Thomas Ruff

Year and place of birth: 1958, Zell am Harmersbach, Germany Location: Düsseldorf, Germany

Thomas Ruff studied photography under Bernd and Hilla Becher in 1977, together with figures such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. The group developed into the famous Düsseldorf school of photography at a time when the medium was undergoing a critical re-evaluation in the contemporary art world. After decades of abstraction and under the influence of pop art, a new generation of artists emerged who opted to focus on reality. A fresh, critical objectivity was born.

In his early photo series ‘Interieurs’ [‘Interiors’], Ruff captured apartments with meticulously staged interiors. For the series ‘Porträts’ [‘Portraits’], he recorded people as accurately and neutrally as possible. Both series yield an archive of apparently dispassionate images that seem made for comparative research. The series ‘Häuser’ [‘Houses’] follows the Bechers’ example even more markedly, but unlike the unmanipulated photos of his mentors, Ruff’s images – in which he digitally erases traffic signs, for example – lose their documentary truth and betray their subjective, aesthetic gaze.

Ruff goes one step further in the series ‘Sterne’ [‘Stars’]. Prompted by his fascination with astronomy – he long harboured a serious ambition to train as an astronaut – the photographer purchased negatives from a specialist archive showing the night sky over the southern hemisphere. The images were taken using a specially designed telescopic lens. Ruff selected details, which he then enlarged and edited. The distance that renders the appropriated photographic material tangible emphasises the sterile, objective gaze of the scientist.

Along the way, Ruff left traditional photography behind and started to explore the visual information supplied by the internet. With ‘Nudes’ he explores the stereotypical male, heterosexual perception of classic nude photography. During his research, he encountered explicit pornographic sites, which he experienced as far more truthful. He enlarged low-resolution images, so that the pixel structure is emphasised, while the contours dissolve into a soft, hazy, aesthetic image. In his ‘jpeg’ series, Ruff magnified compressed files, causing the pixels to become an optical puzzle that suggest contours from a distance but, up close, are nothing more than small, abstract squares.

Ruff treats photography as a game through which to explore his relationship with reality. With his anonymous, neutral photos, he is uniquely aware of his dual position as a subjective commentator on our mediated reality. By pushing information to the background, Ruff reduces images to a pure formal beauty. At the same time, he alerts us to the illusions and manipulations that are lurking in every form of reproduction.

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