|Thomas Ruff, Machine 1390, 2003|
Ruff’s photographs always reproduce not the historical event seen in the image — which we may or may not recognize — but they manipulate and re-present the way that the photograph was used either to record the event itself, or in the historical moment that it took place. Thus, for example, in the series, Nights (1992-96), we see multiple images of the empty streets of Düsseldorf through the same surveillance night vision cameras that were used in the fighting of the Gulf War carried out a year earlier. The photographs of Düsseldorf are beautiful, aesthetically very pleasing to the point where we do not recognize the streets of Düsseldorf in the images, but rather are drawn to their photographic representation. We recognize in them the distinctly hazy outlines produced in very early photographic images, thereby infusing them with nostalgia. Indeed, Ruff reproduces images of a Düsseldorf that we do not recognize. Factories, industrial buildings and structures such as chimneys, storage facilities, empty and silent streets are not those we would associate with northern Germany’s wealthy business hub.
|Thomas Ruff, Negative-Artists 01, 2014|
In all of Ruff’s photographs, the production process involves not only a series of intricate technical strategies, but the multiple strategies always lead to a transformation. In a particularly powerful example, Ruff’s Negatives, 2014 involve a process in which Ruff scans positive 19th century photographic prints, digitally reverses the tones from sepia to blue, black and white, so the images appear as negatives. Not only do the series of photographs remove the works from their historical narratives, but by inverting the positive/negative photographic print, they also invert the political implications of the images. Thus, in an image that might have been an otherwise benign documentation of a 19th century collector surrounded by his possessions, the image becomes a politically charged commentary on the historical era of the original photograph. The face of the collector becomes that of a colonizer, however, he and the figures of his statues and paintings now have black faces instead of white. In such a photograph, the whole discourse of colonialism that we are reminded of as we see these images is completely reversed through Ruff’s process of production.
|Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr. II III, 1990|
|Thomas Ruff, Interior 1A, 979|
In a series entitled Interiors (1979-83), Ruff raises another set of concerns that will stay with him throughout his career. He photographs the interiors of homes of his friends – corners, the edge of a wall, the taps without the full sink. There is the odd intimate object, but what’s striking is the lack of humanness in these images. They may be the living spaces of his friends, but they are modernist compositions, attendant to the form, framing, color, the vertical and horizontal lines of shelves, cupboards, pictures and wallpaper seams. The significance of the objects is not explored, but their presence nevertheless creates intimacy. The photographs are both intimate and not, nostalgic and not. In addition, like Ruff’s other series, the works may be placed on the same wall, but they are only related to each other through their process of production: the photographs may be taken in different houses, some of them may be taken in the same house, it’s impossible to say. But like all of the series, what’s important is not that we find logical connections and meaning in the content of the images but in the fact that they are placed in a line on the wall.
|Thomas Ruff, Photographs 1979-2017|
Installation View @ Whitechapel Gallery