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[text] Thomas Ruff

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Thomas Ruff : Night photographs and stereo photographs
On the medial status of photography

by Katrin Kaschadt

The deserted night scenes resemble one another: an empty back yard, a canal with a railway bridge made of steel, the illuminated entrance to a house, the tracks in front of a station, an office building’s car park with a guard’s lodge for security, behind which one detects a cemetery – but only after closer inspection. All these shots have a disturbing quality about them. They appear familiar, sometimes even romantic, yet at the same time they are disconcerting and eerie – because of their almost monochrome green cast, their monumental size [190 x 190 cm], and the fact that their lighting seemingly aims at a certain point, then becomes less sharp beyond the edges, lending them the appearance of snapshots.

Thomas Ruff first exhibited the large-sized photographs of his Night series in 1992 at documenta IX. Up until 1995 about 40 pictures followed each depicting a different location. The serial treatment but also the large format both feature in Ruff’s previous works, his Portraits, Houses, Stars or Newspaper Portraits. Moreover, the topic 'architecture' emerges several years earlier - wholly in the tradition of his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher. What makes the night photos different is Ruff’s employment of a new, unusual method which relies on the so-called 'available-light amplifier'. The infra-red low-level light device enables the human eye to detect objects in intense darkness by amplifying the available light electrons which are normally insufficient to allow this. In other words, the shots depict what would normally be invisible to the eye.

By using an optical device which became known through its use in the Gulf War, Ruff stirs memories of the green pictures shown in news reports – not only evoking the military context and the specific historical event, but also the special media dimension particular to this war. This was the first time in history that the media was supplied with censored photographs of the theater of war on such a scale. Since the images on the computer screens of the military decision-makers are identical to those on the domestic TV screen, the actual events coincide with their presentation by the media: The viewer is directly confronted with the events presented to him/her. Yet what might have constituted an essential instrument to soldiers in the war, appears to the viewer in his/her living room as mere 'second-hand reality' prepared by the media; it is a means of satisfying his/her curiosity. Consequently, the night scene becomes a critical statement on the voyeurism of the Western TV viewer. [1]

That said, Ruff does not show any pictures from the Gulf War but separates the technology from its war context by employing the infra-red device in city scenes set in his native Düsseldorf. Nevertheless, the original military context is transferred to the new environment. The green cast combined with the slight, foggy blur as well as the focus on the illuminated, usually central picture section transform the familiar scenes to suspicious locations of strategic military importance. The medium reveals itself to be a vehicle of interpretation. [2]

Only when one realizes that the light is placed according to compositional and aesthetic considerations, and the picture section is carefully selected is the discrepancy revealed. Thomas Ruff is not so much interested in presenting reality or capturing a fleeting moment. Nor does he employ photography as 'evidence' of truth and authenticity. Rather his night photographs illustrate that every [optical] device produces a new - possibly manipulative - reality.

This latter topic was also central to the stereo photographs or Different Portraits produced soon after the night photographs, and which were first displayed in 1995 at the Venice Biennial. Ruff developed them gradually from his large-sized, aloof-objective color portraits of the late 1980s. By the transparent overlapping of two of these real, existing faces– in each case that of a man and a woman – a new, strangely artificial and "different portrait" is created. As Ruff himself explains the effect is »strange because two actually existing faces become mixed up with one another, and perverse because it is highly unlikely this face will ever exist as a result of evolution and mutation.« [3] This calls to mind aspects of contemporary events such as the discussion on genetic manipulation and the cloning of human beings, as well as questions about man’s identity in the face of enormous global and social upheavals. The manipulated face becomes a 'reflection' of a society which can be manipulated or already has been. Ruff clearly takes up the incunabula of objective photography such as that of August Sander – above all through the formal characteristics of his works [series, en face presentation, black-and-white photography, not to mention the police portrait look produced by large-format screen printing]. This is not only intended as a reference to Ruff’s own photographic roots. Sander’s serial photos in People of the 20th Century [4] - which amounted to an anthology of typical representatives of various classes – effectively presented his contemporaries with an objective yet transparent mirror image: the portrait as a general image of the [German] nation. [5] Naturally the similarity of Ruff’s series to the aesthetics of police portraits also points to the manner in which Sander’s work was misused by the National Socialists, who used his photos of various representatives of society for the development of specific racist characteristics (especially of criminals and Jews). However, Ruff presents his manipulations as consciously produced media products, thereby unmasking similar attempts today. Simultaneously, he creates an impression of the difficulties we experience in defining our own personal identity. He reveals that the 'reflection ' of society is divided, schizoid. [6]

Neither the stereo photos nor the night photos were computer-generated, but were produced photographically. That said, both undermine photography’s claim to authenticity. By his very experimentation with the technical means available Ruff succeeds in making photography a reflection on its medial status. Both series represent a departure from recording what is visually perceptible. The night photographs disturb on account of their production technique - tainted through its military origin - and stimulate viewers to reflect on political situations and the media’s treatment of them, while the stereo photos throw up questions about the fragility of identity and society, create an approximation of what is presented to three-dimensional seeing, and a specific artificial perception. Accordingly, these works of Ruff lie beyond the conceptual, both beyond what can be captured photographically but also beyond what natural sight can record. [7] Ruff reflects on the effectiveness and perception of images.

1 See Thomas Wulffen: »Reality so Real. It's unrecognizable.« in Thomas Ruff, exhib. cat. Rooseum - Center of Contemporary Art, Thomas Ruff, Stephan Dillenmuth, Catherine Hürzeler, Mathias Winzen, Thomas Wolffen (eds.), Malmö 1996, p.98. ^

2 I am grateful to the catalog contribution by Annette Urban for the precise examination of Ruff’s night photos: Versuchsanordnungen über Photographie. Die Nachtbilder und Stereoaufnahmen von Thomas Ruff., in Ansicht Aussicht Einsicht. Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth. Architekturphotographie, Monika Steinhauser (ed.), exhib. cat. Museum Bochum and Bochum University’s History of Art Institute, Bochum 2000. p.1.
http://www.kgi.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/archpott/ruff/ruff2.htm#nacht ^

3 Thomas Ruff interviewed by Stephan Dillemuth: »Thomas Ruff. Andere Porträts + 3D«, in Catalog on Venice Biennial 1995, Cantz, Ostfildern 1995, p.13. ^

4 August Sander, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Portraitphotographien 1892-1952, Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, 1980. ^

5 See Thomas Ruff. Portraits, Häuser, Sterne, exhib. cat. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam 1990, Centre National d'Art Contemporain Grenoble 1990, Kunsthalle Zurich 1990, Amsterdam 1990, p.8. ^

6 See Thomas Ruff interviewed by Stephan Dillemuth: »Thomas Ruff. Andere Porträts + 3D«, Catalog on the Venice Biennial 1995, Cantz, Ostfildern 1995, p.13. ^

7 See Annette Urban, 2000, p.1.^

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