Morphing Realities

Since starting out in 1970 as a student at the renowned art school Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) continued to gain momentum. Whitechapel Gallery, London, showcases the artist’s innovative life work in an eponymous exhibition from 27 September until 21 January. The photographs question and redefine the artistic potential of the craft as a platform for social commentary. The retrospective presents the trajectory of a career devoted to creating timeless images.

L’Empereur (1982) harks back to the beginning of Ruff’s career. In this series, comprising eight photos, the artist becomes part of the composition.  Behaving as a prop, he is depicted in a number of slumped positions around two chairs and a yellow floor lamp. When questioned on the portraits Ruff remarked: “I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of things.” The nameless faces and anonymous places resist easy assimilation and coherence. Neutralised gestures and deadpan expressions challenge viewers to remain objective whilst reflecting upon the pieces. From utopianism and pornography to technology and surveillance, this body of work less than gently treads the lines between the personal and the political.

Another example of this is Zeitungsphotos (Newspaper Photographs), conceived in the early 1990s, which reproduces images cut from German newspapers and weekly magazines. Without captions or headlines, they allude to urgent events which, separated from their original context, take on varied meanings, obscuring the factual mode of journalism. Häuser (Houses) (1991) studies ordinary suburban buildings, eerily devoid of human presence, shot in the style of architectural photography. The pieces enhance the sense of isolation that accompanies empty spaces and challenge the boundaries between the everyday and the familiar turned strange.

Similarly, jpegde01 (2010) explores the emotional and physical trauma inflicted upon the American landscape by the 9/11 terror attacks. After the flood of media coverage, the artist downloaded and enlarged a digital photograph circulating the internet. The result is a disconcerting representation of iconic buildings changed by human behaviour. The patchwork of pixels lacks definition, providing a frustrating account that reveals the inconsistency of collective memory.

Thomas Ruff is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, opening 27 September. Further information on the event can be found at

1. L’Empereur 06 (The Emperor 06) 1982, Thomas Ruff. Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.