The fast pace of photographic production today can often make us forget how easily the photographic draws us backwards; the photograph always being a fragment of the past. Thomas Ruff has been a pivotal figure in the field of photography for the past 30 years, teaching many other important photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth in his role at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf. His deep understanding of, and investigation, into what photography is and how it functions in the world is what has given him such longevity.
Surprisingly, his exhibition currently on display at Whitechapel Gallery is his first major retrospective in London. The exhibition opens with the intimate self-portraits of L’Empereur 06 (The Emperor 06), 1982, in which the artist poses in a series of absurd and presumably uncomfortable poses in his studio. This is a light-hearted beginning to the exhibition given the serious tone of much of the other work.
The next series, Porträts (Portraits), 1986–91, explodes off the wall in the following room. The scale and clarity of the images is breathtaking, rendering every freckle, hair, blemish, the eyes so bright, lit with the subtlety of an artist in total control of their medium. The subjects fix us with an implacable gaze, staring out blankly from the frame, all but one. The sequence is disrupted by a photograph of a woman casting her gaze downwards. Not only is it the only image from the series displaying someone not gazing directly at the camera, but, also, she is the only person of colour. This feels an important editorial and curatorial gesture here, given the small selection from what is an otherwise vast catalogue of images and, particularly, the distant nature of Ruff’s work in general and the other portraits displayed here.
Deeper into the exhibition Ruff displays a series of pornographic images, nudes, 1999–2012, taken from the internet. Blown up to large-scale, Ruff has given them an analogue quality by blurring them slightly. The images are reclassified as nudes, asking questions of art history and the treatment of the naked body. Images first intended for the internet porn consumer’s gaze, are here remediated for the art viewer, the change in status of these images, which originally showed a porn reality and are now transformed into painterly depictions exploring how the body is mediated to us. There is a frustration beginning to build as I move through the exhibition, the work on display is insightful but the selection is small which inhibits the kind of engagement with Ruff’s work that comes from being lost within his vast archive of imagery, one of his series alone could comfortably fill the galleries here.
The final room displays two series of newspaper images. In the large-scale series titled print++, 2016–present, newspaper images are blown up, including the mark ups by editors before they go to print. The second series, Newspaper Photographs, 1990–91, is smaller in scale, and this time final newspaper images are stripped out of all context, of any captions or credits. These two series take on the mediation of images, thinking through how they are given meaning, relationships to text and the power of the editorial process. When so much of our image making today seems flippant and with so many images created every second it is easy to forget the power and influence that is governed by the context of an image.
The exhibition reveals Ruff’s relationship to the photographic image, whether his own or someone else’s, he is describing the problems and complexities of authoring and distributing photographs. The politics, economics, distribution and power of the photograph can all be seen within his practice, as well as the problems with photographing and of wielding power over a subject. The scale of the exhibition is, however, an issue and there needed to be fewer overall series as well as a broader selection from individual series to really penetrate into the depths of Ruff’s practice, it works as a good introduction to his work, but by covering so many aspects of his practice seems to lack the penetrating depths that go with his immense typological series.