Thomas Ruff : Transforming Photography
May 22—June 29, 2019
David Zwirner, Hong Kong
David Zwirner presents work by German photographer Thomas Ruff (b. 1958), on view across two floors of the gallery’s Hong Kong location. The exhibition will provide an overview of the artist’s prodigious career, ranging from a seminal early series to two bodies of new work that were initiated in 2018, tripe and flower.s. Ruff rose to international prominence in the late 1980s as a member of the Düsseldorf School, a group of young photographers who studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the renowned Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and became known for their experimental approach to the medium and its evolving technological capabilities. Ruff, in particular, made a radical break with the style of his teachers, establishing a distinct approach to conceptual photography through a variety of strategies, including the use of color, the purposeful manipulation of source imagery—originally through manual retouching techniques and eventually through digital methods—and the enlargement of the photographic print to the scale of monumental painting. Working in discrete series, Ruff has since utilized these methods to conduct an in-depth examination of a variety of photographic genres, including portraiture, the nude, landscape, archival, and architectural photography, among others.
By the end of the twentieth century, digital technologies of reproduction had become prevalent, and the majority of Ruff’s work since that time reflects this transition to a new mode of image construction, distribution, and reception, as evidenced by the works on view. While a number of Ruff’s series from the earlier part of his career similarly eschew the traditional use of a camera—including his Sterne (Stars) photographs (1989–1992), in which he worked with negatives that he acquired from the archive of the European Southern Observatory to print large-scale, nearly abstract starscapes—in several later series the artist goes further to experiment with achieving analog effects through digital means, often without the use of a camera. For example, for tripe (2018–2019), Ruff worked with high-resolution images of paper negatives taken in the 1850s in India and Burma (now Myanmar) by Captain Linnaeus Tripe, an officer in Britain’s East India Company army. Held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, these negatives represent a nineteenth-century solution for travel photography because they were lighter and more transportable than glass negatives, though they were also more susceptible to aging. Ruff used a computer program to invert these negatives into positive images, then further digitally manipulated them in a manner analogous to hand-retouching, thus highlighting both the subject matter of the images and the analog processes used to create them. Likewise, to create the works in his ongoing phg. series (2012–), Ruff utilizes a custom software program to compose visually complex, illusory arrangements of shapes and colors that resemble the photograms made by the Surrealists in the 1920s by arranging objects on top of light-sensitive paper. For these artists, the ability to make a photographic image without a camera was both radical and experimental, whereas, paradoxically, Ruff’s use of a computer to simulate this process allows the artist a higher degree of control over the final composition.
In the newest body of work on view, flower.s (2018–), Ruff uses a combination of digital manipulation and analog techniques to approximate pseudo-solarization (also known as the Sabattier effect), another effect favored by the Surrealists in which light and dark areas of an image are partially transposed during the printing process. To create these works, Ruff first uses a digital camera to photograph flowers or leaves arranged on the surface of a light box, then employs a software program to alter their tonal values. He then prints the resulting image onto aged paper, imbuing the resultant compositions with an old-fashioned feel. Several of the other series presented in the exhibition call attention to the way in which images circulate in the internet era. To create his nudes (1999–), Ruff searches the internet for pornographic images, which he then enlarges, deliberately manipulating the low-resolution files by further blurring the image and sometimes altering their color or removing details. In his Substrate(Substrates; 2001–), Ruff complicates notions of pictorial abstraction. Endeavoring to create a purely abstract photographic image, the artist found that he could do so by blowing up colorful images from Japanese manga cartoons to the point where all identifiable detail is lost, resulting only in psychedelically hued, amorphous forms. The exhibition will also include several images from Ruff’s jpegs (2004–), a number of which will be on view for the first time. To make these works, Ruff sources low-resolution photographic images from the internet, and subsequently digitally manipulates them. Blown up to the scale of traditional nineteenth-century history paintings, these images remain legible yet noticeably blurred, producing an almost painterly effect wherein grids of mechanical pixilation substitute for the expressiveness of a brushstroke, and, like the works of the Impressionists, the full image comes into view only at a distance.