Thomas Ruffs Portraits print series made in the 1980s were striking in their ordinariness and superficiality. Stripped of character and embellishments, the artist did not want the portraits to be seen as people, but images on chemically treated photographic paper. He achieved this by instructing his sitter to wear everyday clothes and not to smile so that they were as neutral as possible. The artist wanted the photograph to offer nothing but superficiality, the camera, in his mind, being unable to show anything other than surface detail. Any personality a subject of his photography possesses, stems from the viewer’s projection of their own feelings and prejudices on to them.

The notion that the photographic image is essentially empty went radically against the prevailing belief in their potential emotional charge, and Ruff’s genius was in combining objectivity with portraiture. Ruff once memorably remarked that his Portraits print series “made collectors who normally buy paintings become interested in photography.’’ Now his groundbreaking Portraits and Jpegs print series are on show at the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo. It is the first major retrospective of the artist at a Japanese museum.

Thomas Ruff, Jpegs II, 2008, One from a set of seven digital ditones. Courtesy: Schellmann Art

Thomas Ruff’s Jpegs Print Series is available to buy now on fineartmultiple, please click here.

Ruff lives and works in Düsseldorf and shares his studio—a converted electricity station by Herzog & de Meuron—with the photographer Andreas Gursky. A graduate of the renowned Düsseldorf Academy of Art, Ruff, alongside Gursky and Thomas Struth, studied under the towering presence of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s. Remarkably each of them would go on to exert huge influence over contemporary photography. Initially Bernd was unimpressed with Ruff’s early work, seeing them as clichés, not his own and lacking in truth. Ruff, however, turned this criticism on its head, by exploring the very methodology of image making:

“Most of the photos we come across today are not really authentic anymore,” the artist once said. “They have the authenticity of a manipulated and prearranged reality. You have to know the conditions of a particular photograph in order to understand it properly.”

Ruff is keenly aware that vision and perception of contemporary life is inextricably entwined with the medium of photography—just look at his smouldering Jpegs image of the smoking World Trade Center dwarfed by the Empire State Building. Throughout his career Ruff has consistently upended our preconceived ideas regarding photography, by identifying its raw elements and inciting a contemplative duality in the viewer, who must contend with the visual superficiality of the image hanging before them as well as the state of all photography in its sublime totality. Though his work may come across as dispassionate and even detached, it can be incredibly beautiful as well and his search for new possibilities in photographic expression is nothing short of colossal, spanning digital images from the internet to magazine cut outs, and even old photographs.  

Thomas Ruff, Jpegs II, 2008, One from a set of seven digital ditone prints

Thomas Ruff’s Jpegs Print Series is available to buy now on fineartmultiple, please click here.

In 2000 Ruff was downloading images from the internet when he realized some of them were broken up into little squares. It created a “painterly, impressionistic structure, and rendered parts of what was often an ugly image very beautiful. I looked into it, and found the Jpeg file-compression software was responsible.” As he began attempting to create such images by himself his now famous print series Jpegs was born. The images featured here focus on traditional landscapes and ruins, and expose the inherently negative impact of mankind on the environment—the redundant train tracks interrupted and ignored by the silver birch trees in the image above. From far away the works can appear whole, solid, occasionally even picturesque, but on closer inspection the more pixelated, sinister and chaotic they become. 

The print series Jpegs is a confrontation with the pixel and its cold technological limitation. It is now the most shared and used image transfer format in the world, and its universal prevalence is the unifying DNA connecting most digital images. The grids of pixels that make up this digital ditone prints reveal water, fire, smoke, steam, and ruined machinery—enacting a perfect balance between abstraction and figuration, and producing a tension in the viewer who searches for a way of interpreting the distorted information. That inability to discern detail challenges our belief in the accuracy of photography as a reliable witness to world events, the artist is effectively questioning the modern world’s documentation and archiving of truth. Thomas Ruff, Two from a set of three Cassini/Zycles, 2010, Digital ditones

Thomas Ruff’s Zycles Print Series is available to buy now on fineartmultiple, please click here.

Had Ruff not pursued a career in art it is more than likely that he would have become an astronomer, having since childhood been fascinated by outer space and the magnetic gravitational forces that govern the celestial bodies. In his print series Zycles Ruff reproduced linear forms based on various mathematical formulas using 3D computer programs, reconfiguring them into digital space. He then converted them in to 2-dimensional works that give the highly complex curves the appearance of planetary orbits or even heavily abstracted drawings.Thomas Ruff, ma.r.s, 2012, Four from a set of six C-prints

Thomas Ruff’s ma.r.s Print Series is available to buy now on fineartmultiple, please click here.

Making use of images taken by a NASA space probe, Ruff digitally processed the angles and colors of the data to explore the potential of landscape photography through a lens trained on another planet. Ruff first began this project with the series Stars in the 1980s, when, focusing on the enormity of the cosmos, Ruff realized the tools available to him on earth where inadequate. He thus began appropriating archival images of the cosmos from the European South Observatory in Chile. The probe is capable of sending a wide variety of information about Mars’ surface back to Earth and is still working today, despite launching as far back as 2006. His ma.r.s. print series also marks Ruff’s first foray into 3D image-making and some of these prints are able to be viewed with 3D eyeware (available at the museum) in order to enhance their dramatic effect. 

Thomas Ruff’s Exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo runs from the the 30th of August through to the 13th of November 2016.


By Duncan Ballantyne-Way – Senior Editor