Thomas Ruff is among the most important international photographers to emerge in the last fifteen years, and one of the most enigmatic and prolific of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s former students, a group that includes Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, and Axel Hutte. Best known for his over-sized, dead-pan portraits, his unmediated shots of commonplace interiors, and his seemingly straightforward photographs of architecture, Ruff has quietly approached many familiar genres, and proceeded to discreetly reinvent them. Ruff has an uncanny feel for the look of the ordinary – in people, places, and objects. However, his brand of photographic objectivity is not that purportedly practiced by photojournalists. Rather, it is elicited by scanning the mundane for the telling particulars of aggregated detail, and by a reserved and skeptical curiosity towards photography’s ultimate truthfulness.
Thomas Ruff was born in 1958 in Zell am Harmersbach, Germany. He attended the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1977 to 1985, where he studied photography under the Bechers. During his studies in Düsseldorf, Ruff developed his method of conceptual serial photography. After completing a series of photographs documenting domestic interiors (1979–81), Ruff embarked on the series of portraits with which he made his name. Monumental, highly detailed and immaculately finished, these were unglamorous portraits of ordinary people, devoid of expression.
His early portraits were black-and-white and small, but he soon switched to color, using solid backgrounds in different colors. By 1986 Ruff was beginning to experiment with large-format printing, one of the distinguishing characteristics of his work, which would eventually become a signature style of the new German photography.
Ruff expanded beyond portraiture with Haus (1987–91), a series of building exteriors. This work carried on the architectural photography tradition initiated in the Bauhaus, which he would take up again years later in his work on Mies van der Rohe, l.m.v.d.r (1999). In 1988, Ruff participated in the Aperto of the Venice Biennial, obtaining great international recognition with his series Portraits.
In 1992, he participated in the Documenta IX with a new series, Nacht (1992–96), which markd the start of his experimentation with new photo technologies. Inspired by the high-tech, media-friendly Gulf War, he employed the infrared night-vision technologies used by the military (and made ubiquitous by CNN’s 24-hour a day coverage) to render anonymous, green-tinged images of the streets of suburban Düsseldorf. Ruff has also used computer imaging to erase random details from pictures, as well as to blend portraits of male and female subjects. In 1995, he represented Germany in the Venice Biennial, presenting a new series of portraits, Anderes Porträts (1992–5), which were created using police image fabrication technology.
The artist’s Nudes (1999–2000), provocative abstractions of explicit images borrowed from pornography websites; Substrat (2002-2003), his colorful manipulations of Japanese manga and anime; and his jpegs (2007) demonstrate Ruff’s approach to reinventing existing images. Together with his most recent body of work, zycles and cassini, these serialized considerations draw attention to the abstraction that occurs when the visually explicit is re-imagined.
Ruff has been the subject of solo museum exhibitions at Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Museum für neue Kunst, Freiburg; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; Mu˝csarnok Kunsthalle, Budapest (all 2009); Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden; Sprengel Museum, Hanover (all 2007). His work is held in the collections of many major museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; The Art Institute of Chicago; Essl Museum, Klosterneuberg; Dallas Museum of Art; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; National Museum of Photography, Copenhagen; Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He was the 2006 recipient of the Infinity Award for Art presented by the International Center of Photography, New York, and in 2009 Aperture published jpegs, a large-scale book dedicated exclusively to this monumental series. The artist lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany.