Baffled and confused are the aftermath feelings of Thomas Ruff’s retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery.
Works from 1980 are arranged on the gallery walls, oscillating from portraits, set-ups, arrangements, nudes and collage-like photographs by the German artist.
Ruff’s photographs appear abrasive, raw and ordinary at first. Yet they possess underlying values, qualities which slowly emerge when creating context and deepening research. His definition of photographs in relation not only to the subject but to the viewers, is idiosyncratic. He describes a society using the medium of photography, through a sixth sense, one which they have little idea of operating and one which could manipulate them in return.
In an interview with the British Journal of Photography dating from April 2012 and recently re-published, Ruff explains that there are three categories in his portfolio: camera based photography, machines or optical systems and digitized images. He works similarly on his renderings, whether producing and owning his own shots or ‘borrowing’ them from the internet in order to re-calibrate and use them as a starting point to redefine a particular vision.
In The Emperor (1982), the infamous Portraits (1981-1988) and Interiors (1979-1983), he presents subjects which seem simplistic but when scrutinized, appear otherwise. For example: himself in his studio, his students from the Dusseldorf Academy and still-life of his parents and friend’s homes arranged all captured on photographic paper.
Half-spread, half-sitting between two chairs, the photographer puts himself into strange positions reaching incongruous limits . The passport shots are blown up to large-scaled images and the furniture conjures a severe, austere atmosphere.
Ruff experiments with his subjects in the midst of post-war Dusseldorf. He appropriates familiar scenes from acquired photographs and creates his own recipe, producing elaborate and slightly divergent results with, it seems, the intention of questioning just how attentive and credulous his viewers can be.
Similarly, in ma.r.s, he produces coloured images from the original black and white shots transmitted by NASA. Blurring the line between reality and his imagination, he re-invents serious content and through 3D glasses and forces the viewers to analyse anaglyph images which may or may not, be accurate.
Precision is not Ruff’s aim. In Nudes, the photographs were downloaded and subsequently enlarged on purpose to the point of being pixelated.
In 2000, the rise of the Internet and the amount of information delivered intrigued and perhaps also frightened. The photographs’ provenance is not always clear and neither its recipients. By barely being able to see the images the way we are used to, with distinct outlines and homogenous colours, what is our stand on this experimental form of communication?
Upon glancing at Ruff’ work for the first time, it is not rare to feel disconcerted . These are not photographs which fulfill their primary and most common roles albeit to translate what the photographer has encountered at a given moment, at a given location.
Here, Ruff doesn’t attract and seduce as is common. His work is designed to derange the physical order of objects, society and dogmas. As if viewers were meant to questions if what they are looking at is a representation of reality or ‘photo-invention’: a deformation realised by the mind and imagination of an artist.
In that case, why call it photography? What is the definition of photography? Are all photographs a copy and paste of reality onto a glossy paper surface ?
Those open questions result in a meticulous dissection of a medium which comes across as innocent, perhaps the most harmless of them all among painting, performance, sculpture, opera, etc.
Ruff changes our perspectives and it seems that from now on, photography will be a multi-layered channel, far more complex to the public than it wants to appear.
Thomas Ruff at Whitechapel Gallery (27 September 2017 – 21 January 2018)