New York

Thomas Ruff

In Thomas Ruff’s latest photographs lurid green light shines on residential and industrial buildings, the ragged edges of a nameless, graceless city. The illuminated scenes appear through a circular viewfinder, with the photographs’ edges darkened, as if the photographer were scanning the scene of a crime. The bizarre hue and mundane subject matter are unexpectedly mysterious, an effect heightened by the absence of any sign of life. A row of desolate warehouses suggests covert activity; an oblique view of an inscrutable facade resembles the much-reproduced shots of the building from which Oswald allegedly fired at JFK.

In past works, Ruff challenged our tendency to read meanings into photographic images by presenting subjects conspicuous only for their glaring banality. Undistinguished domestic interiors, nondescript urban facades, even portraits of “ordinary people” resembling passport photos, presented head-on and without esthetic enhancement of any sort, offer surfaces as impenetrable as the surface of the photograph itself. Ruff’s point is that anything read beyond or behind that surface says more about the viewer than about the image. His conspicuously uninteresting subject matter frustrates our desire to project our own subjectivity onto the “empty” image.

With this series, Ruff sets a similar trap but with a twist. These photographs were shot with a special night-vision camera (the phosphorous-based process generates the green tone), a technical innovation used during the Gulf War to capture many of the images that were disseminated around the globe via television. While the new camera made it possible to see “everything,” to tell all by penetrating the darkness, the war’s rapid-fire coverage, complete with distracting logos and station breaks, discouraged detailed scrutiny of these same images.

Here Ruff turns the surveillance camera on unspectacular sections of his own city of Düsseldorf, enlarges the images and then inserts them in the gallery, where interpretation is encouraged. The vaguely sinister mood of these vacant scenes, camped up to produce a cinematic effect reminiscent of film noir and B-grade horror films, seems to expose the flipside of the bland, gray Düsseldorf seen in Ruff’s earlier series “Haus” (House, 1988–)—a city in which, one imagined, organization men left faceless apartment blocks to work in equally faceless office buildings. In interviews Ruff has discouraged such editorializing, but the range of techniques he has exploited and the striking effects he achieves here tempt one to enter the realm of fantasy one so readily constructs behind the picture plane.

Lois Nesbitt