Thomas Ruff is everything but a photographer. He hasn’t taken a photograph since 2003, instead over the past 15 years he’s worked exclusively with found imagery and computer programmes. Yet at the same time, he evidently is a photographer; currently exhibiting some of his work in Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 ‒ 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery, and he was taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf by the renowned ‘New Topographic’ photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. But there’s a discrepancy between Ruff’s conception of photography and that of his teachers; for the Bechers, photography was the act of standing in front of an object and clicking a shutter open. Against this, Ruff’s self-reflexive work tests and pushes the discursive boundaries of practices often described together as photography.
The exhibition opens with Ruff’s fairly conventional L’Empereur series of 1982;
a rare self-portrait which uses the camera to document Ruff sprawling over a set of chairs. You can see the influence of the Bechers in the use of the series, the idea of the camera as indexical, and the decontextualised subject. However these ideas are quickly challenged. Next to L’Empereur are m.n.o.p and w.g.l, two sets of colourised historical images of art galleries, instead of recreating the original colours, Ruff applies palettes drawn from similar scenes of the era, dissociating the photograph from an actual place and generalising an era. This play between the specific and the imagined continues with the nearby ma.r.s. series that shows three landscapes taken by the Nasa Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. There are no features to pinpoint a precise location, and the false-colour visualisations are only an approximation of how Mars might look to human eyes, so far, no-one can be sure.
Upstairs the works present contradictions in the camera’s role as a tool of surveillance and policing. Nacht (1992‒96) pictures Düsseldorf suburbs through a night vision scope, inspired by the news footage of the Gulf War. Again, these images of nondescript alleyways and buildings play on the idea of the military image as artless, without a history of exhibition and appreciation. But the grainy vignettes resemble Eugène Atget’s photos of the abandoned streets of late nineteenth-century Paris. Even in the purely functional image there are traces of curation. In the same room is a large image from other Portraits, constructed using an analogue Minolta Montage Unit machine, employed by the German police in the 1980s to make facial composites. The face becomes a partner, or a response, to the Portraits series downstairs, which features Ruff’s friends and acquaintances staring into the camera lens as if they were posing for a passport photo. The distinct similarity in form and subject raises questions of the veracity of each series, and the validity of the passport photo as a tool of identification.
Just before the exit are two alternative ways of relating the photograph to history. To the left, Zeitungsfotos cuts pictures out of newspapers and out of their contexts; removing their captions, the accompanying articles, and renaming the images with a series number; a man and woman hang next to a missile being launched, a passenger plane in flight, and an abstract composition. They could be snippets of their own narrative, there’s no way to tell. To the right, press++ features similar newspaper images blown up to enormous wall-sized prints, with all of the markings, scribbles, and stamps on the back of the prints to the front. On a photo of a plane soaring through the clouds there’s a large typewritten sticker conveying the title and caption, someone has added their own crayon scrawls circling and underlining details, and two additional stamps mark the photo agency, Reuters, and the date received, 5 August, 1953. The two histories, one of the image captured and one of the image as an object, held and used, merge into one.
These are just a fraction of the many types and uses of images in the exhibition. The variety and breadth of images pose many questions, but I want to highlight one: Is this a photograph? This isn’t just an artistic or philosophical exercise, but finds itself being asked in court rooms as people attempt to determine authorship, licensing, or proof of evidence or plagiarism. Taking just this fraction of images, the photograph could be defined in a multitude of contradictory ways. Ruff’s teachers, the Bechers, sought to define their subjects—steel mills, water towers, cranes, industrial structures—through the slight differences between each in the series, and between the series themselves. Ruff’s images work in a similar way, but his diversity in subject matter and function of image turns the question of the definition, onto the photograph and the photographer themselves; a line of questioning that could dissolve our understanding of each entirely.
What will we call Thomas Ruff in a year’s time; a curator, a digital archivist, or a graphic designer? Asking this question isn’t as drastic as it seems. Some artists have already redefined themselves as curators, and the role of the curator has taken on a more creative than organisational meaning. Looking further back, people who performed calculations used to be called computers, now we use that word almost exclusively for describing blocks of silicone. And reading back over this text, I’ve used a number of terms to describe the works in the show—photographs, documents, images, prints, and visualisations—which of these words will still be in use in the future? Thomas Ruff is many things, but he might not be a photographer.