The German photographer Thomas Ruff achieved international recognition in the 1980s alongside Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, all students of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Of these three influential photographers, Ruff is the most experimental in theme and technique. He made his name with monumental, straight-on, emotionally uninflected portraits and went on to photograph—or appropriate and enlarge photographs or Internet images of—architecture, interiors, landscapes, nudes, stars, machines, and newspaper photos; he has also made night-vision photographs, superimposed negatives, and created montages, stereographs, and computer-altered images, including abstractions derived from Japanese manga.
In March, David Zwirner in New York showed Ruff’s recent altered photographs based on JPEG photographs from the Internet. This work made Ruff’s concern with questions of perception immediately visible: the pictures were nearly indecipherable from a great distance, resolved into recognizable images of landscapes and catastrophes at a middle distance, and dissolved into a mass of pixels up close. This interview was conducted in person in New York and later extended by e-mail.
Thomas Ruff: When I started at the Kunstakademie in 1977, I was an amateur. I took photographs like the ones you find in amateur magazines. I wanted to travel around the world taking beautiful photographs of beautiful landscapes and people. I thought that the most beautiful pictures were made at art academies, so I applied there. At that time Düsseldorf was the only art academy in Germany with a photography class. I applied with my twenty most beautiful slides, and strangely enough Bernd (Becher) took me.
I was completely shocked when I saw Bernd and Hilla’s photographs the first time—I thought they were boring industrial photographs, the complete opposite of my visual world. I was so shocked that I couldn’t work. The friends I made at the art academy were painters and sculptors. I started to look at art and realized my idea of images was the kitsch thing; the true thing was the Bechers. Bernd said to me, “Thomas, these are not your own images. They are imitations of things you have seen. They don’t come from your soul. But I accepted you because you use color in such a beautiful way.” I really believed the documentary photograph could capture reality. My heroes were Bernd and Hilla Becher, Walker Evans, the FSA photographers, Steven Shore, Joel Meyerowitz, just to name a few.
Vicki Goldberg (Rail): Were the photographs of interiors taken in that documentary spirit?
Ruff: I didn’t change anything. I only used light that came through the windows. I started doing interiors in black and white, then changed into color. The students in the Becher class said I couldn’t do that because documentary photography has to be black and white. They were more doctrinaire than the Bechers. But Bernd said, “This is beautiful. You should continue in color.”
Rail: How did your subjects feel about the deadpan, emotionally uninflected, even affectless nature of the portraits that first brought you international recognition?
Ruff: The people I took the portraits of were very happy with them. They were all proud. As I started that project during my time in the academy, I showed the first four portraits at the Rundgang, the end-of-the-year student show. Nobody said, “I don’t want to be photographed,” when I asked them. It was just obvious for us to do it in that way. We had all read 1984 by George Orwell and were wondering, how will that year be in comparison to Orwell’s visions? We knew we lived in an industrialized society where you can find surveillance cameras everywhere; we looked at the camera in a very conscious way, with the knowledge that we are watched.
If you look at a portrait of a person, it can’t give you any information about the life of the sitter, like, is he going to have a visit from his mother in two hours? So what kind of information can a photograph deliver? I have no idea of what kind of information a portrait can convey. I think the possibilities of a photographic portrait are very limited. If there are photographers who say their portraits give more information than mine, I say they only pretend.
When you take a portrait of a little girl laughing, it tells that the girl is happy. What else? It doesn’t tell us that she loves her parents. We can only guess that she must and they’re good to her. Maybe she’s living with her grandparents because her parents are dead.
[August] Sander had this kind of sociological project of society: the boss, the employee, the worker, the farmer, the craftsman, all these kinds of professions, at a time when the differentiation had started to disappear, more or less. He really thought he could capture them and make a sociological encyclopedia about his time. When I started the portraits I excluded that immediately, [the implication that] if somebody’s wearing a worker’s clothes, he’s a worker, if he is wearing a suit, he is an employee. The dress code has changed so much; there is no recognizable code any more. I decided to concentrate on the face because that’s the most expressionistic part of the whole person.
When I made the portraits I thought, “We are all even, equal, nobody is more important than anybody else, and at the same time everybody is unique.” I wanted to treat all my friends equally, but I was conscious that every one of my friends is unique. Twenty years ago I said photography can only capture the surface of things. It cannot go beyond the skin of a person.
Rail: Do you still feel that?
