Thomas Ruff Review, Whitechapel Gallery

Thomas Ruff was in New York on 9/11 yet, according to the catalogue of his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘none of the photographs he took on the day were viable.’ This certainly gives an insight into this austere, cerebral artist. In Ruff we have a man whose stock in trade is the calculated photographic series – planned in advance meticulously, conceptual in intent and post-edited with a maven’s eye for visual perfection. Ruff is the polar opposite of our popular cliché of an excitable, fast-snapping documentary photographer.  Whatever messy, overspilling emotions he captured on that fateful September day, we can surmise they just didn’t suit his style.

Instead, by absolute contrast, we have ‘jpeg ny01’, his eventual response to 9/11. It’s a monumental c-print version of a small image found on the web, depicting the smoking towers seen from upper Manhattan. Blown up to this extreme, the jpeg fragments into its pixely constituent squares, forming a tiled mosaic like a Chuck Close painting. It’s beautiful and horrible, alienating yet universally familiar. If the act of photography is evidence of first hand witnessing, Ruff chooses to step back and say that, via online images, 9/11 was one of the first global events we all witnessed together, albeit in this distant, pixelated eternal present.

Many of the pieces in this engaging forty year retrospective are, similarly, photographs which Ruff hasn’t taken himself. Like a photographic Roy Lichtenstein he selects, retouches, crops and enlarges to make his statements. His personal authorship of each image thus becomes less important than his intent.

An early 90s series called ‘Stars’ shows selected large scale crops of photos from the European Southern Observatory. Seen at this size, they confront us with the terrifying enormity of space, every inch carpeted with stars. They seem to comment, too, on photography’s own use of light to provide evidence of physical presence, proximity and witnessing. Many of these stars are already dead, and their light has taken varying amounts of time, most far greater than human civilisation, to get to us. It reminds us how small we all are.

No such problem on the opposite wall, though. Here we see a selection from a 1980s series of giant portrait heads (in this case taken by Ruff). Essentially they are enormous passport photos in which the subjects stare fixedly and neutrally ahead. It’s portraiture with the inflections removed – faces presented as massive ciphers in a typological survey. Ruff’s technique, impersonal and austere though it may seem, can also touch upon great beauty though. Shorn of authorial over-interference, the basic wonder of human physiognomy takes centre stage. We naturally look closer, too, for evidence of individuality in hairstyles, jewellery and clothes. One sitter has a distinct hint of ‘resting bitch face’, where another naturally forms a micro smile. These faces are the same yet vastly, incomparably different.

Some of the works in this show do occasionally suffer from Ruff’s rather opaque, frosty detachment – ‘Negatives’, for example, a series of antique photos printed up large scale in their negative form, leaves us somewhat mystified. Yet with over a dozen separate projects on display here, there’s a great deal to enjoy and explore in a show which manages to be extremely diverse yet hold together as a united and satisfying body of work.

Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017
Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High Street – til 21st January 2018
£12.95 / £9.50 concessions

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