The main impression I came away with from visiting the Whitechapel Gallery on the 2nd November 2017 to see the Thomas Ruff exhibition was that Ruff took a very playful approach to his exploration of the processes, genres and aesthetics of photography. This playful approach was tinged with a more serious undertone as he addressed issues like photographic technique and how this changes with technological advances.
There were many aspects I didn’t ‘get’ regarding Ruff’s photographs but some things I had an inkling about and I have written down some of these observations here. I would start with the size of the prints: lots were enormous in scale; dwarfing people and his other, smaller prints in the exhibition. However, I didn’t feel these prints were gigantic only for effect in making the viewer say wow (although this may have been part of the reason!) The other reason (at least with Portraits 1986-1991) was to displace presumptions that a passport photo should appear small and make the viewer contemplate why this might be. For me it was because although the appearance was the same (in terms of lighting and composition) to a passport photo, the scale was the opposite of what we might expect from a passport picture. This brought up implications of seeing these people depicted as unique – because they are printed so large the viewer tries to find expression from an expressionless face.
A similar study of scale could be seen with his series jpeg 2004-2008. Here from afar the enormous prints appear sound to the eye, showing the destruction of New York’s twin towers. However, as you get closer the image begins to break up and become pixellated as it becomes clear they are of very low quality, taken on mobile phones using jpeg. I inferred meaning from this in that although the event is of such high importance the quality used to record it can often be of low integrity and yet it is usable; the images are still circulated and viewed on such large scale.
Another, constant theme throughout Ruff’s work is experimentation; constantly pushing the boundaries by exploring the limits of photography. From documentary style night shots using a special surveillance camera making the ordinary seem otherworldly, to the digital photogram, Ruff changes his approach and techniques according to technology, often with hauntingly beautiful results in my opinion. His experimentation did inspire me to try out different techniques myself and his postmodern appropriation of existing imagery was intriguing.
One such series of works in particular really caught my eye. press++ 2016- were (again) giant prints, appropriated from the archives of news agencies. I did wonder how the writing and stamps had appeared on the images themselves as it appeared quite natural. I found out that Ruff ingeniously overlaid the backs of the photographs containing all the context and information about the photograph onto the front of the photograph. This was quite unique because the context appeared in the same place as the content. I discovered the result to be an interesting combination of text and image that worked well.
Overall I was glad I went to this exhibition as it made me think a lot about image size when presenting work, experimenting process and techniques with my own work and brought up some novel ideas concerning the photograph as an object.
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 [Exhibition] 27th Sep – 21 Jan 2018. Whitechapel Gallery, London.