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Ruff, Thomas
Germany (1958 - )
Porträt (P. Märtin)
Chromogenic color print
9 1/4 x 7 in. (23.6 x 17.8 cm) image size;14 1/2 x 11 7/8 in. (36.8 x 30.2 cm) sheet size;16 3/8 x 12 7/8 x 3/4 in. (41.6 x 32.7 x 1.9 cm) frame size
Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company
FA 97.142.4

“I don’t think my portraits can present actual personalities. I’m not interested in making a copy of my own interpretation of a person. It’s more my personal idea of photography that is accentuated in my portraits. I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait.” – Thomas Ruff

German artist Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) does not seek to capture the emotional or psychological state of his sitters. According to the artist, no matter how faithful the image, the individual is always unknowable and inaccessible. Ruff foregrounds the impossibility of fixing identity or perception and introduces a new form of contemporary representation through his Porträt (Portrait) series.

Ruff studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose influence on Ruff’s Porträt series can be seen in his consistent vantage point, neutral background, even lighting, serial subject matter, and focus on a timeless subject. For this series Ruff asked his friends, art students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, to sit for him; he let them choose their own clothing and asked that they present a calm and serious facial expression. The clarity of image and visual desire makes us want to believe what we see; we cannot help but project our own interpretation onto the sitter. Ruff combats this urge by capturing the subject in a generic pose and by designating that each photo is part of a series, further removing the uniqueness of the individual. In this process, the sitter becomes anonymous, unreadable, and ultimately a puzzle that the viewer unsuccessfully seeks to piece together.

Ruff draws from distinctive kinds of photography: postcard, passport, press photographs, mug shot. Through serial images and anonymous subjects, he critiques the traditional functions of photography and explores its inability to truly capture a subject; like painting, his work asserts, photography is just another technique for producing an image. The artist states, “I’m interested in reproduction, in how pictures are taken. The picture I take of a person has nothing to do with the person anymore. It has its own reality, its own autonomous existence. It becomes independent of the person it presents.” Ruff claims that the photograph’s presence has its own validity, and that to look into the emptiness of the space within it is to look into a reality of subjective interpretation. — Label copy for Six Portraits by Thomas Ruff, April 29 to July 25, 2010.

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