PRINT Summer 2001



*Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was fond of quoting Augustine's dictum that “Beauty is the splendor of Truth.” Indeed, a dedication to beauty in truth permitted Mies to see over the heads of his contemporaries and glimpse what modern architecture would become. German artist Thomas Ruff's appreciation of what it means to make photography modern is likewise undiluted—though Ruff's relation to the “truth” of his medium is somewhat more complicated. In fact, the proposition that photography is not the unmediated bearer of truth it was once thought to be but is, on the contrary, conceptual to the core is the pivot on which Ruff's practice turns. That photography is not truthful is the truth Ruff has to tell.

In this respect, it was an inspired decision on the part of curator Julian Heynen to ask Ruff to make photographs of Mies's architecture, leading Bernd and Hilda Becher's former student to photograph Mies's celebrated Barcelona Pavilion and Haus Tugendhat, Brno, as well as Haus Esters and Haus Lange, both of which show contemporary art under the aegis of the Krefelder Kunstmuseen. When Terence Riley, the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of architecture and design, got wind of Ruff's project, he enlisted the photographer to document all Mies's buildings in Berlin and Stuttgart for MoMA's upcoming “Mies in Berlin” exhibition, which opens June 21.

When I visited Ruff's Dusseldorf studio to discuss this new body of work, aptly titled “l.m.v.d.r.,” 1999–2001, the artist stressed his conceptual approach. In the end, Ruff's photography, like Mies's architecture, is about the truth of the intellect—and that is precisely how all the beauty flows in.*

Ronald Jones


LONG BEFORE THE RENOVATIONS of Krefeld's Haus Lange and Haus Esters were completed last summer, Julian Heynen was planning the inaugural exhibition. He wanted the show to respect the two houses' use for more than fifteen years as museums of contemporary art and at the same time engage with Mies van der Rohe's architecture. Julian has known my work for years, and because I've made a lot of pictures with architecture in them, he offered me the opening show.

When I did my first architectural series, in 1987–91, I chose the typical, undistinguished buildings my generation grew up surrounded by. I thought that high architecture might overshadow the image itself, that a Mies building would be too beautiful. I was worried that there would be too much Mies and too little Ruff. But after gaining experience making various series in the meantime, I thought I could transform even Mies architecture into a Ruff image. When Julian proposed the project in 1999, I realized I was ready for Mies—that I could make his architecture look different from the way it had appeared in previous photographs.

We decided to work on two Mies buildings that were near-contemporaries—the Barcelona Pavilion (completed in 1929) and Haus Tugendhat, in Brno, Czech Republic (1930)—as well as Haus Lange and Haus Esters. My idea now was to work in several modes: straight architectural shots, interior photographs like the ones I was making twenty years ago, stereoscopic photographs, and computer-manipulated images. Some of the computer alterations were done to create the impression of speed—something modernity has always been closely associated with. When Mies's German Pavilion was built for the 1929 International Exposition, it must have looked like a UFO had landed in Barcelona. Speed in photography is always blurry, and my picture of the German Pavilion looks like a high-speed locomotive—modernity arriving at the train station of the present (albeit the present of 1929).

When Terence Riley saw some of these images, he asked me if I would work on the rest of Mies's buildings in Berlin and Stuttgart for MoMA's upcoming show “Mies in Berlin.” So I began shooting those buildings too, but I couldn't photograph all of them—some were obstructed by trees or by traffic and parked cars. So another mode appeared: using archival material. At first I thought I might hand-color some old black-and-white prints, but in the end I did all the alterations on the computer.

In this way, I have tried to do a contemporary-art exhibition about architecture from the past, using every technique available to contemporary photography. The computer is a great new tool for photography, an extension of the darkroom, allowing you to alter color, resolution, parts of the image, or even the whole thing. For the Krefeld show I was playing with issues surrounding the documentary aspects of architectural photography. What was in front of the camera is not what you see in the images, because I altered about 90 percent of them. In some I took out the color and made a new sky. In one there appears to be a ghost (is it Mies?), which was originally a bad exposure that I guided into an intention, let's say. The curtain in the Barcelona Pavilion is red, but I wondered what would happen if it were blue or green. How might this change the reception of Mies's architecture?

The main idea was to create a kind of résumé of the photographic representations of Mies's buildings and at the same time demonstrate that the reception of his work was hugely indebted to a relatively small number of photographs. My images of Haus Esters and Haus Lange were exhibited in the houses themselves. For example, I put a stereoscopic view looking out a window into the garden next to the photographed window. One image of an exterior wall of Haus Esters was hung on that wall's interior surface. I was playing with the original and the reproduction: You could see both and compare them.

With stereoscopic photography, it's obvious that our perception has less to do with what we see than with what our brain does with that information. If you look at the two flat images, nothing much happens; but look at them at just the right angle and the images become one—and it's three-dimensional. We may look with our eyes, but our brain constructs the images. My idea was to make these 3-D interiors look even more artificial by altering the distance between the stereoscopic camera's lenses, which are normally set apart about the same distance as a person's eyes. To take stereo h.t.b. 06, 2000 [see cover], I used two cameras set about ten inches apart, which creates a perceptual transformation: The viewer becomes a twelve-foot-tall giant peering into a dollhouse-size interior.