The German artist Thomas Ruff is well-known for his explorations of photography in serial works, portraits and digital technologies. Thomas Ruff photography shows the variety of practices, objects and forms available to photographers today. Testing the limits of the medium for more than two decades, he has been using tools and techniques such as composite picture-making apparatus, star light system for night-vision, hand-tinting, stereoscopy, digital retouching and photomontage. He has been also appropriating images from various sources such as scientific archives, newspapers and the internet. ‘The difference between my predecessors and me is that they believed to have captured reality and I believe to have created a picture. We all lost, bit by bit, the belief in this so-called objective capturing of real reality. Each of my series has a visual idea behind it, which I develop during my research. Sometimes the development follows a straight line from A to B; sometimes something completely new and interesting shows up, which makes me leave the straight path and follow a more indirect one with new rules’, stated Ruff.
He first rose to prominence with his work Interiors created in German rooms, and soon after started making portraits of friends based on the aesthetics of police mugshots from the 1970s. Throughout his career, he created a diverse body of work with various subjects such as appropriated interplanetary images captured by NASA, abstractions of modernist architecture, three-dimensional computer-generated Pop imagery, and obscured pornography. Combining old and new photographic techniques, he suggests the myriad of possibilities of his chosen medium. Focusing on aesthetics and process, Ruff has created and eclectic oeuvre not defined by genre, method, or theme, but rather by the stark imagery and conceptual approach.
Thomas Ruff’s works are highly collectible and are valued in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Let’s take a look at works that have reached the highest prices at auctions.
Featured image: Thomas Ruff Installation View, via contemporaryartdaily.com
Around 1998, Thomas Ruff began working with nude photography and experimenting with computer-generated and abstract pictures made of pixels. ‘My nude photographs are intended to be somewhat "more adult." In order to see what this other kind of nude photography might look like, I started doing some research on the internet - the marketplace for goods and information. And I found some strange things there’, said the artist in an interview. Inspired by the low resolution and poor quality of pornographic images online, he started processing his images to resemble these. The photograph Nudes Gr21 from 2002 is part of this project. It was sold at Christie’s New York in November 2006 for $150,000.
Thomas Ruff was fascinated by astronomy ever since his childhood. In 1989, he presented his first images of the night sky based on archival photos that he acquired from the European Southern Observatory in Chile taken with a special telescopic lens. Selecting specific details from these works, he enraged them to uniform grand scale. These pieces range from sparsely populated night skies to almost overpowering brightly lit pictures showing other galaxies which can be mistaken for clouds in the sky. The photograph 17h 58/-25 degrees from 1990 was sold at Christie’s New York in February 2007 for $150,000.
The photograph Nudes GF 10 from 2000 is another piece from his blurry nude pieces. The images were processed to make the pixel structure barely visible. He used techniques such as fuzziness and various modes of blurring, and sometimes he would modify the colouring and remove intrusive details. Ruff wanted to cover a wide range of sexual fantasies and practices that could be found online by professionals and amateurs. The photograph was sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for $152,800.
The photograph Nudes Pea 10 from 1999 is another piece from his series inspired by pornography. The selection of source pictures was based on the composition, lighting, colouring, or presentation. While some of these works impart a certain lyricism, others are laid bare in all the nastiness of the industry. Porn tends to present the picture of perfection when it comes to bodies or potency, but Thomas Ruff takes these images in the opposite direction by blurring them. They embody the uncertainty of memory, the imprecision of unenacted fantasy or the swirl of the unconscious and dreams. The photograph was sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2006 for $155,000.
The photograph Nudes KY 02 from 2003 is another nude photograph. Some photos are characterized by nuanced and delicate colours, while others are expressionistically garish. They reflect the industry that aims to service desire in various ways. The rawness and carnality of the original images is blurred to an innuendo. The photograph was sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2007 for $164,500.
The photograph Gr 20 from 2003 is another from the nude series. Painterly illustrations of vague desire in which anonymous woman pose, these images are imbued with the erotic power altered by a muted palette and hazed resolution. Some of them feature the female subject with the fetishistic power reduced to lush formal qualities such as blonde hair or stiletto heels. The photograph was sold at Phillips London in February 2008 for $138,900.
The photograph 17h, 36m/-34 degrees from 1989 is part of the Sterne project featuring night skies based on archival photos from the European Southern Observatory in Chile. His attempt at photographing night sky failed since there was the lack of detail captured in the pictures due to his equipment and air and light pollution. His solution was to take observation shots. The photograph was sold at Christie’s London in February 2014 for $182,000.
The photograph Stern 16h30m - 50 degrees from 1989 is another one from the Sterne series. The Sterne series is something of cartography of the heavens through our minuscule observation platform of earth. ‘For the first time, I had to give up authorship to create these images. At that time appropriation was already a common artistic practice. After this experience it became easier for me to give up authorship and to solicit the help of other people’, said the artist in an interview. The photograph was sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2015 for $187,500.
The photograph 21h 32m -60 degrees from 1992 is another one from the Sterne series. In these pieces, the darkness is pinpricked by the same light that reaches us from vast stretches of the universe. The photograph was sold at Phillips New York in November 2012 for $194,500.
In the process of making the Substrats, Ruff did not use a camera, make a negative, or enter a darkroom. He took images of Japanese animé and manga from the netherworld of cyberspace and manipulated them into pulsing abstract color fields rendered ultimately on photographic paper by a mechanical printer. The series presents and acid-tinged thought-provoking experiment in technology and art, photography and abstraction. These works could barely be classified as photos, but the title of the series suggests the exploration of the essence of photography. As part of the series, the photograph Substrat 10 III from 2003 was sold at Christie’s London in June 2007 for $203,300.