How far can a photographer go with his medium? In his 50 years of work, Thomas Ruff has explored photography, never fossilizing in any specific theme, subject or style. This is clear in his solo show at Whitechapel Gallery, Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 on view until 21 January 2018. Thanks to Iwona Blazwick’s simple but sophisticated curation, the exhibition leads you into a chronological narration of the photographer’s life long research. Born in Dusseldorf, Ruff studied at the prestigious art school Staatliche Kunstakademie together with fellow photographers Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. He is now recognized as one of the most prominent and renown photographers of the past decades.
With its conceptual take, Ruff’s photography bridges the boundaries with art. Each projects is very much coherent and focused on a specific interest that has to do with the (infinite) potentialities of the photographic medium. His large-scale portraits from the 1980s are a wonderfully aesthetic challenge against the small-scale identity photograph used for to issue passports and bureaucratic documents.
A series of three photographs showing vertical renderings of scientific data received from Mars, create an abstract bird-eye view landscape that is both real and fictitious. With the help of 3D glasses provided by the gallery, one can also see the surface magically piercing into the print creating an illusionistic view of a crater. Ruff’s ‘story’ continues: the visitor finds his late 1980s series of close-ups shots of interior corners or walls of German houses, a view of suburban Modernist intimacy; his striking series of pixelated images of war and natural disasters and his blurred pornographic images so difficult to look at, not so much for their content, but due to their blurred rendering making it very difficult for the viewer to focus the gaze.
“Photography is still the most influential medium in the world”, stated Ruff in an interview, “and I have to deconstruct [its] conventions.” With Ruff, photography is never just photography. Described as “a master of edited and reimagined images”, Ruff’s re-used found pictures from newspapers, archives or mangas and transformed them either by enlarging, twicking their colours or abstracting them. Substrat 31 III dated 2007, phg.07_II from 2014 and the negoindia series of the same year are particularly striking and spectacular for their colours.
Although not large, the show gives a good view of the artist’s ouvre through a careful selection of works. The exhibition includes Ruff’s very early photographs done during a residency in Paris in the early 1980s as well as his latest political work titled press++.
Politics of the gaze are crucially important to Ruff: in our everyday life, constantly bombarded by news and images from all over the world, what do we really see, understand, take in and remember? From faces of people, to lifeless perspectives of German buildings to abstracted forms achieved through the digital manipulation of colours and light, Ruff’s career is coherent and belongs to one narrative: what photography can do beyond the passive recording of things around us. The retrospective coincides with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London Thomas Ruff Portraits on show until January 2018.
Words by Victoria de Zanche
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 is on until 21 January 2018 at Whitechapel Gallery in London