Ruff: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The portraits are about mediated images, about photographic portraits, but at the same time it’s the person portrayed.
Rail: There is something stark in the clarity and isolation of those faces.
Ruff: If I make portraits, you can see only faces; if houses, only houses; stars with no planets or astronauts, pure stars...
It was very convenient to do the portraits because it happened in the studio, where you have no factors distracting you from the work. When you take a photograph outside of the studio, you have to depend on the weather and the circumstances of the motive, as cars could be parked in front of a house you want to photograph, or trees could be in the way, or other problems appear. As I was more interested in the image of the house than in photographing it in a documentary way, I waited until I had the right circumstances. But even so I had to manipulate two images out of the thirty I took.
My idea was architectural photography questioning the nature of reality. It wasn’t really a deliberate decision. It came from my everyday life. I was nineteen or twenty when I did the interiors. I had left my parents’ home. The work was probably about leaving home.
When I settled in Düsseldorf, my new friends studied at the academy also. I didn’t know old people or babies, so it was obvious [from the portraits] that I chose my nearest acquaintances. Then I worked on the image of architecture, the architecture surrounding my generation when I grew up. So it all was autobiographical.
Rail: You have also investigated the subject of architecture and modernism in your photographs of Mies’s buildings.
Ruff: At the end of the 1980s, I said in an interview that I can never photograph a Mies van der Rohe house because it’s already so beautiful. Mies is too big. That was pure egoism. Fifteen years later I thought I could make it up with him. When I did the Mies series, I was not afraid of his strength any more. I was able to change some of his architecture and its surroundings. I took away the color of the brick, made the sky flat, pale blue, so it looks like those awful 1950s social buildings where the big ideal was a Mies building from the 1920s. I treated not the buildings but the image of the buildings. Some of the interiors are a kind of psychedelic room. If he inhales, he gets a kind of flash, but only for a couple of seconds.
Rail: You worked from archival photographs, appropriating, as you often do.
Ruff: I didn’t have the time to go to Stuttgart, and in Berlin the situation was that I could not take photographs of the buildings at all, so I asked Terry Riley to send me archival photos. I colored them; I was sampling.
Appropriation developed into sampling. Sometimes you could say I’m appropriating, or sometimes I’m sampling. Using one image is appropriation, two or more is sampling. When I appropriate, I’m not questioning authority. It’s more pragmatic. When I did the stars [large pictures of the night skies, originally taken by astronomers] I realized I don’t have the equipment or the technology for taking the photographs myself. The work of taking the image should always be done by the most professional people. I’m professional with an 8×10 or a 4×5.
Rail: Didn’t you think about becoming a professional astronomer at one time?
Ruff: I had a telescope when I was fourteen. Photography and astronomy were my two high-school interests. I had to decide which [to concentrate on]. The stars were personal favorites of mine.
Rail: In the series of Anderes Porträts (Other Portraits) in 1995, you used a montage unit from a police history collection to superimpose two of your earlier portraits on top of one another and photograph the result. What was the impulse for this?
Ruff: When I started them, I wanted to reconstruct one of my portraits. Some critics wrote about my portraits that they were anti-individualistic and anonymous. I wanted to prove that the people depicted in my portraits are unique. It was important to me to make the Anderes Porträts in an analog way. I used a kit that the police use to build mug shots. I realized that I couldn’t reconstruct one of my portraits by matching parts [of the face]. But as I had the possibility to work with this kit, I said, “Okay, let’s do new faces that do not exist, in an analog, old-fashioned way.” I was altering photographic images but in an old fashioned way. There’s been such a lot of manipulation since the early days of photography; it didn’t start with the tool Photoshop. Just look at all those images with Stalin—who is still there and who has disappeared.
I wanted to give the viewer a chance to recognize that he’s standing in front of a manipulated image. I never made a secret out of my technical apparatus. Some photographers make a secret out of their technique. They’re afraid people could imitate it. Everybody should have the same basis and the same kind of technical opportunity. [An Anderes Porträt is] a new face, believable, but if you see the manipulation, you realize it’s an artificial face. I believe in my photographs.
Rail: In a way, you believe in the artificiality of your photographs. And what about the montages [a series of posters, mostly on political subjects]?
Ruff: [Laughs.] I was trying to do something impossible. It was obvious that it’s completely stupid in a way to do montages. It’s not contemporary at all. Of course an artist’s comment on political decisions or disasters is also completely stupid, and to do this kind of work is stupid. But at the same time, I had a lot of fun. They look like bad posters for B movies, but politicians behave like actors in B movies.
