Chasing stars

In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist: renowned photographer Thomas Ruff looks back on his career
Art | 11 October 2018
Interview Hans Ulrich Obrist
This article is part of HERO Art Month

Welcome to HERO Art Month, our cross-sectional study of the international contemporary art scene during which we look at the key gatekeepers, from artists to gallerists, architects and curators, the established and emerging feature side by side as part of our month-long investigation into some of the most influential figures in the scene.

From his very earliest work, Ruff questioned the medium of photography: how people physically interpret the photographic print, how images are constructed, disseminated and consumed. With his latest series, press++, it’s the hand-drawn notes scribbled by picture editors – the human interaction with the system – that fascinates Ruff.

Here, in conversation with curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist, the pair discuss the arc of Ruff’s oeuvre to date.


Hans Ulrich-Obrist: I wanted to ask you about Düsseldorf and your time at the Academy [Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where Ruff studied from 1977 to 85, under Bernd and Hilla Becher]. People always just reduce it to the Bechers you know, “The famous Bechers school,” but I’m sure there was more to it. Tell me a little bit about your time there, and also some memories, which maybe resonated beyond the Bechers. 
Thomas Ruff: I did not discuss my artwork with my colleagues at the Becher class, we mainly talked about technical issues. But I discussed my work with friends who were studying with Gerhard Richter, Dieter Krieg, Klaus Rinke or Gotthard Graubner – they were sculptors and painters. I think we were lucky studying at that art academy because we could have a much more precise look at photography; we could recognise the advantages and also limitations of photography, because we also saw the other media – painting, sculptures, I think that was very important.

HUO: We met very early on when I was a teenager, basically in the late 80s, with Katharina Fritsch. You seem to have a very particular, special relationship with Katharina.
TR: We both studied at the academy, she was in Fritz Schwegler’s class. Our heroes at that time were minimal and conceptual artists. So if Katharina did a sculpture or I took a photograph, we did that in a very minimalistic, reduced way. I guess that was one of the particular reasons we got so close then.

HUO: There was an interesting banality and simplicity, and that has a lot do with your work, it’s something that continues to play a big role. Where did that come from?
TR: We wanted to pick very simple things and reduce them, in a way, to point zero. To see how the form looks by cutting back all the baroque and all the eclecticism. To really reduce it to the minimalistic state of form and banality. We didn’t want to be busy with high art, we wanted to do very ordinary, unexceptional things. In my case it was the interior, the stupid German buildings or trying to make a very simple portrait of my friends, things like that. I never thought about portraying somebody famous, I only wanted to make portraits of my friends in a kind of everyday life situation.

HUO: It’s always interesting to think about where the catalogue résumé starts of an artist, what is the first work in your catalogue résumé? The first work you no longer consider to be student work?
TF: That’s one of the interiors – the one of the sink in my bathroom in my student apartment in Düsseldorf. That is really number one.

HUO: And how did those interiors start? Was it basically the thing closest to you?
TR: That was simple and trivial at the same time. When I came to Düsseldorf, into the class of Bernd and Hilla, or Bernd basically – he was the teacher – I realised that everything I had photographed before was kitsch, a cliché or stupid, non-relevant. I didn’t know how to continue, so Bernd suggested, “Thomas, why don’t you try to photograph a chair?” I picked a chair in the classroom and made photographs of it from the front, three-quarter, a profile, from the back, really in the classical Becher style. But when I developed the prints they looked really boring – a dull photograph of a chair. After that I probably took my camera back to my flat, started photographing there, and I found that real life, not this kind of intended artificial photography, looks much better. So I started in my flat, then some of my friends’ flats. When I realised this could become something, I continued in the houses of my parents and my aunts and uncles.

ma.r.s 01_III, 2011, Thomas Ruff

HUO: And then of course something happened, because you also started portraits, and I remember in our first conversation in 1986 or 87, you told me that all of a sudden you felt that you wanted to go big. All these early photographs were really small and it was something that was unusual at the time. I remember my conversations with [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, and he would say that you see photography in a book, and then sometimes you put it on the wall. But Cartier-Bresson’s generation, and even [William] Eggleston’s generation later on, William Klein, they would never had thought about making a very big print.
TR: Probably for that generation photography really was intended to be printed in a book, because in a book it’s close to the original. If you show them in an exhibition maybe 50 people might see them, but if you do a book 1,000 people will see your work. They did not intend to do exhibitions with their photographs. But as I was studying at an art academy we had the ‘Rundgang’, the annual exhibition of the students, so we were used to exhibiting out work. When I had my first show with my small portraits somebody came across and pointed to the photograph and said, “That’s Heinz.” I told him, “No, that’s not Heinz, that’s a photograph of Heinz. He is over there looking at a photograph of Pia.” I realised that most people mixed photography with reality, they didn’t look at a photograph as a medium, but they looked through, as if it was a window into reality. But when I showed my first big portraits, people standing in front of it were saying, “Wow, this is a big photograph of Heinz.” So with the big portraits they realised, or recognised, the photographic media, and that was very important at that time.

