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“Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979–2017” is currently on view at Whitechapel Gallery in London (the show will be up through January 21, 2018). This major exhibition looks at Ruff’s full range of work, from his “Portraits” series to the more recent “press++” series. Whitewaller spoke to Ruff about looking back on his “babies,” his investigation of language, and why you can never be too suspicious of a photo.
WHITEWALLER: What are some of the most recent works on view? How has your “press++” evolved as of late?
THOMAS RUFF: The most recent works included in this exhibition are those in the “press++” series. They are press photographs from the 1930s to 1970s, which I purchased through eBay from American press archives. They are positive prints from negatives that had been distributed by news agencies, either by post or wire, to media outlets and newspapers. On the reverse of these photographs, editorial and copyright information, captions, or instructions for printing were written by the news agency or the newspaper editor. Cropping or masking marks were sometimes even applied on top of the image itself. I started working with the images as part of my interest with the use of photography in the media. By combining the back and the front I could highlight the misuse of photographic images within the print media.
WW: What is it like, revisiting series from decades ago, while putting shows like this together?
TR: I did a similar exhibition in 2001, and I looked back at 13 different series; now I am looking back at about 24 series. If you practice photography for more than 38 years, there is a lot of old “stuff.” But of course I still love all of my “babies,” and it’s fun looking back.
WW: You describe your work as “investigations.” What do you mean by that?
TR: Susan Sontag once mentioned that photography is a kind of visual language. My so-called “investigations” are research into the equivalent of grammatical rules of this language. I am trying to find out how the language works and how you can communicate with it.
WW: What role do you see the photograph playing today in conveying information, as the question of manipulation in the press becomes more and more pervasive?
TR: I would say, you can trust images of or from people you can have trust in. With all other images, it’s hard to know where they come from, how and why they were made. So you have to be very careful in trusting the images and you always should be suspicious.
WW: You’ve said, “I think photography is still the most influential medium in the world, and I have to deconstruct its conventions.” Do you think the ubiquity of cameras on our phones and popularity of social platforms like Instagram have only increased the influence of the medium?
TR: I think we are in a similar situation to the 1920s with the invention of the Leica, the small 35-millimeter camera. It was easy to use, very fast, and could be carried around really easily—it was almost always to be found in the pocket of the photographer. But you still needed to know a little bit about the photographic technique and you had to develop the image in a darkroom. With the small 35-millimeter camera came a new kind of authenticity, similar to the cameras on our phones, and almost any event is recorded. But now you do not even need to know anything about the technique—you can just take a photo and post it online. So the influence of the medium has even increased.