Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 / Reviewed by Joanna Cresswell / 18.10.17
The photograph is a symptom of history. That’s the central message of Thomas Ruff’s expansive new exhibition Photographs 1979–2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery. Journeying through 18 projects and 120 images, this is Ruff’s first major London retrospective in the almost four decades he has been active as an artist.
Having gained recognition in the 1970s while studying under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the prestigious Staatliche Kunstakademie, Ruff was a key figure of the Dusseldorf School of Photography alongside Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Andreas Gursky. Always working in series, Ruff’s projects shift between the micro and the macro, the nearby and the faraway. The exhibition – non-linear in its arrangement – reflects this, darting back and forth across space and time, with works swelling and shrinking in size throughout.
In his early years, Ruff looked to the very building blocks of his own place in the world, and his experience of living and working in post-War Germany, photographing his friends, their domestic spaces, and the industrial modernist architecture of his home town, fixing them all within the frame to understand them better. Over time the ripples of his own existence helped him work his way outwards, and he turned his attentions to probing broader matters, from the wider cultural context he found himself in, to the distant, infinite reaches of our solar system.
It makes perfect sense, then, that the exhibition would open with a series of self-portraits entitled L’Empereur (The Emperor). Taken in his 1980s Paris studio, Ruff contorts awkwardly in a series of absurdist gestures, posing himself as a prop alongside two chairs and a lamp. In contrast with some of the later works on show, which are printed at a monumental scale, these first, quiet self-portraits appear remarkably self-conscious in their intimate size, which fits well with the narrative that Ruff turned the camera upon himself when at a loss for subject matter. It also lays some resonating foundations for the tone of the rest of the show because photography can be a self-conscious medium, with the central subject within photographic work often being photography itself – something Ruff, in all of his experiments and reflections on the progress of the medium, subscribes to religiously.
Appearing blank and emotionless, like default passport pictures, Ruff’s Porträts (Portraits) are the first real hit of the show, with a sheer physical presence that comes from being the height of almost the entire wall, allowing visitors to stand in front of faces, honest and expressionless, many times the size of their own. Directly opposite these, Ruff’s giant, cosmic Sterne (Stars) series hangs, made via telescope with the help of the European Southern Observatory. When standing in the right position it is possible to see the portraits reflected in the stars images, the human in the human less; their vast blackness a mirror.
Gargantuan reproductions of Ruff’s crudely coloured Martian landscapes (phantasmagorical through the 3D glasses supplied) in m.a.r.s, give way to pixels that swarm together, at a distance, into depictions of 9/11 and other iconic events in the jpeg series. As we near them, the structure of each image dissolves into unreadable information, reflecting the landscape of disaster in the age of phone photography. The Interieurs series stretches across one wall and doesn’t command much attention, though perhaps the reticence of the images has consciously been co-opted for their place in the exhibition too.
The second floor arguably holds the most stirring work. Ruff’s Nächte (Nights) images – in which he employed military grade night vision technology to “wage war on Düsseldorf” – are like screen grabs from video games, black and glowing green. Two large composite portraits from Ruff’s Other Portraits series flank these. Using a piece of equipment called the Minolta Montage Unit, employed by the German police in the 1970s to create composite images of suspects, Ruff combined images of a number of people to create each Other Portrait. They are spectral, powerful and there’s uneasiness in their faint familiarity.
Mining the world as it changes, the last slew of projects takes inspiration from realms including Japanese Manga, the history of Bauhaus and pornography. The internet-sourced pornographic nudes stand out – blurred into near-abstraction, Ruff assumes the rare position of an artist acerbic towards his own position as a male photographer, and attacks the male gaze accordingly. The photograms in Ruff’s Fotogramme are some of the most surprisingly poignant. Collaborating with a 3D imaging expert, Ruff designed a virtual darkroom through which he could create photograms with an infinite number of virtual objects at his disposal, and the results – stocky, constructivist arrangements reminiscent of Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy – are mesmerising.
The show closes with two projects that deal with press imagery. In Zeitungsfotos (Newspaper Photographs), removed from their contexts, ghosts of history are relieved of their duties and take on new meanings – men in suits sit around tables, lovers embrace, and rockets launch in a constellation of absurdist gestures that subtly mirror the self-portraits at the beginning.
Ruff hasn’t taken a photograph since 2003. Instead, he’s mined the pre-existing imagery of the world. As an artist known for his penchant for stark, objective, monumental works often devoid of human presence or emotion, Ruff has created Photographs 1979 – 2017 as an exhibition which makes for unnervingly visceral, affecting viewing. Tracing a lineage of reprographic technology through the prisms of politics and war, surveillance and the cosmos, Ruff relentlessly tinkers with our understanding of the power of images, their claim to truth, and how we consume them. He has consistently taken the classical photographic tropes we know so well – landscape, portrait, nude – and subverted them through a process that repackaged them for the 20th and 21st Centuries. While many will be drawn to visit the show for Ruff’s ‘big hits’ – the portraits, the interiors, the stars – it’s the lesser-known, more experimental projects – the photograms, the negatives, the ‘Other Portraits’ – that are likely to make them linger a while longer.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Joanna Cresswell
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 continues at Whitechapel Gallery, London until 21 January 2018
77-82 Whitechapel High St