Born in southwest Germany in 1958, Thomas Ruff has long been viewed as a key figure of the Düsseldorf School of photography, having studied under such greats as Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy (where he later taught). Ruff earns his reputation in part through his continual innovation, leading him to explore in recent years the experimental possibilities offered by digital image-making and camera-less photography.
The exhibition at Zurich’s Mai 36 consisted of new works from Ruff’s “Photograms” and “Negatives” series. The “Photograms” on view are huge prints, with six pieces nearly 8 by 6 feet and one even larger work in landscape format. They are glorious yet enigmatic images, and no wonder, for Ruff creates them with an elaborate process he devised himself. Whereas Surrealists like Man Ray generated monochrome photograms by placing objects on light-sensitive paper and exposing the materials to the sun, Ruff reimagines the photogram as an entirely digital technique. Using neither physical objects nor light-sensitive backgrounds, Ruff instead programs the vectors of a form into animation software customarily used to make 3-D films. Within that digital environment the form is subjected to numerous virtual light sources of different intensities and colors, resulting in the final image. The operation requires mammoth computing power, and the seven photograms in the main exhibition space necessitated the use of the supercomputer JUROPA at a scientific research center in Jülich, Germany. Out of the resulting images, phg.09_II (all works 2014) most resembles the series’ Surrealist forebears, with its white, coglike shapes casting pale shadows on a black background. Elsewhere, phg.02_II gave away next to nothing about its initial subject: yellow, tawny orange, pale green and gray refractions and shadows articulate a reverse S-shape that surges from the bottom right to the top left with a sort of Futurist dynamism.
The “Negatives” on view were from the “neg◊lal” subseries, and they continue Ruff’s interest in circumventing the typical photographic process. Here Ruff reverse engineers publicly available images of historic tests at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in which models of aircraft and rockets are seen in wind tunnels or alongside scales of length. By doctoring the found images to appear as if they were the original negatives, he thwarts the eye’s expectations of realism. Rendered in bluish-gray tones, the prints are modest, each only around 10 by 7 inches. Unsurprisingly, the “neg◊lal” works were less arresting than the “Photograms” that hung nearby. Thematically, however, the two groups of work have much in common, both showing Ruff’s engagement with the history of industry and scientific research. Moreover, by way of their unusual production, the two series raise questions of access to such research, contrasting the open availability of the source images for the “neg◊lal” series with the degree of privilege obviously required to use JUROPA. Viewers of Ruff’s work may delight in his manipulation of graphic technology, or they may yearn for photography of a more traditional sort. But it cannot be denied that the artist has taken on the responsibility of examining the capabilities of new technologies and the issues they bring up while simultaneously challenging standard notions of photography.