Curated by Highsnobiety and presented during the time period formerly known as Paris Men’s Fashion Week, “Not In Paris 2” is our second in a series of bi-annual digital exhibitions celebrating creativity in the age of remote interactions. Head here for the full series and cop our new merch via our online store.
For photographers who’ve made a living showing large format photographs in galleries and museums, the small-screen future of the medium can be a touchy subject. Generally, they either admit that the medium is in its death throes, or hold steadfast that Instagram and its increasingly destructive digital milieu is a seperate beast altogether. The German photographer Thomas Ruff believes in the former.
Thomas Ruff: In a sense I would say that photography is dead. People post on Instagram because they want to stay in the present––they expect photography to communicate the present. But as soon as you post an image, it’s the past. Even if it’s only two or three hours. When Kim Kardashian posts an image, it’s already the past.
In his most recent series, tableaux chinois, presented at David Zwirner Gallery Paris, Ruff takes images of Maoist propaganda and distorts them using a variety of digital techniques like pixelating, blurring, or layering. In one piece, tableau chionois_17, a pastoral painting of Mao postulating on a bench has been blown-up to the point of looking like it was downloaded using a dialup internet connection circa 1999.
Patrick McGraw: Why Chinese propaganda?
Thomas Ruff: The tableaux come from a general fascination with propaganda. Russian propaganda is quite hard, but the Chinese propaganda is kind of sweet – I call it naive propaganda. So I took these photos and gave them a digital structure to make them more contemporary. I wanted to play on the idea that technologically and economically, China is in the same same position as the western world, but ideologically they are living in the 1960s.
Politics, synthesized through the apparatus of photography, is a common theme in Ruff’s work. For his most well-known series, Portraits, taken throughout the 1980s, Ruff photographed fellow Dusseldorf Kunstakademie students in a simple, rectangular photo format that mimicked the West German passport format of the time, only blown up to museum wall proportions. This series (that still tours today), is Ruff’s body of work that looks most that of his fellow Dusseldorf Kunstakademie alumni – a group that includes Andreas Gorsky and Thomas Struth – who mobilized large-format and often serialized images in their photographs.
Patrick McGraw: Why are you so obsessed with politics?
Thomas Ruff: I must confess I don’t really know where my fascination with politics comes from. Every artist is a political artist. Because Every person is a political person. But I cannot actually tell you why.
Patrick McGraw: What’s the difference between showing an oversized photograph in a museum versus posting it online?
Thomas Ruff: People often mix photographs with reality. Blowing up photographs to larger proportions is a way to avoid this. In the beginning, I made my first exhibition of portraits in the size of 8 x 10 inch prints. At that time I wasn’t thinking of big portraits, in part because I didn’t have the money for them. All my friends who were in the photographs showed up during the opening, and people came and pointed to the portraits, and said, ‘Oh that’s Pierre.’ And I said ‘No, that’s not Pierre. Pierre is over there. That is a photograph.’ So I started blowing up the photographs and when people stood in front of them, they realized it was a photograph, and not a window of reality.
While Ruff would continue with the political overtones, his series following portraits would become increasingly abstract and obsessed with destroying any clear idea of a subject altogether. For Nacht, from 1991, Ruff took infrared photos of buildings and streetscapes around Dusseldorf, utilizing the method for photographing subjects at night that had recently been developed for use during the First Gulf War. The effect of the photos is something like military grade peeping-tom photos, only of buildings instead of people.
Thomas Ruff: If you were alive in 1991 and watching TV, you would have been able to see these nighttime images from the First Gulf War that were taken using state of the art technology that was developed by the military. Soldiers had originally used those cameras on their tanks, then a journalist put his camera into the starlight system so that the images were able to be transmitted. It was perverse, being able to watch a war, transmitted in real time to our homes in the west.
For jpegs (2004-2009), Ruff used images of man made catastrophes found online. Pictures from September 11 and the Iraq War were downloaded and further pixelated by Ruff to emphasize the difference between reality and fakeness inherent in a digital image’s structure. Obfuscating the subject to the point of indecipherability is a habit that Ruff would continue. In Nudes and Substrat, Ruff blurred images taken from porn sites in the former, and zoomed-in on images taken from anime comics in the latter.
Patrick McGraw: Why do you choose such abject subject matter?
Thomas Ruff: I found it interesting that there were so many images of catastrophes readily available online. I was in New York on September 11th, but for some reason all the photos I took on that day turned out blank, so I had to substitute it with images I found online. Then I expanded out from there to other tragedies, like the Gulf War and Cambodia. There’s often a progression between the subjects. They build on one another.
Patrick McGraw: Do you think that we see these images so often that we become numb to them?
Thomas Ruff: The way you interpret images is determined by your generation. To people of a younger generation, these images of past tragedies might be so common that they’re meaningless, but to me they are still very personal. It’s all a question of generation and what people are used to.
By continuing the process of heavily retouching his photographs for his tableaux chinois, Ruff continues to build on his habit of contorting everything he comes into contact with. By doing this, Ruff confirms the idea that when we see an image today in general, we expect it to be edited. Whether it’s filtered, photoshopped, cropped, posed, or enhanced, we assume what are seeing is faked either for someone’s benefit, or at least to fuck with us. Thinking that all the images that we see have been altered in some way is part of our inherent need to believe that there are cracks in the seams of our increasingly, over-designed world.
Patrick McGraw: When did you first start retouching your photographs?
Thomas Ruff: I’ve been retouching my photographs since about 1989, when I was shooting buildings for the Kleine Hauser series. There was a small tree in front of a building I was shooting that disturbed me, there was also a traffic sign that I felt was unnecessary to be there and one of the roof windows was open, which disturbed the symmetry. It was very difficult to make these adjustments back then, before Photoshop. But I did it. I realized I didn’t want to shoot reality.
Image making is something that everybody with access to a computer or smartphone practices today. For most people, it’s second nature. The only difference between Ruff and the average person is that his images end up in a gallery, and the average person’s end up on Instagram or a group chat. But despite the ubiquity of images and image making, the world isn’t any clearer to us. Planes crashing into the World Trade Centers, propaganda, war—these and other subjects that Ruff has used are shown to us frequently. And yet we are unable to experience them or feel anything about them other than canned responses of what we think it is we should feel. The only way we can try to understand the images that we see is to translate them to ourselves by turning them into memes or editing them. There is no salve in simply presenting us with a clear image of what is already there, and Ruff realizes this.
Patrick McGraw: Where is all of this image making heading?
Thomas Ruff: Inevitably the future of Instagram and photography,is real life. You will just share your entire life like some sort of panopticon in real time, and the viewer will decide what it is they want to focus on... ‘Be with everybody all the time.’
Thomas Ruff’s exhibition “tableau chinois” is on view at David Zwirner Paris until March 14.