WHAT IS REAL? Thomas Ruff Photograms and ma.r.s

Article by Don Burmeister in New York; Friday, April 12, 2013

Thomas Ruff is one of the handful of art world superstars who emerged in the 1990’s from the Düsseldorf school of photography centered around Hilda and Bernd Becher. One of the original big color photographers, he is probably best known for his straight forward portraits of not very unusual and not very engaged young to middle age Germans—a mash up of August Sander and Chuck Close on their way to the passport office.

Although the portraits have an ultra sharp photographic verisimilitude, Ruff has not been averse to extensive use of all the computer power he can muster in some of his other projects. In the current show at David Zwirner two different digital projects are presented in which there was never a moment when the photographer himself tripped a shutter.

The Mars imagery is perhaps the most dramatic. The first room has Ruff’s characteristically 6 x 10 foot color images. At first glance they seem a little fuzzy, until you notice the tray of blue and red 3D glasses standing by the door (bring your own if you have better quality ones, the ones at the gallery are a bit dodgy.) The glasses turn the images into what can only be described as otherworldly landscapes. They could also be called other-Marsly as well. The images gathered by NASA satellites circling the red planet were not taken in 3D but have been digitally shifted and duplicated by Ruff to reveal a fantastical landscape. The resolution is extremely high, seemingly revealing every rock and shadow and the resulting images show craters of unbelievable depth and steeply spiked mountains that seem incredibly high with slopes defying the familiar proportions of earth-based gravity. The second room, also based on Martian imagery, eschews 3D for flat images depicting vast stretches of alien deserts and rocks.

Ruff is not the only artist to mine NASA’s treasure trove of images –Michael Benson has a show up, too. Ruff’s images are larger and his color palette a bit more sophisticated than the brightly lit product shots of Benson. Yet, somehow the images start to seem just a little too fantastic: the mystery of the landscape just a bit too perfect. And then the two rooms come together and you realize: Ruff is an unreliable narrator. Just as his fellow Becher student Andreas Gursky can make a view of the Rhine River flatter and emptier than any particular stretch of the Rhine actually is, these views of Mars might be bigger and more awesome than any one place on that planet might actually be.

The difficulty of interpreting these images is amplified by their inherent strangeness. In a Gursky fantasy the elements are all relatively commonplace, so part of the fun is finding the subtle elements where the machinery behind the illusion reveals itself. Perhaps the seams in these pictures are obvious to NASA scientists, but I don’t think this is Ruff’s intended audience. He targets those viewers for whom the ambiguity of the imagery, their ‘truthiness’ if you will, gives them their edge. Ultimately, how important is it that these photographs represent reality, or that they are one quarter, or one half, or two-thirds computer generated fantasy?

In the western galleries of the huge Zwirner complex we encounter yet another set of Ruff’s big 10-foot tall digital C prints. The palette here is nearly monochromatic, with shadings of rich blacks, grays with a few fields of muted green or orange. They all appear to be unusually large photograms, their imagery is dominated by big twirling ribbon shapes or straight sticks or circles. Despite the many differences, they are evocative of the images of Laslo Maholy-Nagy and the Surrealists.

The differences are significant, however. Traditional photograms are exactly in scale with the objects used to make them, although you could obviously enlarge photograms made on negative sheets or digitally enlarge smaller photograms. More importantly, these images are impossible to interpret. You can see shadows and edges, and what appear to be double exposures and flashes of light from different directions, but unlike a true photogram, you can never quite make out the sources of the shadows. Indeed they can never be resolved, because they never existed, all the images were composed from scratches on the computer screen. Ruff calls this series of photograms, but then freely admits they are not photograms. Does it make a difference?

To this writer it does. All photographs are illusions of course, but the element of verisimilitude is always present. Photograms are perhaps the purest expression of this; they are only light, an object, and a medium—no lenses, no atmospheric interference.

In Ruff’s pictures the ambiguity of the photograph as art is brought up front and center. If the same images were drawn by hand we might admire the artist’s dexterity, and never question her choice of medium. But for Ruff’s photographs, (and there is no doubt that they are real, drug store C-print photographs) terms like fake photograms or doctored Martian landscapes come to mind. Perhaps this is generational, and when people who have lived their lives in a digital universe look back these will seem to be early examples of a greater art form. But today they seem to be just shadows of the real thing.


Additional Information

“photograms and ma.r.s.” – THOMAS RUFF
Exhibition: Mar. 28 – Apr. 27, 2013
525 & 533 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

This article was originally posted on The New York Photo Review.
Don Burmeister is editor of The New York Photo Review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.