Thomas Ruff, ‘phg.05_III’, 2013-2014, Richard Levy Gallery

When you make photograms, without the use of a camera, you can indeed call that abstract photography, as the lens and the corresponding registration medium are lacking. No longer do you have pictures of reality or objects; you only have their shadows. It is a bit like Plato’s cave, where one could only imagine reality; the objects themselves were not visible.
—Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) creates computer-generated light refraction photograms that push the boundaries of the nearly 180-year-old process. A leading representative of the Dusseldorf School of Photography, Ruff is noteworthy for never actually using a camera but finding his imagery on the internet or creating it in the darkroom. Ruff collaborated with a 3-D imaging expert to design a virtual darkroom that would enable him to experiment with an infinite range of forms. Unbeholden to objects present, like the scissors, ribbons, and paperclips of Moholy-Nagy’s photograms, he is able to specify the size, material, color, and transparency of new digital matter. This collection of invented forms, together with simulated paper surface and fully adjustable light conditions, comprises a digital darkroom environment in which Ruff can access boundless possibilities and ultimate control. The final chromogenic prints describe an enigmatic photographic world of nebulous shadows, spheres, zigzags, and hard edges against richly colored backgrounds, a mesmerizing visual frontier of his own making.

About Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff uses technological advancements to realize new visual possibilities of photography and question its artistic qualities. “I don’t believe in the psychologizing portrait photography that my colleagues do, trying to capture the character with a lot of light and shade,” he says. “That’s absolutely suspect to me. I can only show the surface. Whatever goes beyond that is more or less chance.” In the manner of the typologies and straight photography espoused by his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ruff’s best-known series is “Portraits” (1981-85), 60 frontal, identically framed photographs of expressionless men and women blown up to a monumental size. Authenticity and appropriation are of recurring interest to Ruff—he further explored these ideas in “Nudes” (2003), a photographic collection of distorted and enlarged thumbnails of pornographic photographs taken from the internet, and has produced series based on 3-D mathematical renderings, archival images of war and the night sky, and the architecture of Mies van der Rohe.

German, b. 1958, Zell am Harmersbach, Germany, based in Düsseldorf, Germany