Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr 6 I, 1989 (600x681)

Thomas Ruff, Haus Nr 6 I, 1989

Thomas Ruff currently seems to be everywhere. Not only is he majorly featured and interviewed in the April 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography but he is also subject of a major retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.

This exhibition chronologically covers the making of certainly one of the most important German photographers of the past 30 years. What becomes visible in the show is the enormous attention Ruff not only paid to his own photographic work but also to the medium of “photography” and “image making” itself.

While Ruff started out with his rightfully recognised Portraits series, I would argue that his Häuser series (started in 1987) is probably one of the most significant photographic bodies of work ever produced. Not only does Ruff manage to extend the approach of his teachers in Düsseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher, he also manages to incorporate his thoughts on photography. Looking at the beautifully printed images, one definitely has to reconsider photography in all its aspects. Ruff presents partly run-down buildings in a way that lets them stand in the centre of a bigger narrative. These images appear objective, distanced from the subject and while being aesthetically successful. Ruff manages to create within this series a generic but nevertheless timeless picture of the urban space, one that succeeds and exceeds a conceptual typology as preferred by the Bechers.

At the same time – as he explains in his brilliant segment in the Contacts series – Ruff  makes use of a feature almost unique to modern photography. Altering the image digitally, he removes trees or closes windows of the building. This editing is done in a very subtle way, never distracting from the actual content of his images and is done to support his photographic view rather than altering the objects he is taking pictures of. 

Thomas Ruff, Nacht-5-I, 1992

Thomas Ruff, Nacht-5-I, 1992

This engagement with the medium goes even further when investigating the way images in their pure visual methodology create atmosphere and meaning. In his Nacht series, Ruff uses visuals the modern viewer has gotten to know too all too well from the first war in Iraq. Focusing on completely harmless and generally unexciting views of night-time Düsseldorf, Ruff manages to show what the medium, again from an aesthetic and purely visual point of view, is capable of.

Thomas Ruff, Nudes yv16, 2000

Thomas Ruff, Nudes yv16, 2000

Among other series exhibited in the retrospective are the m.a.r.s. images, his society-mirroring nudes series and the Substrate series; all evidence for the understanding and engagement with the “image” in its different forms. He is an image-maker who has transitioned away from needing a camera to produce photographic work. He continues to work with images in a way that not only shows technological advancements but also shifts in society and contemporary life. Thomas Ruff is everywhere: in Germany and soon in London; in photography and camera-less photography; in art and society.

The Thomas Ruff retrospective is open at Haus Der Kunst in Munich until May 20th –

Further Reading

The Contacts Collection on by Arte Video, which includes an episode on Thomas Ruff,  is currently unavailable online but can be found at museum shops and bookstores.

The British Journal of Photography, April 2012 including an article on Ruff is currently available at the BJP’s online store.

To see more of Thomas Ruff’s work, visit