Thomas Ruff
Germany, 1958
The use of photography by a whole generation of German artists, disciples of Bern and Hilla Becher, has been a major reference point on the contemporary art scene. Thomas Ruff is a good example. He was educated at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art and his photographic works could well be regarded as sculptures of a kind that model a space and a form. One of Ruff's most famous series, "Portraits", brings together an accumulation of faces that subvert the genre of the traditional photographic portrait. There is no hint in any of the faces of personal revelation or expressiveness. The spectator finds himself incapable of catching the slightest glimpse of the subjectivity of the subject photographed, still less of the photographer, characteristics which, moreover, run quite contrary to the psychology of the traditional photographic portrait. Ruff, however, plays with any prejudices the spectator may have about the medium and the image of the "other". In that way, portrait after portrait, he collects a gallery of denials of the photographic medium, such as: veracity, objectivity and narrative. In that sense, the Minimalist approach to photography adopted by Ruff consciously distances him from works inspired by anthropology, of which there are so many in the history of photography. One example -not entirely free from geographical and formal concomitance- is to be found in the portrait gallery produced by his fellow-countryman August Sander in the twenties. Sander, who is linked aesthetically to the "new German Objectivity" movement (the forerunner of many of the formal premises of the Düsseldorf School), conceived the idea of a monumental archive of human archetypes. In his images Sander treated his characters' faces with the same care as the surroundings in which he photographed them, their clothes, the objects around them, etc. The young people in Ruff's portraits -among them many of his friends and colleagues-, however, "gaze at us inscrutably as if it were they who were eyeing us, the spectators, and not the other way round." Some of Ruff's other works, such as Buildings, Interiors, Constellations or Nacht, are treated the same as the faces, insofar as they are volumes, spaces and outlines which are transformed according to the artist's deliberately cold, distant, almost hypnotic gaze.
Marta Gili