Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017

Whitechapel Gallery, London; 27/09/17 to 21/01/18

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) is a German conceptual photographic artist whose subject matter is photography itself. This career retrospective contains a number of very different projects, eschewing personal style in an aesthetic sense but gradually revealing a common thread of conceptual deconstruction of the medium and its relation to art history. His body of work includes his own take on portraiture, still life, architectural photography, documentary, the nude, war photography and more.

Unsurprisingly for such an eclectic body of work, some of it connected with me and some of it didn’t. I’ll briefly discuss some of the works under a few headings (of my own invention).

Early works, everyday subject matter

Ruff initially relied on a narrow field of subject matter: himself (“Lost for a subject,…” – exhibition catalogue), his friends, his friends’ homes. Only some of this came across as successful for me: the Porträts (Portraits) series (1986–1991) are well-lit deadpan portraits of friends, posed like passport photos but blown up to wall-size prints. The sheer size, along with the quality and clarity, makes them magnetic to the eye. While I was there I recall texting a friend a photo of this set with the wise words “Anything is art if you print it big enough” and though tongue-in-cheek I stand by the underlying point: changing scale, and in particular printing people much larger than life-size, changes the way you perceive a picture.

Ruff Portraits.jpg
Porträts (Portraits), installation view

Because Ruff used his friends there is a limited age range, but this narrow parameter works in its favour when one looks at the series at three decades’ remove, as it comes across a little like a snapshot of a generation. One thing that niggled is that all subjects are deadpan facing the camera except one (right in the picture above) with the subject gazing off-camera; I was disproportionately bothered by the inconsistency. And that print is a different size to the others… grrr.

The 1982 set L’Empereur (The Emperor) is him in series of surreal and uncomfortable poses wrapped around furniture. This came across as self-consciously wacky and ‘photography student-y’ and didn’t really speak to me.

from Interieurs, 1979 by Thomas Ruff

From around the same time, 1979–83, Interieurs (Interiors) is his take on still life, using the apartments of friends and family – again not casting his subject matter net very wide. They are almost clinically clean and static scenes, making use of formal elements such as line, shape and pattern. But at the same time they are cold, soulless, sombre. Reviewing my notes from the visit, at this point I used the phrase “emperor’s new clothes?” for the first but not last time.

Hauser (Houses) from 1987–91 was an exterior counterpart to this project, and for me was even more pointless and unremarkable.

The final ‘everyday subject matter’ project I wanted to mention is quite different to the rest: while the subject is indeed quite normal (the streets of European cities), the aesthetic approach is very distinctive – and it’s the juxtaposition between the two that makes it interesting. For the 1992–96 series Nächte (Nights) Ruff adapted a camera with night vision equipment to emulate the look of the then-recent Gulf War combat footage.

Nacht 9 II, 1992 by Thomas Ruff

The distinctive green glow and deep vignette make the streets of Düsseldorf resemble military targets. It’s a lesson in how one’s interpretation of a scene can be significantly manipulated by the aesthetic of the photograph.

Analogue archive manipulations

Much of Ruff’s later output is not his own photography but his interventions in other people’s. For each project he takes a particular genre of photography and does something to it in order to hold it up for examination, in a new light as it were. While they didn’t all pack a punch, some of these were my favourite works in the exhibition.

The newest work, presumably done specifically for the show, is w.g.l. (2017), features scenes from this very gallery in 1958 when it held a Jackson Pollock exhibition. Ruff has recoloured parts of the original black-and-white photos, picking out the walls and ceilings in pastel shades while contrarily leaving the wild colourful Pollock canvases in shades of grey – it’s subverting the presumed focal point in a clever, if lightweight, way.


negative (negatives) is an ongoing series (2014–) where Ruff scans old photos and digitally inverts the tones. I found these to be a big ‘so what’ to be honest. The catalogue asserts that with the process “he ‘estranges’ the images, releasing them from the weight of history or genre.”, which struck me a pretentious artspeak for a quite ordinary project.

Much more successful for me is the project press++ (2016–), where Ruff takes archive press photos from the early 20th century and merges the photo’s face with its rear – where the photographic agency or an editor or printer made marks, comments, reference notes etc.

It’s a very simple idea – to see both sides of the image-object simultaneously – but it works remarkably well. Each photo becomes not only an object, but in a sense carries its own context and history with it.

press++21.11, 2016 by Thomas Ruff

Digital archive manipulations

Some of Ruff’s most famous work involves deconstructing digital photography. The jpeg series (2004–08) took low resolution images from disasters such as the 9/11 attacks and blew them up a few metres high, exposing the pixellated structure of the images and mimicking pointillism.

jpeg ny01, 2004 by Thomas Ruff

It adds a layer of unreality that shields the viewer from the brutality of the actual event, and seems to be saying something about how desensitised we’re becoming as a society.

A similar approach was taken in Ruff’s version of the nude in art, nudes (1999–2012), where pornographic images were reduced to blurry, almost impressionistic representations of the human body. He took this to (beyond?) its logical conclusion in the Substrate (Substrates) set of 2001–07, which starts with Japanese manga as source material but digitally liquidises them to the point of total abstraction. While some people will appreciate them for their abstract aesthetic, they are so far removed from the original material as to become detached entirely.

Substrat 31 III, 2007 by Thomas Ruff

Main takeaway

Prior to visiting this I was discussing it with another student (hi, Helen!) who said she found Ruff to be a little “sterile”. Coincidentally I met Helen for a drink straight after the exhibition and had a good chat about it. I ended up agreeing with the ‘sterile’ verdict of Ruff’s work, or most of it anyway.

The more I think about what I saw, the more I realise that the work I appreciated, I did so for its technical creativity – a lot of it was, ‘oh, that’s really clever!‘ – but it’s lacking in emotional depth. The works provoked ideas but not emotions.

I can imagine that Ruff is possibly more revered amongst other photographers than in the wider art world – I might even narrow that down to photography students. He’s inspiring in an ‘I could do that, let’s experiment!‘ kind of way, but the lingering impression of seeing is work is of having skated over the surface of a shallow pond.

One particular outcome of this visit is that it helped to solidify in my mind that I don’t just want to do work that is ‘photography about photography’ – I find this too limiting. I had tried then rejected an idea for Assignment 2 that was based on photographic looking and memory, using appropriated images, but in the end I decided that this kind of photographic navel-gazing – as tempting as it is for a student of photography – isn’t really packing any meaningful punch.


Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017Whitechapel Gallery, London, 27/09/17 – 21/01/18 (accessed 21/11/2017)