Thomas Ruff

Rudiger Schottle

The more intensely we scrutinize these straightforwardly realistic color photographs, the less we find out about the people they depict. Thomas Ruff’s enormous, utterly lifelike portraits remove the individual to the same extent that they bring the sitter closer to us. Every liver spot, every bit of stubble on a chin, every wrinkle on a neck, like any information conveyed by this emotionless hyperclarity, binds us to the surface of the visible. These unposed photographs feature young people of the artist’s own generation, shown full face or in three-quarter view and cropped below the chest or waist, occupying the entire picture. Ruff eliminates everything but the bare essentials. Aside from a few monochrome backgrounds, he forgoes any staging and even the least bit of dramatization by light. Because of this similarity in method and presentation from one photograph to another, the subjects maintain their anonymity even in the forced voyeuristic confrontation.

Ruff blatantly limits his role to recording, never evaluating, never discernibly preferring anything. He provides the kind of impersonal, objective picture that one generally expects of documentary photography. For Ruff, who studied with the Conceptual documentary photographer Bernd Becher in Düsseldorf, photographing does not mean creating an aura or giving significance but just the opposite. By exaggerating the blowup and the neutral attitude, he produces an effect of understatement that makes it clear that this “carbon copy” of reality, rather than capturing reality faithfully, is completely artificial. Despite the irritating similarity between shadow and substance, a photograph does not duplicate reality. Implicit in Ruff’s approach is the equivalent of Magritte’s old message about representation: this is a photograph and not the subject him- or herself. By pointing up this difference, Ruff makes the worn-out, socially overused genre portrait reveal what every artwork is by its very nature: a construct, dependent on the artist’s decisions and state of consciousness. Subliminally, this level of reflection becomes an unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the viewed, preventing any possible identification.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.