Thomas Ruff

If, in our 'virtual' age, it can still be said that photographs furnish evidence, then Thomas Ruff's body of work is testimony to the sheer wealth of practices, objects and forms available to photographers today. Ruff has been testing the limits of his medium for more than two decades, completing a dozen series of photographs that range from seemingly banal images of streets and buildings to computer-generated prints of sensuous psychedelic colour fields.

While he is perhaps best known for his revival of the portrait during the early 1980s, and then for blowing the prints up to a monumental scale, Ruff has never stuck to one genre or method. He has investigated a composite picture-making apparatus - the Minolta montage machine - for Other Portraits; an infrared lens for Nights; hand-tinting; stereo photographs; digital retouching and photomontage. He has even borrowedimages, as in Stars, where he reprinted details of photos of night skies shot by the European Southern Observatory that, for an avid star-gazer like me, are almost scandalous in their beauty. Further appropriations occur in his Newspaper Photographs series, and more recently his Nudes, pornographic pictures downloaded from the internet and digitally modified.

There is no obvious chronological progression to Ruff's work, nor is there a clear hierarchy of pictorial discoveries: sophisticated technologies, as they become available, rival those ready to hand since the 19th century. Threedimensional illusion co-exists alongside categorical flatness; the graphic sexual image contaminates the neutral portrait via eerie, vitriolic nightscapes. The more one looks, the more one retains in one's visual memory, the more each part seems to be related to an everchanging, still elusive whole.

Ruff began studying photography in the late 1970s under Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie Dsseldorf. Indeed, the impact of Bernd and Hilla Becher's black-and-white typologies of industrial structures and landscapes on a whole generation of German photographers cannot be overestimated. The Bechers encouraged budding photographers to emulate their factually exact, tonally uniform approach to image-making.

While profiting from their lessons, Ruff quickly distinguished himself from his teachers by delving into colour, a move that radically challenged the presumed authenticity of the blackand-white image on which traditions of documentary photography have long been based. Early works bear the mark of his training and of his maverick attitude. His photographs of the interiors of homes belonging to friends and family, made between 1979 and 1983, are as rigorously composed as any Becher water tower: the cropping of each vertical image draws attention to the (often horizontal) details of geometric pattern, texture, and the dull glow of natural light shining off polished wood and immaculate tiles.

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