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Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017
Image Credit: Detail from 16h 30m by Thomas Ruff (c) Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017

10 November 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Thomas Ruff’s photography is often stark and confrontational. Through his innovative compositions and myriad editing techniques, he considers how the source and context of an image alter meaning.

Thomas Ruff was a German photographer from Düsseldorf who studied under the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the German conceptual artists. The couple often worked in series, creating typologies of buildings and structures. In clear inheritance from these artists, Ruff also works in series. This exhibition brings together 18 bodies of work, comprising of projects since the late 1970s until the present day. In many of his works, he manipulates, edits or re-colours works from other sources, including images from collections, newspapers, and telescopes. His work also traces the transformation of photography through its short history, from film and digital, to the rise of the internet and its effect on the very nature of the image and its subsequent dissemination in new forms.

In the first room, several series on display demonstrate Ruff’s play with colour. In w.g.l for example, he has adjusted gallery images taken at the first showing of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist works in 1958, adding colour to walls and ceilings. Through these subtle adjustments, not only do Pollock’s paintings become signs of a new era of non-figurative work, but the gallery space itself is also transformed. On a further wall, the six huge portraits that greet the viewer are blankly confrontational. Positioned in front of a white background, suggesting the arrangement of identity cards or passport photographs, the subjects seem to stare back, meeting the gaze of viewer. In their enormity, each individual demands attention, so that the viewer scrutinises the faces of each with greater care.  In their stark composition and blank expressions, these portraits do not really seem to give away anything about the individual within them, but ask the viewer to acknowledge the presence of the sitter.


Installation view at the Whitechapel Gallery, Gallery 1. Photo: Stephen White

On a nearby wall, Ruff moves from the human face to the aesthetics of space: Sterne (1989-1992) and ma.r.s (2011-13) both use images taken from telescopes and satellites, transforming enormous borderless maps of skies and planets into individual images. Like the portraits at the entrance to the room, these pieces are huge; in the case of ma.r.s, Ruff has doctored the images so that they can be viewed with 3D glasses.  In both of these projects, strange landscapes and geographies are given a new kind of framing, presented as art objects.  But these are pieces that are completely enigmatic, offering no ‘map’ for the eye to read the image; instead, the viewer is left with the overwhelming feeling of an undirected eye.

In other series, the viewer is asked to look at images that are ubiquitous in our digital age. In nudes (1999-2012) Ruff has taken and edited screenshots from pornographic films, turning them into photos, bearing a resemblance to the historical form of the nude. In another, jpeg (2004-08), he has blown up images taken on 9/11, so that these widely recognisable images are given a new form. In both sets of works, the pixels that make up these images are revealed; that which creates the images in their digital form, blurs them in this new context.


Installation view at the Whitechapel Gallery, Gallery 8. Photo: Stephen White

This reframing occurs again in Ruff’s work with archives and news. In Zeitungsfotos (1990-91), he has removed the captions from images found in newspapers; here he plays on our desire to know by removing the words that often play the pivotal role in cementing our ideas of historical events. In his 2016 series, press++, has trawled through the archives of various news agencies, discovering photographic prints that contain the scrawling and marking of journalists. Ruff scans both sides of the images, layering then on top of one another so that these photos also contain the historical markers that give them context. In these images, the viewer sees not only the item of news, but literally sees the context made visible.  In both projects, Ruff makes the viewer aware of source and the necessity of context in creating meaning.

In all of these works, Ruff questions the limitations of photography and exposes the sheer malleability of the form. If an image is doctored, transformed or altered beyond recognition, is it still the same photograph? Or does it become another kind of art object, something between a painting, a photo and a sculpture?
 
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 is on at the Whitechapel Gallery until 21 January 2018.
 


 

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