
If the night skies are photographed by a telescope that acts as an extension for our sight, so a night-vision camera uses a light-amplification system that enables you to see in complete darkness. It is, as Ruff says, “another kind of prosthesis for our eyes”. When seen through one of these lenses, even the most innocent subject acquires a sinister patina.
“So I declared war on Dusseldorf,” he says. “At first I thought I should do bridges and railway stations, objects of military importance. But that winter, 1991-92, was very cold and I didn’t go out much. Instead I photographed from my backyard window, or from friends’ windows. And then, of course, you immediately had Hitchcock — Rear Window — watching that man in the dark; a kind of surveillance.”
Since then, his passion for visual systems has led him to explore digital imaging at its most complex levels. In 2008 he used images transmitted from the Cassini space probe to make new highly coloured abstract works. A few years later he downloaded images of Mars, this time intervening to make the surface of the planet look more “realistic”, or at least consistent with the popular idea of what we imagine a planet to look like. Fascinated by engravings of magnetic fields in a book he’d bought by the 19th-century British physicist James Clerk Maxwell (who also developed the first colour photograph), he worked with 3D imaging to produce what he calls “Zycles” — photographs based on the formulae that create complex cycloidal curves. The prints resemble the geometric patterns of linear algebra; they are also reminiscent of the late paintings of Willem de Kooning.
One of the largest of Ruff’s series is his “Nudes”, which began in the early 1990s. “When I started,” he says, “it was just an investigation into the history of photography — there wasn’t any social context I was interested in or aware of — and nude photographs are a very important genre. I had my first Macintosh and access to the internet, so I started my research — and who shows up? Helmut Newton, Peter Lindbergh [known principally as fashion photographers]. And I thought, oh, this is really a 19th-century male look at the female body, not very interesting. So I typed in ‘sex’ and then ‘fetish’ and suddenly those teaser pages on the porn pages showed up and I thought, woah, what’s that? And — not all, but a lot of them, were much more honest than the artistic nude photographs I had seen so far. But they were thumbnails, very small. I had already started investigating the structure of the digital image and I realised that if you calculate those files in a higher size and you shift the pixels, then it becomes kind of painterly. Of course, Gerhard Richter had used this, imitating the blurriness of photography for his paintings, so it already existed. But I made my shifting pixel experiment on one of these porn images. I suddenly had my first nude and I liked it, but I didn’t really know if it is something, so I showed it to my girlfriend at the time, and she said, ‘Ugh. Ugly! But interesting.’
“Quite soon, I realised it’s really incredible how the internet fulfils these strange dreams. And I became aware of how these images were distributed through the internet. Of course, I didn’t want to make the same error as Mr Lindbergh and Mr Newton. I wanted to be very democratic and show the variety of practices and desires in the world, not only my male, heterosexual look on sexuality.”
When he exhibited the first six nudes at the 1991 Cologne art fair, “I heard from my gallery that Alice Schwarzer — she’s the German feminist, founder of the first feminist paper — came in and saw one of those nude photographs and she shouted out, she loved it.”
Seeing me looking sceptical, he says, “Yes. They are about sexuality in photography, but they are also about exhibitionism and voyeurism and the distribution of photographic images over the internet. I think the ‘Portraits’ were so successful because there is nothing more interesting for us as human beings than looking into the face of another person. And maybe the ‘Nudes’ were so successful because we all have a sexual life and everybody has a passion about it, a curiosity about what other people do.”
Most recently he has been looking back at some of the earliest processes in photography. “When I asked my daughter, ‘What is a negative?’ she said, ‘Huh? I have a digital camera. What is a negative? No idea.’ Her generation sees negatives as positives,” he says, “because they don’t know what a negative is.”
While working out how to make photograms — the simple laying-on of objects to light-sensitive paper much favoured by Bauhaus photographers for the abstract results — he discovered he could create a new kind of negative by scanning 19th- century albumen prints and inverting the digital information so that the positive became negative and the brown tones emerged as blue, ghostly and rather beautiful.
I wonder if he ever picks up a camera these days. Does he take family snaps?
“Yes, of course,” he says, “I am the photographer in the family. I take all the photographs of my daughters — the kids, my wife, the holidays. That’s when I use a camera or my mobile phone.”
And do you alter them? “No.”
Does he have any residual belief in a photograph as a reliable piece of evidence?
“Yes, of course,” he says, frowning. “There must be . . . ”
“Yes. But maybe that’s also part of my work — to analyse how the evidence is going to be changed by different interests. I think right now we are in a similar situation to when the 35mm Leica was [seen as] the invention of authenticity. Now people think that if they shoot with their mobile phones, they have the same authenticity as those Leica photographs did in earlier times.”
He picks up the dog in his arms and walks me to the door.
“I think people are trying to stay in the present,” he says. “To avoid looking at the past. They have to make photographs all the time, and they are all stored on the iPhone but they don’t look at them. It’s just making the photograph, showing it to a friend on Instagram or whatever, and then it’s forgotten. And they have to do such a lot of photographs because they want to stay in the present.” He pauses and smiles. “And of course, they just picked the wrong medium.”
‘Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 to 2017’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, from September 27 to January 21 2018; whitechapelgallery.org
Portrait by Dana Lixenberg
Photographs: Thomas Ruff courtesy David Zwirner London/New York
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