Thomas Ruff, press++51.14, 2016, C-print, 72 7/8 x 91". From the series “pres++,” 2016. © Thomas Ruff/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Thomas Ruff, press++51.14, 2016, C-print, 72 7/8 x 91". From the series “pres++,” 2016. © Thomas Ruff/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff, press++51.14, 2016, C-print, 72 7/8 x 91". From the series “pres++,” 2016. © Thomas Ruff/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Of all the photographers to emerge from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and the Becher school, Thomas Ruff has probably pursued the most radical and varied exploration of the nature and history of photography and its genres. With his recent series “press++,” 2016, based on archival press photographs, he once again opens a new chapter. For the enormous range of his work from the 1980s until now, Ruff has consistently pursued two basic lines of investigation: how the medium of photography and its rapidly changing technology shapes our notion of the relationship between image and reality, and how we ourselves both experience and produce this relationship.

Ruff typically proceeds by focusing on a specific array of (historic) publicity images in order to lend them a new and altered kind of visibility. Thus his “Nudes,” 1999–2011, are derived from pixelated internet porn, while the 2008–2009 “cassini” series features photographs taken by the eponymous NASA space probe. Ruff’s source material for “press++” comprises original photographs first published in American magazines and newspapers between the 1920s and the 1970s. Most of the works in the exhibition’s main room were large-format C-print portraits of female Hollywood actors and singers. In another chamber was a smaller set of works based on photographic reproductions of art.

In both groups of works, each found black-and-white image—rephotographed in color and massively enlarged—has been superimposed with the content appearing on its verso. This material includes handwritten records of the subjects’ names, instructions on how to print the photograph, agency stamps, scrawled dates, the yellowed remains of adhesive tape, retouched areas, ink stains, and fingerprints. One function, then, of the superimposed material in “press++” is to act as visual “interference” that mars and distorts these pointedly immaculate images of former or never-were stars, such as Rosemary Clooney (press++32.51), Portland Mason (press++33.08), and Connie Russell (press++32.65). At the same time, however, these interventions also reveal the visual politics through which the publications’ picture editors literally inscribed themselves into the images—exercising invisible but crucial influence over the stars’ public personas. As the press release puts it, the editors “had little respect for the photograph, significantly altering the look and meaning of the original with their retouching and comments.”

For the second group of works, Ruff used the same approach but worked with prints supplied to editorial offices by the press departments of museums. Thus press++50.26 appears at first sight to be a Surrealist collage: A painting evidently by Joan Miró is permeated by free-floating textual and visual elements; the material transposed from the source photo’s verso seems to blend naturally into the composition, and it is only on second glance that we notice the editorial directions and information on the picture’s origin and title. The word GUGGENHEIM stands out in large letters, while additional text offers details about the work and identifies the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as its owner. In press++51.14, by contrast, the editorial insertions are clearly distinct from the actual photograph, which shows a reclining figure by the Uruguayan-American sculptor Alfredo Halegua. Lines and white markings on the front indicate how the photo is to be cropped, while a yellowed typewritten label superimposed onto it from the rear fits in so harmoniously with the figure’s volumes that it seems to be part of the object itself. Stamped letters conveying the name of the artist and other information vertically counterbalance the composition on its upper right-hand side, while hastily handwritten notes in pencil include SUNDAY SUN FEATURE SECT. All these elements coherently interrelate in an ensemble of graphic accidents, while at the same time revealing the secret stage directions that preceded the transmission of the image to the public gaze.

Jens Asthoff

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.