Although I buy the catalogue beforehand and look through it, I do not really do my homework which is reading David Company’s essay “Thomas Ruff: Image Ventriloquism and the Visual Primer” as I have trouble accessing it via my phone; in fact it does not seem to be fully accessible via the website but an earlier essay on the aesthetics of the pixel is . I do however manage to see a video of Ruff talking about the exhibition on YouTube which is followed by an interview!
This is an OCA college visit. We meet as a group and chat beforehand. Straight photography from the Düsseldorf School. Makes series of photographs. His work has moved on from large format to found imagery using the internet as a source. From images of friends to images of stellar constellations.
The first series is called “The Emperor”being of his own figure draped over a chair; the images are printed quite small (slightly larger than enprint size) and from 1982 when Ruff was awarded a grant to study in Paris.
“M.n.o.p” series of photographs (2013) from Museum of Non-Objective Painting which have been manipulated not solely for effect but to present a realistic and aesthetic view of a gallery interior. The originals are from 1939. Ruff has done a similar job with an exhibition of Jackson Pollock held at The Whitechapel Gallery in 1958.
The huge portraits (someone says the series is called Passports but is incorrect) made as if they were passport photographs but for the size reveal a dispassionate view. These were made during the 1980’s and suggest use of a large format camera. The technique is immaculate! Jayne the OCA tutor mentions associations with the state watching the individual as it has been since the development of technology since the 19’th century; these photographs were made in the decade before the wall between what were two Germany’s came down; there is an inference of this but if one did not think about such government surveillance these photographs stand out as wonderful human documents that might be regarded as recalling the work of August Sander.
Stars is a series of night-sky images taken by the European Southern Observatory and made around 1989 to 1992. These are largely monochromatic although a hint of colour can be seen. Blowing them up to sizes that are about 10 feet high adds to the perception of space as a vast area.
The Mars photographs come later. They are taken from the NASA mission launched in 2005 and date from 2011, 2012 and 2013.
These images are full of colour with one requiring special viewing “glasses” that render a 3D effect.
“Interiors” is a series of interiors as the title suggests. Early work from the 1980’s these images suggest “an atmosphere of melancholy, restraint and even repression” portraying “the material culture of post-war Düsseldorf” and showing no people or mess. There is something of the clean Germanic ideal in these images but am not sure they necessarily contain melancholy!
JPEG, the title actually appears in lower case as jpeg, is a complete departure from the technically immaculate that is a feature of Ruff’s work as the blown up images show the “jaggies” typical of low resolution imagery. Made in 2004 and 2006, the destruction of the “twin towers” from 2001 features.
Nights is a series of street scenes from 1992-6 made with a device that mimics low light cameras used by surveillance technology during the Gulf War. These add an eerie feel to ordinary everyday imagery. There are also a couple of large photographs from the mid 1990’s made using the Minolta Montage Unit which Ruff borrowed from the police. These black and white images are much softer than the large colour ones and hence more sensitive portraits.
Houses from 1988 and 1990 are again realistic photographs yet with no obvious sky other than a blank off white space. There is said to be a Bauhaus influence.
Substrates is a collection of 2 large multi-coloured photographs apparently made from Japanese pornography. The results contain highly saturated colours with no intimation of their origins.
Another series from 2000 to 2002 shows more pornographic imagery; taken from the internet these images might be seen as a contemporary manifestation of the human nude as an art historical subject. However the couple tongue licking suggest something less classical and more erotic; the soft focus effect of these photographs helps to make them erotic rather than merely pornographic.
I break for lunch and a meeting with the college, sitting opposite the tutor, Jayne Taylor.
We introduce ourselves to the group and start to discuss. There is a need to stick to the course; study days help. Easy to go off on a tangent. No need to review whole exhibitions, too much to absorb; better to settle on perhaps a couple of images. Choose something that resonates with one or something that one does not understand.
The aura of the work, being in the presence of a work of art yet also better understanding the photographer’s original intention. For instance, size plays an important part in Ruff’s exhibition.
Portraits placed at eye level is effective! Ruff’s subjects appear at ease. The photographer did not direct rather allowed the subject to present themselves. Technically highly proficient though this may not strike many people. Presenting oneself as an individual yet also as subject.
Self-portraits an early project. Called The Emperor! What might the intention be? We cannot know and perhaps there was not one; recalling performance art perhaps.
JPEGs reflect a completely different effect to much of his other work; Ruff is a photographer exploring or interrogating the photographic medium.
Machines no longer machines but objects of art.
Interiors abstract rather than making a social comment. No people included just as when people are included there is no background!
Two images from exhibition that strike one! No need to write about the whole lot! Slow down and take time to look at the work rather than glance.
Düsseldorf at night! Scary imagery yet when looked at closely effect can go beyond the “eerie consistency” effected by green tones and vignetting. Reminiscent of Second World War bombing perhaps.
Is the show about coming to terms with being German in the modern world? Cold certainly detached.
It seems too easy to project associations onto Ruff’s work; Campany writes … “ … viewers can never be so neutral, never as dispassionate as a lens glass. They will also bring interpretations and associations. What is calm, serious and anonymous becomes disarming, suggestive and enigmatic, especially in the space of art.” (catalogue p.190)
After the college meeting is over, I walk through the exhibition again, this time noting that one of the portraits that of a coloured woman from the “portraits” series (one student had incorrectly referred to the series as being called “passports”) shows the subject looking to one side rather than directly at the camera. This is certainly an image worth considering.
Negatives is a series worth considering! Although printed as negatives in the cyanotype style, they are actually made from nineteenth century portraits that were printed originally as straight sepia prints. The reversal effected by Ruff using a computer has an appealing aesthetic that might make one curious about the original subjects that remain mysteriously obscured.
Machines, work from 2003, is similar in the way old photographs have been digitised and then printed this time as straight black and white prints with incidental evidence of their origins. Some of these have been toned.
Photograms is another series from 2012-4 that emulates the darkroom technique of Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray but here digitised and with colour added. Not my favourite work in the exhibition but one piece used on the cover of some editions of the catalogue.
Newspaper Photographs from 1990-1991 are newspaper photographs enlarged at a scale of 2:1 with the text removed. Presented out of context these images some of recognisable subjects as in a portrait of Lenin, suggest new meanings.
Another news oriented series is Press in which large blown up photographs bear the stamps of working methods of the time. Although banal, these pictures interest the viewer through suggested meanings.
I finally get to read the catalogue after the event. The introductory page by curator Iwona Blazwick points out Ruff saying he works with photographs rather than making them. Much of his work is about Düsseldorf where he lives and works and is considered to be part of the Düsseldorf School. Mostly he works from his computer using found images asking us, as the curator suggests, “to stop, experience and evaluate its histories and procedures, one image at a time”.
The catalogue has a series of quotes about photography from a number of notable sources. This reminds one of the strength of this exhibition which is not just about a photographer but photography as a whole. I am struck by some of the comments by non-photographers; some is reminiscent of Baudelaire yet is written over a 100 years later in 1988 by Thomas Bernhard and reflects a view still held by some who see photography as an assault on art rather than a conduit for it; “The photograph reveals only a single grotesque or comic moment.”
Campany’s essay in the catalogue is interesting and makes comments that are relevant. For instance, the suggestion that with such an approach from the photographer of wanting to represent clearly and simply as in the series called “Interiors” (198?) …
There is a lot to consider in this exhibition which presents a largely uncomplicated view of the world, accessible to the viewer who is ready to give it time. It also reveals that a photographer need not be bound by genre.