Rail: The news photographs you showed are straight enough, and again they are appropriated.
Ruff: If I’d taken them, they never would have been printed.
Rail: What was your interest in photojournalism?
Ruff: I was collecting newspaper images for about ten years. At first I collected portraits, as I was working on the portraits, and I was interested in how other photographers did them. Then I was interested in other things, and I cut out what attracted me—images from the main pages, world politics, business, sports, arts, science, and so on. When I looked at them ten years later, I thought, this is a nice stamp collection. I had the idea of showing them, but the paper would turn brown in a couple of weeks. I decided to make a reproduction and also to enlarge it, to make you see the dots, so you’d definitely see that it was already printed.
Maybe by that time I already became slightly theoretical. I was interested in what happens when you take away a text from an image printed in a newspaper to illustrate the text. How much information will remain? Some scenes can’t be connected any more to anything; they’ve lost all information. But they keep their visual aesthetic. On the other hand, this kind of photography is the most mistreated in the world. An editor cuts part of the image not under aesthetic but under editorial reasons. I give them back some dignity by treating them as artworks. [Asked if he knew about John Szarkowski’s 1973 show, From the Picture Press, Ruff said he hadn’t heard of it.] These pictures show something very important, so important they were published in the newspaper and 100,000 people saw them. In the end they couldn’t keep their promise.
It depends on what you expect from a photograph. An art photograph within the art context doesn’t have to say very much because it is perceived by itself and has no reference except to itself. It doesn’t have to prove anything but be a good image. Journalistic photographs and other categories should have aesthetic qualities as well as contain information: “A picture says more than 1,000 words.” But it seems very hard to do that kind of photograph.
Rail: What sparked the series of night photographs made with an image intensifier?
Ruff: I had seen images on TV of the Gulf War; I was fascinated and offended. Technically fascinated with the visual appearance of what they showed and emotionally offended by what it means to view a war happening someplace else, broadcast in real time.
Rail: The Zwirner show’s subject matter included the eruption of Mount Saint Helens and two images of the World Trade Center on 9/11, as well as landscapes. This project began as an attempt to create an encyclopedia of contemporary history. Why an encyclopedia?
Ruff: I have a little daughter; she’s nineteen months old. In a way I want to explain the whole world to her. Maybe in the beginning I thought of a visual encyclopedia for my daughter, but then the work developed independent of that idea. The JPEGs start with Aa: American Architecture, and there’s An, African Nile. In the beginning, “Encyclopedia” was kind of a working title. In the meantime, I don’t think I can explain the whole world in images.
Most of the images were taken from the Internet, some come from postcards, others I took. What I did [with the digital images] was alter their pixel structure, enlarging them, sometimes changing the color slightly. That was all I did. You just have to find the right images within a selection of more then 1,000 images. Sometimes you find one that reminds you of classical images, like the landscape of burning oil that looks like a Caspar David Friedrich.
Rail: Not long ago, you exhibited brightly colored abstractions based upon images from Japanese manga. Why manga?
Ruff: Again, that was very pragmatic. I needed hard-edged colors, green beside red beside blue, as photographs are too smooth in color and graduation. For what I intended, I tried one substrate with different Alex Katz paintings. It worked, but the colors were not as intensive as the manga. The substrates are the result of the Mies psychedelic images. The buzzing of information on the Internet...On the Net, you get such a lot of images and information you cannot hear or see anything any more, and then you see these colors.
Rail: Scale has been so crucial in the last two decades in photography. When did you begin making the monumental portraits?
Ruff: In 1981 I started making portraits in the size of 18×24 cm. Of course the camera records precisely what is in front of it, but I realized the one behind the camera has ninety percent of the control of the image. I chose the people, the light, gave them instructions like “head up, down, look self-conscious,” and so on.
Rail: You used large-scale color photography earlier than most. The size radically changes the picture’s impact, and it has been a highly influential strategy.
Ruff: For the first time with the big portraits, a completely different physical presence emerged. With the stars it was the same. The first images I displayed in my studio horizontally, but it wasn’t satisfying. The horizontal format is a window, but the images I had in mind weren’t a window. I wanted the door, suggesting, “Put on a helmet, go out into space, become a Captain Kirk.” That’s why I made them vertical and as big as possible.