HUO: What exactly happened in Düsseldorf? In the 80s when I came to see you as a teenager, we didn’t have an art world as polyphonic as it is now. Now we have art centres on all continents and it’s clear that the art world is very polyphonic, but then the art world was still very dominated by New York, and artists would move there. But you made this very clear decision with your friends that you actually wanted to stay in Düsseldorf. The amazing art scene had already started happening in the 60s, Reiner Ruthenbeck documented that, who just passed away, he was an artist who I always loved. He documented that previous generation in his black and white photographs. So what is it about Düsseldorf? The city was a very unlikely candidate to become one of the art capitals of Europe.
TR: I don’t think I can explain it. It was just a special point in time, I would say it was unique, will never ever happen again. You are right, the generation before us all tended to go to New York, trying to have exhibitions and live there. But we did not feel the need to be in New York. We thought that, with our artwork, you could probably do it all around the world. It’s not necessary today to be in London or in New York or Shanghai or wherever.

Interieur 1A (Interior 1A), 1979, Thomas Ruff

HUO: I remember that in our very first conversation, when I spoke with you, Katharina Fritsch and Martin Honert in the 80s, you were the one who helped me rediscover Ruthenbeck. And, you know, if you think about the upside-down furniture and the way he used quotidien or very banal objects – he of course was a photographer who photographed all his friends. Was he inspiring for you?
TR: It was as you described. It was really strange for us that Ruthenbeck was not so well known. He was well known in Germany and very much respected, but not outside of Germany. He was inspiring because – and perhaps this isn’t right, but I think he had the spirit to touch in his sculptures, they were floating sometimes.

HUO: Beyond gravity?
TR: Yes, in a way. I think he was also perfect in explaining the very simple phenomena of perception.

HUO: One thing that is so fascinating in your exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery is that it shows this amazing transition which both of our generations have experienced: the transition from analogue to digital. It’s very different from the kids who grow up now, who are literally born with digital, because we have one foot in each. In the exhibition I found that very moving, very powerful. When you began, it was clearly a very analogue age, and then at this certain moment the digital enters through these nudes at the beginning – the jpegs – but also through the drama of 9/11. How did the digital age change your work? Long before that I remember you were the very first person who explained to me, before the invention of the World Wide Web, that you had a laboratory somewhere in Switzerland I think, which could remove trees in front of your buildings. And that was a ‘wow’ moment, it was totally early days. Was it really a tree removal which was your first experience in digital?
TR: Yes. At that time I was working analogue, and I really believed photography captured reality. Maybe some things could be altered in the darkroom, but in 87 I thought, “OK, this digitalisation of photography is just a new tool, like a new lens.” So I used that new lens by doing retouchments, altering images with the help of digital software. At that time I did not yet realise the consequences of the World Wide Web – that was too far away. Only later on I understood that it was not only the digitalisation, but also the new ways of distribution through the Internet that influenced photography. With the digitalisation there’s a shift in the structure of photography. A lot of people are looking at jpegs, but they are not aware they are looking at artefacts that show up when you compress an image to make it smaller to send it faster via the Internet. So, at a certain point, I started my investigation on this structure of the digital photograph. In a way it was a kind of continuation of the practice and technologies that I did before with the star photographs and with the night photographs, with the andere portraits, where I did that in an analogue way, but already shifting to images that don’t come from, let’s say an artistic world, but from a more scientific or military world.

HUO: The military connection is also present with the NASA images, and you had just started them when I interviewed you last time. Could you tell me a little bit about the evolution of that NASA series? The images of Mars are very striking, you also said that NASA is one of your favourites online, it’s also one of my favourite Instagram [accounts].
TR: [Laughs] Yes. The ma.r.s series primarily showed up for private reasons. I was just looking at the latest results of the discovery, the closest discovery of Mars, and I suddenly found these really high resolution images – I could not believe they put them online. I downloaded those files to look at the surface of the planet, and I started playing around with them. The original source images are black and white, they are long scans of the surface. I started colouring the landscape, just because I wanted to see them in colour. At the very beginning the colour I used was like photographs from Mars that I had seen before but, in working on that, I started using colours that are wrong or false. I wrote to NASA [to ask] why they only did black and white photographs and only small straps in colour, and they told me it’s a question of data – if they did the whole thing in colour the file would be too big for transmitting down to Earth. The second thing I asked them was, “Are your colour photographs photoshopped?” And then they explained to me, “Mr Ruff, no, they are not photoshopped, they are processed,” [laughs] which for me is the same. At a certain point, I thought that colouring space doesn’t make sense, because what our human eye sees is only a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and those waves go from one nanometre to one hundred metres, and maybe aliens have a totally different art of perception. So I said, “Now I’ll colour those photographs for aliens.”

HUO: [laughs] And is the series continuing? In a way you always work in series, like many artists before you, like Warhol. Do your series ever come to an end? Could you re-start doing the portraits? Are the series really finite, or are they potentially infinite?
TR: Working on a series is a kind of artistic statement. To prove that my statement is right, which cannot be done with one photograph, I have to take, let’s say five, ten, or more. If you want to explain mankind to an alien, for example, you cannot show one photograph, you at least need two: one of a male and one of a female. And probably two portraits can not explain the variety and diversity of the whole of mankind. So I really thought that I need to make 100 portraits because in a way everybody is unique, so it should be a large amount of portraits. Concerning the end of the series, I would say the series is dying, maybe it’s dying of disinterest. When I’m working, I’m not only working on one series, maybe there’s a series that I’ve been working on for a couple of years, then there’s a new series that just showed up, and maybe I have an idea for something new, but I haven’t yet created an image. So yes, at a certain point the respective series are dying away.

