Well, this question certainly does not hit the point. However, Thomas Ruff does not describe himself as a “photo artist” at all, but more comprehensively as an artist. And that is more accurate. Because the international artist Thomas Ruff does not usually work with the camera himself, or at least very rarely, but rather works on pictures of all kinds that others have already taken. His source material can be anything. And a previous “artistic purpose” of the original is not absolutely necessary. Quite the contrary.
Press photos, the fund of large picture agencies, snapshots, documentary pictures of space robots. But also Chinese propaganda stagings, pictures for diagnosing heart patients, industrial photography from the 1930s. Pictures from newspapers and magazines, or simply anything from the flood of images on the Internet. From A for “all genres”, B for “boring”, “c” for catastrophe and P for “pornography” or “purpose-free”. His photographic finds are merely the starting point, his art is created in a highly complex image generation on the computer, which can go far beyond the usual methods of image processing.
In fact, the buzzword “image editing” sounds almost too boring to describe the effort Thomas Ruff makes when he goes to the source photo material. From A for “alter” to Z for “zoom” a whole universe opens up. And the end result can be very different. Often the result is a visual (and tangible!) distance from the previous image. Oversized individual pixels, for example, look like strange empty spaces in the picture, questioning the presence of the original “image”. Propagandistic pathos as in the Mao portraits or the more than explicit nudity as in the “Nudes”? The previously unquestionably unambiguous, partly deliberately manipulative visual language of the originals suddenly no longer functions, as if it were no longer possible to “read” them properly. This is when the image detaches itself from the message, at least from the one originally intended.
Thomas Ruff does not work in the sense of appropriation or cultural appropriation. One result of his work is rather the conscious distancing and detachment from the original or image source, in a sense as a disillusionment and “making visible” of this original contextualisation.
Thomas Ruff approaches the world through its surface, and understands it as a construct that stands in a (historical) context. This is all too clear, for example, in the case of the jagged surface of Mars, as depicted by a corresponding space probe. With his diverse techniques of digital image processing, Thomas Ruff explores precisely this “assertion” and thus dissolves this supposedly secure context. In Thomas Ruff’s work, this is transformed into a 3D image that can be explored with the help of 3D glasses. So this is what it looks like on Mars. Or not.
By the way, for his “flower.s” Thomas Ruff took the photos himself. The flowers from his garden were the visual model here. And the Ruff result? The opposite! In the literal sense of the word. Because the small “s” refers to solarisation. An effect that became a technique that leads to an inversion of light and dark areas. But where Man Ray or Lee Miller, for example, took a second exposure in the analogue darkroom and could not completely exclude chance, Thomas Ruff is now working on this in a kind of digital replica. Meticulously, and completely controlled.
For the Thomas Ruff exhibition at K20 there is a comprehensive accompanying booklet in printed form (free of charge with the admission ticket). It provides a lot of very helpful and technical information in an easily readable form, which makes it clear that Thomas Ruff does not only use copy / paste and retouching tricks from the “Photoshop” magic box of universal images.
The “k+” Digital Guide to the exhibition, which is available on the Internet, provides a clear compendium of important technical aspects of the special art of Thomas Ruff as a background for classification, and thus also provides an insight into the history of photography.
During the tour, Thomas Knoll came into my mind. The US-American software developer, who developed the image editing program Photoshop together with his brother John Knoll in the late 80s. Because he himself also comes from the world of photography. Family background and a great deal of enthusiasm for this field. As a child he helped his father develop colour and black-and-white films in the darkroom. There he learned how to balance colour and contrast, he was a computer enthusiast. And it simply bothered him that his Apple Mac simply couldn’t display the shades of grey back then. At some point, this “impulse” became a world-famous programme that changed an entire division forever. And the changeability of images anyway.
The Kunstsammlung NRW will be showing a very extensive exhibition of works in the K20 until 7 February 2021. A whole series of very different works by Thomas Ruff, created over the last 20 years. There are 13 series from the 1990s to the brand new series “Tableaux chinois”, which will be exhibited at K20 for the first time.