Thomas Ruff was born in 1958, in Zell am Harmersbach, in the Black Forest. From 1977 to 1985, he studied photography at the Art Academy Düsseldorf and became a »Meisterschüler« (»Master Student«) of Bernd and Hilla Becher. In 2000, he became a professor at the Academy and, until 2006, took over the former class of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Already during his studies, Ruff did interior views of rooms and collected newspaper photographs, embarking on art forms that have strongly relied on serial work. The Zeitungsfotos ((Newspaper Photos) 1981 — 91), a series of photographs taken from ca. 2,500 black-and-white pictures from German language newspapers, reveals Ruff’s conceptual approach as concentrating on the picture: Separated from its original context of picture and text, and provided with new, archive-like references , he made the viewer aware of the strategies of authentication used in press photographs, in personal, and in event photographs. The photos which he arranged into picture tableaux reflect the mediality of the picture, of the photograph, and its informational content.
While still a student, Ruff also created small-format, multicolor interior views of rooms in German homes. He showed private spaces that have nothing specific about them but display average home interiors and thus provide insights into normalities. With their furniture that is typical of the times, the rooms themselves may well be taken as exemplary of the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. Following specified directions, Ruff focused on bathrooms, kitchens, living-rooms, and bedrooms. Yet he also directed the photographic gaze at single objects. This concept again refers to the documentary tasks of photography and, in that respect, is indebted to the goals of Ruff’s teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher. In a project that lasted a life-time, Bernd and Hilla Becher had systematically created an artistic archive of industrial buildings.
Ruff kept the strict parameters for his photos also for his shots of the exterior of buildings or housing complexes (Haus 8 I, 1988), taken in the late 1980s. The pictures show residential, administrative, and industrial buildings, and are taken from a clearly defined position, with consistent lighting and a fixed, usually a frontal perspective. Quite obviously, these views of buildings, with reduced colors, concentrate on the single object. They follow the idea of a construction that has been decontextualized and »neutralized« in the photograph, and idea that is again taken up during the subsequent editing at the computer. »The precision of the shots taken of the buildings and the exclusion of any disruptive elements in the picture pay witness to the possibility to appropriate that which is represented. At the same time, the photos are irritating because of their low informational content. Thomas Ruff’s photographs therefore do not provide knowledge about the environment we are surrounded by, but about the image of this reality which tends to more and more substitute an immediate experience of this reality« (Claser, in: Ausst.-Kat. Bochum 2000). Similar to the technique of his interior views, Ruff’s buildings are again given a »face.« This »face« is an appearance that is – up to a degree – shaped through the artist and always emphasizes the artistic intervention. Yet it still does allow conclusions about the aesthetic or social contexts of the time.
Starting in the early 1980s, Ruff also did portraits showing mostly passport-like frontal views. Again, his photographic gaze remained focused on his own environment, his circle of friends. Like the interior and exterior views, the portraits follow clearly defined conditions of shooting, including directions as to the postures and facial expressions of the portrayed. In Andere Porträts ((Other Portraits) 1994), Ruff further emphasized this aspect by a subsequent »morphing,« a generating of synthecized images from several portraits. This technique also linked up the stern frontal view to the creation and function of photos in criminology, to the phantom picture. References to the individual are cut off, the portrayed mutating into representatives of groups, into types, evoking the anthropological-criminological use of photography established in the 19th century (cf. Francis Galton, 1877ff.). Ruff used similar approaches for his photographs of buildings, approaches taken from other functional realms: His Nachtaufnahmen (Night Images) of buildings done between 1992 and 1995 suggest perspectives and contexts of generating images that remind of night vision devices or military and intelligence photography (Nacht 14 I, 1993; Nacht 21 III von 1996).
Technological changes in photography opened up possibilities for new experiments which Ruff realized in some groups of works. Drawing on the earlier seriesZeitungsfotos, Ruff again made use of existing photo material and the processes of medial picture modification in his Sternenbilder (Star Pictures) done in the 1980s (Sterne, 11h 00m-75 Grad (Stars, 11h 00m-75 Degrees), 1990), the Stereofotografien from 1994 — 96, and the more recent Nudes. The pictures were taken from scientific or commercial contexts, or from the internet and were edited through isolation or details. Through large-format prints, these photographs demand a different way of dealing with the mediated image. They were done for museal contexts and sometimes also refer in their titles to the taking of the picture and its digital editing (jpeg ny02, 2004). They draw attention to the appropriation of pictures produced by others, of authorship, of quality and, finally, to the status of photography as art. With the star pictures, the thumbnail-based, pixelated, and blurred Nudes which he started to do in 2000 (Nudes gd03, 2003), and also the recent substrate series (Substrat 2 I, 2002), Ruff’s artistic interventions shifted towards questions of picture production and perception. In the substrate series, Japanese digital comic images mutate into shapes and gradients of various colors, Here, Ruff steps back as a photographer, but not as a conceptual photo artist.
Since the early 1980s, Ruff’s photographic works have been exhibited in many locations, for example, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1989), at the Museum Haus Esters, Krefeld (2001), at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2001), and at the Lenbachhaus, Munich (2002). In 1992, Ruff participated in the Documenta and, in 1995, in the Venice Biennale. Book projects, for example, the artist book entitled »Nudes,« done together with French writer Michel Houllebecq in 2003, show Ruff’s digital editing of pornographic photos taken from the internet in the context of Houllebecq’s narrative about the French swingers scene.
Thomas Ruff lives and works in Düsseldorf.
Thomas Ruff – Maschinen: Ausst.-Kat. Kestner-Gesellschaft Hannover, hg. v. C. Flosdorff u. V. Görner, Ostfildern-Ruit 2003
Thomas Ruff – Fotografien 1979 bis heute: Ausst.-Kat. Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, Tate Liverpool, hg. v. M. Winzen, Köln 2001
Drück, Patricia: Das Bild des Menschen in der Fotografie, die Porträts von Thomas Ruff, Berlin 2004
Thomas Ruff – Zuspiel – Georg Winter: Ausst.-Kat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, hg. v. M. Winzen, München 1996
Portraits, Häuser, Sterne. Ausst.-Kat. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1989