HUO: And more recent series that you didn’t discuss in our last interview, are Zycles and Cassini. They draw from science. I remember, again in 86 when I met you, we spoke about [Karl] Blossfeldt and you’ve always had an interest in scientific photography, or photography as a science. And Zycles are based on 3D aspects of scientific curves. They look very futuristic but they are also very old, because they come from old books, electromagnetic scientific books.
TR: The Zycles came to mind when I saw a couple of prints of these magnetic fields, and I thought, “These are two-dimensional drawings, but of course the magnetic fields are three-dimensional.” So I just wanted to create a kind of three-dimensional gravitational curve, and I did that with 3D software. Then, when I made these curves with my mathematical formulas, I could walk or virtually fly through these objects. But at the end, in a way, all I could do was take a conventional shoot of the details of those curves. The sources you mention are old-fashioned 19th century science drawings, but then I created these with the state-of-the art technology. Concerning Cassini, they are photographs of the rings and moons of Saturn. These were also black and white photographs, and I found them extremely beautiful in terms of composition, some of them really remind me of suprematistic compositions from the 1920s.

Cassini 01, 2008, Thomas Ruff

HUO: It’s interesting because there seem to be, in many of your works, this great oxymoron that it’s both old and new, both futuristic and nostalgic.
TR: Maybe this is all autobiographical. I was born in 1958 and when I was a small boy there were a lot of promises. They predicted that in 2000 we would have flying cars, we would have cellular phones… OK this one is true, but in the meantime there were a lot of other promises that were not fulfilled, and so in a way it’s kind of working on the dreams of my childhood.

HUO: I saw your recent exhibition – the wonderful show at Sprüth Magers – and that leads us back to archive, again an oxymoron of digital and analogue. It takes us back to your newspaper photographs, because they are actually found images. I remember once we discussed newspaper photographs in the early 90s, you told me that you wanted no context on them, it was a bit like Rem Koolhaas, he said, “Fuck context”. But you decided with this new series to revisit an archive again, and this time to bring us information about the pictures from the reverse. But you also said that’s not what it’s really about…
TR: The new press++ work is very much about handling these kind of ‘topic’ photographs and how the editors were treating and dealing with them. You probably notice that there are cropping marks on the front, they really handled them quite brutal. And then on the back you have comments and some scribbles from the editor, and sometimes you have additional information you don’t find on the front. The idea was just to make a photo montage of the back and the front, to bring the information that was on the back to front but, at the same time, to destroy the image on the front even more. I see that a bit in the tradition of the German photo montage from the 1920s.

HUO: You got them from eBay, what attracted you to them? You said in an interview with [Emily] McDermott that you were attracted by their composition. It struck me in the show in Berlin, why these images and why no Europeans and or Asians – why all Americans?
TR: That’s very easy – because it seems that with newspapers in the US, they just want to get rid of their archive, they just don’t want to keep it. When I had the exhibition in Japan, I asked some Japanese newspapers for press photographs from their archive, and they barely wanted to give them away so that I could scan them. Also all of the European archives are kept with the newspaper, so it’s a question of mentality, and in the US they just want to get rid of all the old stuff.

HUO: Now, I have one or two last questions. We are living in the age of the explosion of photography, and that’s also changed since you started. When you began, few people were photographers, and now… [Joseph] Beuys said that everybody is an artist, and little did he know that thirty years, forty years later, everybody is actually a photographer. How do you think the role of the photographer has changed, given that exponential growth of images in the world? I mean Cartier-Bresson once told me the photographer is a hunter who is also a vegetarian, which I thought was kind of funny. How do you think the role of the photographer has it changed?
TR: I think the photographer these days has a very hard job because nobody wants to pay them anymore. They say, “We can get these photographs from other people.” Because right now, everybody has a mobile phone with a camera, so there are a lot, lot, lot, of photographs in the world. But in a way from all those photographs that are taken with mobile phones, maybe not even one percent is published. Somebody said, “Our visual appropriation of the world through the smartphone ends, in most cases, in a digital mass grave.”

HUO: Who wrote that?
TR: I read it on NZZ online in an article by Daniele Muscionico and I thought it was really peculiar.

HUO: My last question is the only recurring question in all of our interviews, because you know I’m always interested in unrealised projects, and I wanted to ask you once more what, in 2017, are unrealised projects which have been too big to be realised, too small to be realised?
TR: [laughs] I would say it’s still flowers.

HUO: [laughs] Still flowers, can you tell me more, which flowers?
TR: Any flowers. Actually from time to time I try to take a photograph of a flower or several flowers but it just looks boring, it doesn’t work, so it seems that I cannot take photographs of flowers.

Article originally published in The HERO Winter Annual 2017.

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