It’s been years since photographer Thomas Ruff has taken a picture in the traditional sense – set the aperture, press the shutter release, develop the film. For most of his career, Ruff’s work has consisted of altering images he’s dug up everywhere, from the archives of NASA to Internet porn sites. In his latest series, Ruff disregards the camera’s role in the photography process altogether.
In photograms, now on display at Johnen Galerie in Mitte, Ruff champions the so-called camera-less photography, first made popular by 1920s avant-garde artists such as Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, who inspired Ruff’s desire to explore the medium. Photograms are made by placing objects on photographic paper and then exposing it to light. The objects leave a shadow of their form on the paper making it a kind of photographic negative.
The process is similar to the one that makes people looks like raccoons when they come back from vacation after having worn sunglasses for ten days. Frequent visitors to the tanning salon have also developed this trick and have found that by placing a sticker in the same place day after day, they eventually have a kind of reverse tattoo of a heart, dollar-bill sign, or Playboy insignia. But I digress.
Thomas Ruff, phg.04_II, 2013, C-Print, framed 240 x 185 cm - 94.5 x 72.8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Johnen Galerie, Berlin.
The beauty in this process is that the images created are, in essence, simply of light and shadow. The image isn’t of the object, but rather of the object’s shadow. No lens or film mediates the picture; the surrealists loved it for this reason. Yet typical of the artist, Ruff pushes the medium to its technological limits, creating a new generation of photograms. Together with Wenzel S. Spingler, Ruff developed a 3-D software program that functions as a kind of virtual darkroom. Objects – balls, sticks, scraps of paper – are placed on digital paper and recorded by a camera overhead. Ruff shines colored light – another Ruff-ian development – through the objects and collects the shadows on his hard drive. With his digital photogram technology, Ruff can alter the placement of the objects as he goes and enlarge the images afterwards, both of which weren’t possible back when Man Ray was sweating over the placement of his ruler and scissors.
The result is a series of gigantic colored abstractions: yellow spheres, blue swirls, gray spirals. The objects Ruff used are impossible to make out. He’s distilled his subjects down to variously colored light and shadow. Perhaps more accurate would be to say light and shadow are the subject.
In high school Ruff thought that if he didn’t become a photographer, he would become an astronomer. Like his previous series Sterne (Stars) (1980) and ma.r.s. (2010), photograms harkens back to Ruff’s love of astronomy, and astronomy is, simply the study of light and shadow. Supernovae, binary pulsars, planetary nebulae, black holes. In other words, the stuff of astronomy is only known to us as various intervals and intensities of light (believe me, I took a class on it in college).
In the same way that light is the only medium with which we understand the farthest reaches of the universe, it also the basis for how we see everything else (Plato’s cave anybody?). In such a way, Ruff’s work is not so much about the aesthetics of the illuminated chopsticks or pieces of string as it is a deconstruction of how we even see these objects. Granted, they do have an aesthetic charm.
Thomas Ruff, phg.05_I, 2013, C-Print, framed 240 x 185 cm - 94.5 x 72.8 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Johnen Galerie, Berlin.
Another fun fact to consider: Light doesn’t have a distinguishable mass. Really, it’s made up of photons, which are defined as massless particles. (But then how does light have a velocity? Why is it affected by gravity, i.e. gravitational lensing? I’m not a physicist. I don’t know). For comparison, air has mass. Protons and neutrons have mass. Pretty much everything else in the universe has mass. Ruff plays with this fact by, in his usual style, blowing his images up to be big, really big. Each image in the series is a little more than eight feet tall and six feet wide (or 2.55 x 1.85 meters, for the metrically inclined). That makes Ruff’s photograms some of, if not the largest photograms ever.
Taking it one step further, that makes Ruff’s photograms, these paralyzed shadows of scrap paper and balls, the largest pictures ever taken without a camera of things that aren’t even tangible. How’s that for photography?
(Image on top: Thomas Ruff, em.phg.03 , 2013, c-print, framed, 240 x 185 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Johnen Galerie.)