Rail: The nudes are smaller...
Ruff: This is kind of a smoking parlor, the room where men sit together, have a smoke, and talk without the women. I imagined that they also have some kind of erotic images there, so I used a size that I thought would suit there. It wouldn’t have made sense to have them any larger.
Rail: The nudes were lifted from pornographic Web sites.
Ruff: I just don’t have the fantasy to do all these different kinds of things I found on the Internet.
Rail: Those images have been described as impressionist because of their soft, blurry quality. Is that what you had in mind?
Ruff: I must confess I didn’t think about impressionism but about the whole history of nude painting. What I wanted to do with the nudes was to create photographic images of nudes, but in a contemporary way. I wanted to show contemporary desire: the whole variety of sexual desire in our society today. I really wanted to show everything; I couldn’t show only male hetero desires but wanted also the male homosexual desire and all the fetish stuff. When I started my research on the Internet, I was quite surprised at the exhibitionism of people showing themselves naked, as well as the voyeurism of the people looking at them and the total anonymity of it all. The Internet is the perfect medium in which to show the self, make the contact, and also be an exhibitionist who shows his desires.
It’s about how our society deals with all these images. It’s more sociological. [The Internet] probably told me that not only sexual desire but all parts of life are exhibited, as in those stupid “Big Brother” soaps where normal people are invited into the camp and filmed night and day.
I wanted to make the pictures a kind of parlor size: 80×140 cm or 100×140 cm. If you enlarge a digital image just by calculating the pixels up, you get a very ugly structure. If you enlarge and shift the pixels to the right or the left, it’s cut into four, nine, or sixteen parts. The change happens by chance. I was experimenting at the time with pixels and didn’t have this kind of photography in mind. I was playing around. I applied it with one of those porn photographs and had this very strange, beautiful, and at the same time awful image.
Probably I’m working on a kind of grammar of the media. I want to understand how it works. I see images, and I don’t know how they were done; I have to find out how the image works, how we perceive it. The visible world is seen through the eyes, but it’s our brain that creates the images and our whole experience that gives meaning to what you see in the world. Especially in photography there’s still a lot of misunderstanding in regard to perception. In the early days of photography, people believed that the camera registers what’s in front of the lens, and it’s absolutely true. But now it is clear that the person behind the camera is controlling what is shown on the photograph. During the civil war in Yugoslavia, a news photographer might take an image of a wedding in front of a church, neglecting that next to it there might be refugees or people being killed. It’s the photographer’s decision what you see on a photograph. You could get a completely different impression of what happens, depending on the ideas of the photographer.
With digitalization you can change parts of the picture very easily. It’s not serious if you do it for yourself or within the arts, but in my eyes it’s a crime if you do it for the news. You don’t have to manipulate [the picture], you [just] transfer the information you want people to see.
Rail: To what degree have you been influenced by the theoretical discourse on mediated images and the media?
Ruff: For a long time, photography was second degree because everybody can take one good photograph in his life. So that’s why artists working with photography invented this reflection about the media, but at the same time photography is already reflecting the media.
My work is not that theoretically based. I don’t go with a thesis and try to prove it. It’s a kind of trial and error. Mit dem Bauch denken—aus dem Bauch heraus means “according to instinct.” (Bauch is literally translated “abdomen” or “tummy.”) I grew up with TV, movies, photographic images on the wall, cheap calendars. It was just natural to pick up a camera and do photographic images, not paintings. It became more and more obvious that we live in this kind of mediated world. Advertising becomes more and more elaborated, and also TV becomes more and more commercial in Germany. The whole society goes on into consuming more and more and more...People don’t think about working as something valuable, only free time. They work for vacations. They don’t think of Marx: selbstbestimmt arbeit—self-determined work. They work just to play golf or go to the beach. The working time is a horrible time; only the leisure is good. I’m the opposite.
Maybe in our society we are not only consuming products and nature but doing the same thing with information. Twenty years ago we had a journalistic ethos, but now in Germany an article that size [he holds up a finger and thumb close together], you read it just to forget it, the photograph coming with it too. In the end you don’t remember anything. The style, the language becomes so cheap that it’s really awful reading these magazines. And you find more and more advertising pages. We are consuming information, we swallow it and it is gone, it doesn’t reach our brain.
Asked if he was talking about this issue in his work, Ruff replied, “Maybe,” preserving in language the ambiguous nature of perception that lies at the heart of his photography.