Thomas Ruff

Date/place of birth

February 10, 1958, Zell am Harmersbach

Thomas Ruff - Substrat 27 II
Thomas Ruff - Substrat 27 II

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Thomas Ruff biography

Thomas Ruff is the photographer who no longer needs a camera to create his large-format conceptual works. In his endeavor to save old pictures from extinction, he fills them with new life and turns them into a completely new art.

Thomas Ruff – Carefully devised work series with dual meaning

Thomas Ruff was born in Zell am Harmersbach on 10 February 1958. From 1977 to 1985, he studied photography at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie under Bernd and Hilla Becher, and already started to experiment with his idea of conceptual photography during his studies. His early subjects were interior views of German living rooms in the typical aesthetic of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, followed by portraits of his friends, photographed in extreme focused detail with serious facial expressions in oversized passport photo size. For Ruff, these passport portraits echoed the police surveillance methods during the German Autumn. In addition, he created exterior views of buildings and shots of the starry night sky – always following a clearly outlined concept, the artist generated interrelated series instead of detached individual images. In his methodical approach, Thomas Ruff resembled his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher, who strove for comparable objectivity and systematics with their documentary picture series. 

Elaborate image manipulation with system and concept

With his photographic works, Thomas Ruff far exceeds the usual methods and often relies on modern computer technology. Even in his distanced and almost sterile-seeming photographs of buildings, the artist uses digital tools to retouch unsightly details; in later projects too, the computer was increasingly employed. For Ruff, the buildings in his pictures symbolise the ideology of the Federal Republic of Germany in the three decades before the reunification. In the beginning he took the photographs himself, but in the 1990s, he began scanning existing images and altering them on the computer. In doing so, Thomas Ruff at times went to great effort; the artistic work is not to be compared with what is commonly understood by a picture montage on Photoshop. The creative concept which characterizes Ruff’s work is always in the background. Thus, series after series is created, each with its own accent and individual orientation. Nocturnal outdoor shots with a night vision device, reminiscent of spy films. Stereophotographs. Newspaper photos deprived of their explanatory subtitles. 

The search for the forgotten truth of old pictures

Thomas Ruff does not shy away from crossovers and dubious sources: In 2003, his illustrated book Nudes was published, containing pornographic shots taken from the internet which the artist digitally distorted. The whole book was accompanied by a text by Michel Houllebecq and accordingly provoked great resonance. Thomas Ruff’s cooperation with Wenzel S. Spingler for the series Fotogramme also seemed spectacular. The pictures in this series were generated in a virtual darkroom in the style of historical photograms, using, in part, the mainframe computer “Juropa” at the Research Centre Jülich. Despite all the input, Thomas Ruff’s work is not about the visual spectacle; he by no means wishes to overwhelm his audience with special effects and sensations and render them speechless. Thomas Ruff wants to explore and make visible the story behind the pictures he works with. It is a fight against the faded and forgotten – and against the wanton retouching by photo editors who have robbed many an image in their newspapers entirely of its original authenticity. Thomas Ruff wants to reclaim them, to give the old pictures their dignity back. 

© Kunsthaus Lempertz

Thomas Ruff Prices

Thomas RuffSubstrat 27 II€59.520
Thomas RuffNudes JI 01€27.280
Thomas RuffH.T.B.10€24.000
Thomas RuffPortrait (J. Renzel)€23.180
Thomas RuffNudes 1K 01€22.320
Thomas RuffNudes EV03€21.700

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