Thomas Ruff is explaining the enduring concerns that have animated the work that has made him one of the most innovative and distinguished art photographers of recent decades: ‘I always want to take the medium of photography into the picture, so that you are always aware that you are looking at an image – a photograph,’ he says, before continuing, ‘so, in the picture I hope you can see two things: the image itself, plus the reflection – or the thinking – about photography. I hope it’s visible. I’m an investigator, and it is as if I am investigating the grammar of photography.’
Ruff is talking long distance from Dusseldorf about the publication of a recently-completed series, jpegs, in which low-resolution digitised internet pictures have been blown to oversize proportions. In the process, the images fracture and pixellate to reveal, or more accurately to foreground, surfaces comprised of intoxicating mosaics of coloured grids. Stand back, and an (often apocalyptic) image emerges; up front, the photograph’s constituent elements and its underlying digital structure predominate.
Describing the genesis of the work, Ruff recalls, ‘Around 2002 I discovered that if you compress digital files using JPEG compression, the system creates what I felt was a very interesting pixel structure. So I started an investigation, asking myself – How does it work? Where does it come from? And then I decided to create whole images with this kind of abstract structure.’
‘The pictures I chose are mainly downloaded from the internet, but some are my own photographs taken with a small digital camera – and others are from books or postcards that attracted me. I had to re-scale the files to a very small size and then compress them as the worst possible quality JPEGS. Then I get my image. Mainly I let the technology do it, but of course where there are parts or colours I do not like I alter the result until I have a result I’m happy with.’
The result is a body of work that at one level addresses the extraordinary expansion and proliferation of digital photography in recent years, a process that shows no sign of abating. For instance, the inception of Ruff’s project pre-dates the billions of JPEGS now on Flickr, or the advent of the ubiquitous iPhone.
‘Yes,’ he agrees, ‘but that’s just the development of digital technology. If you go back to 1987, when for the first time I altered one of my images, it was nearly impossible to do it digitally. I really had to search for a company, who then said “We don’t know if we can do it…but we can try”. Then digital photography grew during the 1990’s with the popularity of big Macs and Photoshop. So by 2002 everybody had a digital camera, a computer and the software to do all that’s necessary to work on digital images.’
Given that, I remark how surprised I am that no one else has undertaken comparable work dealing with the technological impact of digitisation on photography. There is certainly no shortage of theorists debating the changes.
‘That also surprised me,’ he replies, no doubt mindful of his years as a teacher at the Art Academy, ‘there are so many interesting photographers, but why don’t they think about the structure of photography? They’re young, they’re curious, but they’re not interested. So I had to do this work because no one else would.’
Of course it is not the first time in his career that Ruff has explicitly addressed the effects and symptoms of the digitisation of photography. The controversial Nudes series (begun in 1999) dispassionately assembled samples of all manner of pornographic images found on the internet. As with jpegs, informational content vacillates in a dialectical play between photographic surface – in this case the striations, interruptions and ‘white noise’ of the digital file displayed on a screen – and pictorial depth. The effect is to prioritise the thoroughly mediated nature of the imagery, and by dint of repetition and accumulation, to suggest the rampant ‘pornetration’ of the Web.
The formal devices employed in Nudes and jpegs achieve an alienating effect that perhaps suggests an ambivalence, or a resistance, towards the increased flow of digitised imagery. I wonder if Ruff aligns himself with those who believe that photography has undergone a revolution that has fundamentally changed its very nature; or does he side with those who suggest that change has been quantitative rather than qualitative?
‘I’m not very ideological,’ he replies, ‘so I think that digitisation has just presented us with a new tool in much the same way as adding a 500mm zoom lens to a camera that previously only had a normal lens does. Digital processing, the longer lens: they are just new tools. It’s the author – and how he’s working – who creates the image, not the camera or its system. Using an analogue camera you might shoot say three hundred photographs, and if you are lucky there will be one that is correct or perfect. Now, with digitisation, you can use the best parts from two or three different photographs. So in a way the result is the same, but the procedure or the workflow has changed.’
Whereas Ruff’s series are usually defined by genre, jpegs represents a departure to the extent that format, not subject matter, is identified as the defining characteristic of the corpus. He ponders the reason and suggests it is a response to his own experience of working in a field that has so dramatically changed during his career.
‘Maybe it’s due to the evolution of photography. I think it was about 1977 when I started studying at the Art Academy…and the medium was completely different then. Of course, we were lucky because in a way – in terms of the art scene – there was only wasteland or desert, and so we could do whatever we wanted. Now though I think it’s very hard for the young people because, since then, there have been such a lot of photographic images…but you still have to find – you still have to invent – the real image.’
‘So now, after working for twenty…no, thirty two years,’ he corrects himself, laughing, ‘perhaps I want to comment on those changes and show that I am not fixed on a particular kind of imagery: every series has its own technology and its own outlook – that is what makes them so different from each other.’
With regard to the ‘outlook’ of jpegs, scenes of destruction and ruin form a central thematic throughout the series – smoke pours from burning oil fields, the Twin Towers are ablaze, and Baghdad is subject to a night of Shock and Awe. But for the most part, specific references to recognisable events or locations are deliberately frustrated by Ruff’s withholding of caption information.
‘The jpegs are divided into three or four categories: the one I started with was ‘catastrophes created by man,’ then ‘catastrophes created by nature.’ Then I added another category that included examples of nature coming back or conquering man-made creations. The idea was to create images or types of image that stand for 10 or 50 or 100 other images – in Germany we call it ‘exemplarisch’ or ‘exemplary’. I didn’t want to choose a picture and say “This is Angkor Wat on the 10th of February, 1988.” That kind of information is Ok but it doesn’t help you look at the image. So if you have a picture from 9/11 of the Twin Towers in clouds of smoke…it’s not only the Twin Towers, but stands for any other building that was bombed in the last twenty years – either by terrorist attacks or the US army or the air force.’
As a seeming counterpoint to such imagery Ruff has included pastoral scenes that include woodland sunrises, gently flowing rivers and flowering cherry blossom. As he explains though, the pictures are less bucolic than they might initially appear.
‘I was on vacation on an island that was entirely man-made, a completely artificial creation for Western holidaymakers who think that it is idyllic. The sand, the palm trees, all the nature had been brought to the island. So it was not a paradise, it was completely artificial. And I decided to make a final category: idylls. They are places that look beautifully untouched; but the images I chose or photographed are not true idylls - they lack real nature. There’s no place on the whole world where man has not left either his footstep or garbage.’
He agrees with me when I suggest that an apparent motive, and certainly a consequence, of his work is the undermining or negation of those forms of photography he chooses to plunder or unmask. I remind him of his own accounts of the early years in Dusseldorf, when he first showed Bernd Becher a portfolio of pictures he had taken in the unsullied belief that they were, simply, beautiful. Why, I ask, have appropriation, alienation, analysis and nullification replaced the pursuit of beauty? He pauses before answering,
‘It is maybe because photography has been misused such a lot that I think you have to be very careful when you’re looking at a photograph. You always have to know the conditions under which it has been made – because otherwise you cannot read it, or you could misunderstand it, or the image can be misused. Since photography is such a realistic medium, it pretends that everything you’re looking at was in front of the camera. But in the meantime it wasn’t.’
‘I think it was once said that “The illiterate of the future is not the person who cannot read, but the one who cannot read photographs properly.” And maybe this is something that has followed me through my thirty two years of working with photographs.’
jpegs – photographs by Thomas Ruff