Art Thomas Ruff Interview

“I’m a science engineer type of photographer”, says Thomas Ruff, the German artist who examines the medium of photography. 200% spoke with him at his Whitechapel Gallery retrospective.

In the 1980s, at the beginning of his career, Thomas Ruff photographed his friends with a large format camera. He instructed them to pose as one does for a passport photograph; looking straight into the camera with neutral expression. Instead of printing the images on small passport format, Ruff enlarged the pictures to 210 x 165 cm which revealed every detail of his friends’ faces such as the quality of their skin, freckles and stubbles. These large size prints provide the opportunity to compare and study their features from a distance and close-up. The series, which is called ‘Portraits’ becomes an anthropologic study of mankind.

The influence of one of Ruff’s teachers at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, Bernd Becher, is evident. Becher, who works with his wife Hilla as a collaborative duo, are renowned for their photographic series of black and white industrial architecture such as cooling towers and gas tanks. The photographs are monumental, objective, detached and analytical. This style of documentation runs like a common thread in Ruff’s work.

Discussing his architectural photography during the media view, Ruff recalled a formative lesson Becher taught him: “Thomas, if you work with a medium you should reflect the medium in the work itself” and it is a sentence Ruff always kept in mind. “When I’m photographing a house, I’m photographing a house. Not a house with people in the image. Of course I’m trying to make the images as attractive as possible but my objective is to reflect the medium”.

The work by minimal and conceptual artists was another big influence when Ruff was a student. His series always start with a concept and he employs an image-making technology that is relevant to the subject matter. For his sinister series ‘Nights’ he used a night vision device used by the military. He even developed special software for his digital abstract ‘Photograms’ which was inspired by Lázsló Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, the inventors of the photogram; the technique of laying objects onto photographic paper and exposing it to light.

For Ruff the concept determines whether he needs to shoot the image himself or obtain the material from other sources such as NASA, photography archives or the Internet. The photographs in his ‘Stars’ series are taken by a high-performance telescope. For his series press++ he used retired archival photographs from American Newspapers.

The ‘Nudes’ series were downloaded from pornography sites and Ruff blurred the images so that the pixel construction becomes visible. The ‘jpgs’ series features catastrophes such as the horrific 9/11 image of the burning Twin Towers. The images were enlarged to epic scale exposing the pixels necessary to be able to share them on the Internet.

Ruff alters the source material and claims authorship. With his work he raises questions such as; who owns the copyright in the age of Internet. Does a person who posts an image lose ownership of it once it is in the public domain?

Sitting on a wooden bench at the gallery in front his ‘Stars’ series, Ruff shared his opinion on copyright ownership, the lengths he goes for his art and his scientific approach to photography.

200%: For the ‘Stars’ series you were not able to take the pictures yourself as you didn’t have the photographic equipment to shoot these images. Although you didn’t take the pictures yourself, you claim authorship of these images. Were there no copyright issues?
Thomas Ruff: For this series I had to make a licence agreement with the European Southern Observatory. The images of my ma.r.s. series, though, are copyright free as NASA has a picture policy that all the images are in the public domain. When photographs have been taken by machines, there are no copyright issues because to create a copyright you need a human brain. In terms of the ‘jpeg’ series you can still recognise the original photograph but it’s altered to a point that my copyright lawyer says there is no copyright anymore.

With my series ‘Newspaper Photographs’ there was one photographer who recognised his [original] photograph in one of my exhibitions and he wanted to sue me. I offered him a licence. Copyright is just about money. For a lot of photographers, though, it is necessary to have copyright laws as they are badly paid. If the photograph is regularly used it is not right when they don’t receive any money for it.

When someone asks me, “Thomas, can I use your work to create another work of art?” I answer, “Yes, of course” as I did the same with images I didn’t shoot myself. Artists have always copied, sampled and appropriated.

200%: A controversial example is the artist Richard Prince who appropriated Instagram pictures of other people for his series ‘New Portraits’. It caused a lot of debate as the works sold up to $100,000 each and Prince made money from other people’s Instagrams. What is your opinion on this?
TR: What do people expect? When they post a photograph on Instagram they are happy when someone reposts their image. Reposting is a form of reproduction, but they don’t charge the people who repost their posts, do they? Then I think it’s perverse if they want to charge Prince for using their Instagram photographs. When he sold the Instagrams for $100,000 people thought, “Shit, I would love to earn $100,000 for my photograph. They don’t think about copyright, they only think about money. Everything that is published on the Internet or social media, I would say it should be free to reuse.

200%: Could you talk about the lengths you go for your art in terms of commitment, obsessions, perseverance.
TR: [points at his work ‘Stars’] Millions of kilometres [laughs]. It depends on my luck. It can be a long or a short process. With the ‘Photograms’ series I started from point zero. I had the idea to build a virtual dark room, but my software wasn’t developed enough and I contacted an expert in 3D computing. It took us two and a half years to create the first photogram image. That was really hard and exhausting. On the other hand, my Press++ works went fairly easy. It was just a matter of scanning the front and back of the retired archival photographs from American Newspapers and lay the copyright information, printing instructions etc. over the image. It was done within a day.

200%: What kept you going to persevere with your photograms?
TR: I wanted to make state-of-the-art contemporary photographs of the twenty-first century. I was very ambitious and wanted to set a new world record. [laughs]

200%: In your work you take a conceptual approach to photography. Does a conceptual approach to photography become a cerebral exercise?
TR: A conceptual photographer first thinks and then shoots. A ‘normal’ photographer just shoots. Every new image that I create is based on a thesis. To prove that I’m right I behave like a scientist and conduct the same experiment again and again to prove that my thesis is right. I guess one could say I’m more a science engineer type of photographer.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
-Phg.07_11, 2014, C-print, 240 x 185 cm, ©Thomas Ruff, Courtesy David Zwirner London/New York
-Jpeg ny01, 2004, C-print, 276 x 188 cm, ©Thomas Ruff, Courtesy David Zwirner London/New York
-Press++21.11, 2016, C-print, 259 x 184 cm ©Thomas Ruff, Courtesy David Zwirner London/New York