Thomas Ruff

Left: Thomas Ruff, ma.r.s.05 III, 2012, chromogenic print, 100 3/8 x 72 7/8”. Right: Thomas Ruff, 3D-ma.r.s.11, 2013, chromogenic print, 100 3/8 x 72 7/8”.

Over the past thirty years, Thomas Ruff has engaged with various photographic genres, from portraiture to reportage to astronomical imagery. His current exhibition at David Zwirner in New York consists of two bodies of work: new abstract photograms and the “ma.r.s” series. The latter extends several themes from his previous output: fascination with the cosmos, 3-D imaging, and an equivocation between fact and fiction. Below, Ruff discusses the impetus behind these chromogenic prints. The show is on view until April 27, 2013.

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED ASTRONOMY. After I finished high school, I was faced with the decision of becoming either a photographer or an astronomer. Obviously, I chose the former, but I’ve always tried to keep some engagement with astronomy in my life, and my work. My engagement with the “ma.r.s” series began by encountering these long black-and-white photographs of the surface of Mars taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. “ma.r.s.” is an abbreviation for Mars Reconnaissance Survey. Scientists use these images primarily to study the geography of the planet. I downloaded the images from NASA’s website and then changed them by altering the perspective and adding color so that the image turns into what you might see if you passed Mars in an airplane and looked onto its surface. Maybe it’s a view that we’ll have of the planets someday in the future.

NASA’s pictures are all very high resolution, and there are countless images on their website. No wonder it’s the most popular site for images of space. The European Space Agency, for instance, is not as accessible. But NASA puts everything into public domain, and the issue of copyright doesn’t exist for them—perhaps because machines took all of the images and machines cannot have a copyright.

I believe that vision has little to do with our eyes and more to do with our brain. The brain sees, not the eyes. I think this is one reason I’ve been interested in working with 3-D. So when I realized that NASA also makes stereoscopic photographs of the surface of Mars, I was very excited. It’s really amazing looking at a far remote planet in 3-D; you feel like you can almost touch the peaks of the craters of the mountains. The process of making 3-D images is actually rather simple, and I think it’s interesting that the 3-D effect, which lets you experience actual topographic highs and lows, is basically made possible through using a nineteenth-century technology—3-D glasses. Simple things usually inspire me, however, as I’m constantly curious about how basic perception works. For example, seeing myriads of light rainbows on the floor of a medieval church when the sun is coming through the stained glass at just the perfect angle. I think these pictures of Mars have more to do with that kind of soft sensation and stimulus.

Sometimes I think the popular shift from analog to digital photography was more about replacing film by bits and bites. But of course with digital photography as well as digital and post-production software, the possibilities of altering images became really incredible. I’m not yet sure about the consequences.