Final Major Project: Considering Others – Thomas Ruff
“In a way, I wanted to blot out any traces or information about the person in front of the camera. I also wanted to indicate that the viewer is not face-to-face with a real person.”
– Ruff (Gil Blank and Thomas Ruff Discuss ‘Portraits’. 2004)
Ruff’s acclaimed Portraits series resonates with my current project. The images are rigid and clinical in their execution. The images are all head and shoulder portraits where the sitters either stare directly into the lens or are shot in profile. The portraits are expressionless; the lighting even and flat. The portraits are usually shot against a white backdrop. Ruff reproduces the images on a huge scale. There is no indication of context or setting in the portraits. We cannot determine where or when they are taken. We have clues in the clothing and hairstyle that suggest a timeframe. There are also clues in the style of makeup (where applicable) as to the occasion of the sitting.
Figure 1: Thomas Ruff. 1988. Porträt (P Stadtbäumer)
Figure 2: Thomas Ruff. 1986. ‘Portrait 1986 (Stoya)
The passport-style photographs reveal every surface detail of the sitters. They are brutally honest in their portrayal of the sitter. Passport photographs are objective. They are factual and cold in nature. Each one has to conform to a set of rules. There is no subjectivity in the image; there was no personal input to the images. Ruff achieves this coldness and impersonal approach in each image, even though he photographed people he knew.
The camera is used purely as a mechanical machine to capture the image. The images scrutinise each face and its imperfections on a huge scale. There is nowhere to hide. Ruff did not manipulate the digital files in this series. He did not stage the photographs. He just asked the sitters to look at the camera with no expression and to be aware that they were having their photograph taken.
To the viewer, the scale of these portraits of strangers is unusual. The physical presence of the faces is monumental and unnerving. The personalities of the sitters are lost in the objective recording of the physical features. The viewer (and the sitter) are unable to know what they felt at that moment. There is no information to reveal whether they were happy or sad.
The images were shot on a large format Linhof camera which allows him to facilitate producing photographs up to seven by five feet in size. (Thomas Ruff – The Portraits 2017).Ruff believes that if you let the camera do the job it does best, it tells you nothing at all. When you ask yourself what information a photo gives you about a person’s character, you run into a blank wall. Any personality a sitter may have is there because you, the viewer, have projected your own feelings and prejudices on to the image.
“Ruff believes that if you let the camera do the job it does best, it tells you nothing at all. When you ask yourself what information a photo gives you about a person’s character, you run into a blank wall. Any personality a sitter may have is there because you, the viewer, have projected your own feelings and prejudices on to the image.”
– (PHOTOGRAPHY IN FOCUS. 2003)
Ruff’s typology is clear. Each image is shot in a consistent and repetitive manner. His ‘rules’ are:-
The sitter’s eyes are open and clearly visible.
There are no facial expressions. Each face is neutral (no smiles or frowns). The mouth is closed.
Most of the photographs show a full front view of the head and shoulders. The sitter is straight onto the camera. The head is straight and not tilted.
There is no hair across the eyes.
The sitters do not wear hats, scarves, and in most cases, jewellery.
The photographs are shot against a plain, uniform background.
The lighting is uniform
This approach to the portraits pushes aside any of Ruff’s subjective considerations. The images he takes are therefore very different to other portraits that we see. The viewer is challenged in their perception and understanding of how images are taken and the visual language that they normally utilise. This creates a dialogue about the approach taken.
We are caused to consider the following questions:
What is a portrait?
Why are there rules (typology) for these images?
What is the meaning of the photographs?
What are they trying to say?
What is their purpose?
Figure 3: Thomas Ruff. 1983-86 Untitled (Portraits)
Figure 4: Installation view, Thomas Ruff Portraits, The National Portrait Gallery, London, 2017. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo: Victoria Miller, Digital Programmes
In my project, I have been exploring plain backgrounds and deadpan expressions to create a typology of my own. In this way, the viewer will engage with the narrative of the image rather than the expression, context or setting.
Gil Blank and Thomas Ruff Discuss ‘Portraits’. 2004. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/12/theory-gil-blank-with-thomas-ruff-2004.html [accessed 1 April 2018].
PHOTOGRAPHY IN FOCUS The deadpan images created by Thomas Ruff – of nameless individuals and equally anonymous places – are masterpieces of austere neutrality. By Richard Dorment Now for something completely indifferent. 2003. Telegraph.co.uk [online]. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3595514/PHOTOGRAPHY-IN-FOCUS-The-deadpan-images-created-by-Thomas-Ruff-of-nameless-individuals-and-equally-anonymous-places-are-masterpieces-of-austere-neutrality.-By-Richard-Dorment-Now-for-something-completely-indifferent.html [accessed 1 April 2018].
Thomas Ruff – The Portraits. 2017. Anatomy Films [online]. Available at: http://www.anatomyfilms.com/thomas-ruff-portraits/ [accessed 1 April 2018].
Figures 1 – 2: Thomas Ruff – The Portraits. 2017. Anatomy Films [online]. Available at: http://www.anatomyfilms.com/thomas-ruff-portraits/ [accessed 1 April 2018].
Figure 3: Untitled (Portraits). 2018. Christies.com [online]. Available at: https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/online-post-war-contemporary-art/untitled-portraits-9/5947 [accessed 1 April 2018].
Figure 4: Thomas Ruff | David Zwirner. 2017. David Zwirner [online]. Available at: https://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/thomas-ruff [accessed 1 April 2018].