Thomas Ruff, r.phg.s.06, 2012, digital C-print, 94 1/2 x 72 7/8".

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.s.06, 2012, digital C-print, 94 1/2 x 72 7/8".

Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.s.06, 2012, digital C-print, 94 1/2 x 72 7/8".

Thomas Ruff is always full of surprises, and his recent show in Düsseldorf was no exception. A photographer who trained with Bernd Becher and whose early works are black-and-white images of ordinary residential neighborhoods around Germany, Ruff became well known in the 1980s for his large, passport-picture-style color portraits of friends and fellow artists. Starting in 1989, he began conducting experiments with the photographic medium, sometimes making pictures without a camera. As he explained in a 1993 interview with Philip Pocock, his goal was not to capture reality with the camera—the original ambition of photography—but to create a picture. The experiments continued apace, often by way of questioning conventions of authorship: In 1995, for instance, he manually colored the illustrations from a medical textbook, producing a series of pictures he titled “Retuschen” (Retouches). Other series have included “Sterne” (Stars), 1989–92, for which he bought negatives produced at the European Southern Observatory in the Andes; “Nudes,” 1999–2010, digitally manipulated pornographic images from the Internet; and “Zycles,” 2008–, pictures automatically generated by a mathematical formula whose undulating three-dimensional lines Ruff output onto large-format canvases using an ink-jet printer.

Ruff’s most recent images have been made via a technique that does not seem new at all: They resemble what used to be called photograms or rayographs, à la El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and many other modernists—cameraless photographs made by placing objects directly onto photosensitive materials (such as photographic paper) and exposing them to light. But Ruff has transposed this analog technique into the digital realm. The darkroom is set up inside the computer, as it were: Imaginary objects are moved around in a virtual space, and the effects of light coming from different angles are captured in a variety of perspectives. In this computer-aided creative practice, virtually generated and lit waves, crystals, spirals, lenses, and stencils leave traces on similarly virtual paper, and the results are transferred, a C-print process, to sheets of real paper measuring roughly eight by six feet. Framed, the pictures look light and otherworldly; it is striking how painterly they are. Some, such as phg.01_1, 2012 (all the works are titled this way, with the letters “phg” followed by a number) are rigorously geometrical, with a play of light and shadow building an illusion of depth, while others are more chaotic and random. Some are of crystalline clarity, while others are blurry or lightly tinged in a bluish or green, yellow or brown hue. In the six such works in this show (there were also eight pieces from other series), the association with the classical photogram is faint. These works represent a true invention and a genuine expansion of the medium of photography.

Among the other works on view were six large-format pictures sourced from imagery produced by the Mars Reconnaissance Survey, which was launched in 2005—hence the title “ma.r.s.,” 2012—and put online by NASA. The artist has altered them by adding color to the original black-and-white, turning them into almost romantic landscapes one would be hard-pressed to associate with the red planet’s rough surface. Also created by Ruff without his own camera, they serve to further demonstrate his tireless exploration of the photographic medium.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.