Thomas Ruff’s new photograms series depict abstract shapes, lines, and spirals in seemingly random formations with varying degrees of transparency and illumination. Their compositions are reminiscent of artistic experimentation with camera-less photography in the 1920s, where objects were placed directly on photo-sensitive paper and exposed to light, creating white or gray silhouettes wherever they made contact. Cherished in particular by Surrealists, such photograms were governed by unanticipated light effects, allowing for the element of chance in the final result. Yet both the objects and the light in Ruff’s “photograms” derive from a virtual studio built by a custom-made software program, giving the artist more control over the outcome.
Ruff adds colors to his photograms (a departure from the monochrome tones of traditional versions), creating visually complex, illusory arrangements of foreground and background, definition and blur. The composition of each work appears to present a fragment of a larger, continuous whole, much like the artist’s photographs of stars and galaxies gathered from negatives bought from the European Southern Observatory, but ultimately corresponding to his own pictorial scheme. As in this earlier series, Ruff’s photograms are autonomous from actual referents.
By invoking early twentieth century processes—which in the hands of artists like László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray carried revolutionary promises of a more direct representation of light than photography mediated by a camera—Ruff’s photograms suggest an equally radical method of simulating light using calculations based on optics. Their digital generation raises broader questions about what constitutes photography, and ultimately touches upon the issue of the medium’s veracity. As such, they continue the artist’s interest in exploring the limits of photographic representation, in the process reinventing many of its familiar genres.
The works in Ruff’s ma.r.s. series are based on black-and-white satellite photographs of the surface of Mars, taken by NASA spacecraft as part of a search for clues about how long water existed on the planet, and if it was ever present for a long enough spell to provide a habitat for life (“ma.r.s.” stands for “Mars Reconnaissance Survey”). Ruff’s images show extreme close-ups of the planet’s rugged surface, until recently unseen by anyone. Downloading the pictures from NASA’s website, the artist used computer manipulation to infuse the gray-scale images with saturated color. The resulting chromogenic prints transform the originals into visual statements that both capture the sweeping enormity of the planetary surface while distancing themselves from representational imagery, evocative instead of abstract and minimalist compositions