Thomas Ruff (b.1958, Zell am Harmersbach, Germany) began his career in the 1970s as a student at the renowned art school Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. Known for taking a critical, conceptual approach to photography, Ruff explores themes as diverse as utopianism, suburbia, advertising culture, pornography and surveillance. From the 1970s to today, Ruff has worked in series, with each body of work making use of different image-making technologies.
The exhibition titled Thomas Ruff is curated by Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick. It is the artist’s first major London retrospective, and includes a number of his most recent works. Organised thematically, it begins with Ruff’s exploration of questions of scale, the cosmic and the everyday. On show in the ground floor gallery is L’Empereur (1982), a sequence of eight images which depict the artist in a range of exaggerated slumped poses with two chairs and a yellow floor lamp. Made while the artist was in Paris, Ruff turns the camera on himself and acts as a prop in a narrative still life. Porträts (Portraits) (1986–91; 1998–), Ruff’s series of passport-style portraits reproduced on a huge scale, reveal every surface detail of their subjects. These are displayed alongside Sterne (Stars) (1989–92), photographs taken by a high-performance telescope at the European Southern Observatory and two additional series Maschinen (Machines) (2003–) and m.a.r.s. (2010–).
The display continues with one of the artist’s earliest series Interieurs (Interiors) (1979–83), which documents rooms inside the houses of his friends and acquaintances in Düsseldorf. The interiors are shot in a detached way, revealing human traces but with the occupants themselves absent. Alongside these are large-scale works from his 2004 jpeg series of pixelated images depicting nature and disaster. In Gallery 9 Nächte (Nights) (1992–96) photographs are presented alongside andere Porträts (Other Portraits) (1994–95), which examine both the technology and imagery of surveillance and policing.
Gallery 8 includes Häuser (Houses) (1987–91), studies of ordinary suburban buildings, devoid of human presence and shot in the style of architectural photography. Alongside these are two series deriving from the types of imagery that might be at home in the suburban bedroom. The nudes (1999–) are blurred images of internet pornography, while the Substrate (Substrates) (2001–) are vividly colourful works deriving from Japanese manga and anime, which have been adapted using computer software. These go on show alongside two recent series Fotogramme (Photograms) (2012–) and Negative (Negatives) (2014).
The exhibition closes on a moment of resonance with contemporary political debates – two series which question the documentary value of press photography. The Zeitungsphotos (Newspaper Photographs), conceived in the early 1990s, reproduce photographs which the artist cut out of German newspapers and weekly magazines. Without captions or headlines, they allude to urgent events which, divorced from their original context, take on opaque meanings. Ruff’s recent press++ (2015–) works make use of retired archival photographs from several decades of American newspapers. Editorial marks, instructions and cropping are reproduced, showing how images from the era of the space race or of Hollywood starlets were retouched.