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Thomas Ruff and Documentary Photography

thomas ruff

Born in 1958 in Germany and currently living in Dusseldörf, Thomas Ruff is an internationally renowned photographer of the New Objectivity movement.

Ruff’s works are exhibited at the MoMa and Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Museum for Gegenwart in Berlin and the Art Institute of Chicago.  This article explores his career and inspiration through an analysis of Zeitungsfoto 053 and Zeitungsfoto 072. Thomas Ruff is one of the artists shown by Blond Contemporary, with whom Singulart is collaborating for a special online sale from the 10th to the 20th of December.

A brief history

In the early 1950s, photography was not recognized as a movement in itself and Dusseldorl became the centre of its emancipation. Hesitating between becoming an astronaut or photographer,  Ruff started studying photography in 1977 at the Kunstakademie of Dusseldorf until 1985. At the academy, he attended the classes of painter Gerhard Richter as well as photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Becher couple offered first-class artistic photography at the Kunsakademie and inspired Ruff with their industrial buildings series.

With such influences, Ruff aimed at becoming a great photographer and started with objectively photographing buildings, houses and apartments of the 1950-1970s. In his work, Ruff uses photography as an objective documentary tool. Just like identity pictures made for passports, Ruff’s photography is objective, methodical and conceptual. In that sense, his pictures are portraits of what he captured. His series are documentary photographs.

thomas ruff exhibition
Thomas Ruff portraits

Ruff’s “portrait” photographs of buildings, sharing no emotion, are Ruff’s signature in his other works ranging from landscapes, buildings and friends’ portraits. This technique is why Ruff’s work is considered part of the Neue Sachlichkeit/ the New Objectivity movement. The movement advocates for the objective and raw representation of reality without filters. Emerged in the 1918s, the new objectivity movement gathered artists such as August Sander, Francois Barraud, Karl Blossfeldt and even Salvador Dali.

If things are the way they are, why should I try to make them look different?” – Thomas Ruff

Throughout his career, Thomas Ruff worked with photographic conceptual series to investigate the relationship between reality and perception. He also questioned photography as a medium in itself. Ruff created all types of pictures. From landscapes to buildings, and from portraits and to his astronomy series, the artist keeps the same central focus, neutral light and a close and tight framing leaving singularity and emotions to the side.

Zeitungsfotos & the night-sky

From the 1990s onwards, Thomas found interest and inspiration in night-sky photography. He believed that cosmology allowed us to understand where we all came from. As mentioned, he considered a career in astronomy before starting his photography career. Bringing his two interests at heart together, Ruff focused on Zeitungsfotos, newspaper photos, published in German newspapers. He kept a newspaper photo archive of around 2,500 images.

Thomas Ruff
Thomas Ruff – Edited by Christoph Schifferli
and Lex Trueb

From these documentary photos, Ruff selected subjectively around 400, photographed them without any description and reproduced in colour. He then doubled their initial size to make them even more impressive. From Zeitungsfoto 053 and Zeitungsfoto 072, one is able to grasp Ruff’s intention of documenting the spatial night

Zeitungsfoto 053 is a chromogenic print made in 1990, 21.2 x 14.1 cm. The print is in black and white, representing a spatial rocket in the centre. The black and white contrasts bring the viewer’s attention mainly on the spatial rocket. With this close focus on the vehicle, Ruff may have intended to depict the rocket as small to the human eye.  

Zeitungsfoto 072 is also a chromogenic print of 1990 with a smaller size of 20.5cm x 17 cm. In black and white, the print represents a planet without mentioning which. The centre focus also attracts the viewer’s eye. Ruff seems to be playing with the size of the planet here, the planet takes most of the space of the print while the print’s real size remains small. 

Overall, both prints are blurry and dark, with a central focus object. The background is black and the focused object is white and clearer. Here again, one recognizes Ruff’s portrait technique in these two portraits of a spatial rocket and a planet. The Zeitungsfotos are Ruff’s first blurry images, which he will keep using later in his series, such as the Nudes series. The blurriness of the photographs adds an abstract dimension to his works and questions the viewer’s perception. 

His passion for astronomy

Portraying the night sky and stars will remain a long term project for Ruff. The works Zeitungsfotos 053 and 072, are the precursors of Ruff’s popular series with NASA.  In his series Sterne, Cassini, Ma.r.s, the photographer used images of the sky provided freely by NASA, and reinterpreted them to portray Saturn or Mars, using the same techniques of blurriness and close focus.

One can notice Ruff’s determination to document the night sky through his work and provide identity pictures of our stars. The photographer’s principal aim was to highlight that scientific photography truly exists. To him, documentary photography can be both interesting and beautiful at the same time. Zeitungsfoto 053 and Zeitungfoto 072 remind us that one can document and admire simultaneously. Art can bring information just like information can be an art. 

My images are not images of reality, but show a kind of second reality, the image of the image” – Thomas Ruff

All in all, Thomas Ruff’s works are an inspiration for modern photographers, his vision on documenting photography remains influential and relevant in the Artworld today.