Thomas Ruff is a photographer with an instantly recognizable style, one which you can see referenced in fashion magazines, galleries and Tumblr accounts the world over. His famous "Portraits" series, which he began in the '80s, has become an important touchstone for modern photography, with it's harsh, almost institutional style.
The series -- in which Ruff depicted his bohemian Dusseldorf circle in a vacant style -- was born in divided, paranoid, pre-unification Germany he grew up in. The images were a long way from the glossy photography of the era, and look as if they might have been pulled from a Stasi surveillance database. For Ruff, the theme of totalitarianism fed into both his work and daily life.
"I started them in 1981, and all of us had read George Orwell's '1984,'" he said over the phone from Germany. "In a way, my first portraits are a way of looking back into Big Brother's camera, the one that is always looking at you."
But despite the success of the portraits and subsequent series with a similar aesthetic, Ruff has been taking his work in a new direction recently. He's moved away from taking people's photographs, looking instead to images from American magazines of the '50s and '60s, first focusing on news clippings about the space race and sci-fi, before moving to press photos of golden-age Hollywood actresses, initially attracted to their "strangeness or absurdity."
"Portrait (A. Zeitler) A" (1998) by Thomas Ruff Credit: Courtesy Thomas Ruff/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017/Sprüth Magers
"I had a pretty nice collection of spaceships, airplanes and astronomical photographs, and I was searching for some pictures of cosmonauts, but when I got them I had a look at the back and found that was almost as interesting as the front," he said. "You have all this additional information like what's in the picture, when it was published. Sometimes you even have a cut-out of the original article from the newspaper."
For Ruff these images are undeniably nostalgic, harking back to his childhood in the Black Forest in southwestern Germany.
"I was watching TV when Armstrong put his foot on the moon ... All these images deal with the promises and desires of a young boy."
'It's always a look into the past'
"jpeg rl03" (2007) by Thomas Ruff
Credit: Courtesy Thomas Ruff/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017/Sprüth Magers
These new works will be on view in at Sprüth Magers
Berlin from July 7, and this September Ruff will be the subject of a major retrospective at London's Whitechapel Gallery
, his first in the city.
"I love all my babies, even though they are adults now, especially the portraits because they were a kind of starting point for my career, and they helped photography become part of contemporary art, not a second degree of it."
Where does he think photography sits in today's art world? Has it been truly accepted or does it still feel like distant relative?
"I think it's truly accepted now, but there's always waves. Let's say in the last 17 years or so, photography has been really booming, but it's quieter now."
While photography may be experiencing a lull in the art world, it's become omnipresent in our lives, increasingly democratized by new technology.
"It's really strange that people want to stay in the present by taking photographs every hour to prove that they're alive, because when you're looking at a photograph you're always looking at the past," he said. "That's also why I prefer taking photographs to doing film. I like this frozen aesthetic image that you can look at whenever you want. It's always a look back into the past."
For a photographer who once shaped the future of his medium, the past clearly still has a lot to offer for Thomas Ruff.
"Thomas Ruff: New Works"
is on at Sprüth Magers Berlin from July 7 to Sept. 2, 2017.