Exposing the Editor’s Hand in 20th-Century News Photos

Thomas Ruff, “press++01.16” (2015), chromogenic print, 72 7/8 x 91 inches (all images courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)

Photography has never gazed so deeply into its own navel as with Thomas Ruff. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a member of the Düsseldorf School, Ruff has spent a career deconstructing the history of photography. Since the late 1970s, he has investigated different genres of photography such as portraiture, astronomy, and surveillance footage to test the limits and expectations of his medium. His excavations, in turn, have uncovered the ways we take, use, and share photographs.

For press++, a new series presented at David Zwirner, the artist enters the editor’s room. From newspapers such as The Baltimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune, Ruff appropriates old media clippings that mark technological advancement in the US, from sea to space, during the 20th century. Besides the obvious image that each clipping bears, additional marks and editorial comments often cover the photographs, which are also sometimes cropped. On the backsides of these clippings are typed-out captions or instructions for where the image will appear in the newspaper. After scanning these materials onto the computer, Ruff consolidates the front and backsides of the clippings into one huge image, effectively blurring the divisions between the photographer’s eye, the editor’s hand, and the artist’s voice.

Installation view of ‘Thomas Ruff: press++’ at David Zwirner

The collision is subtle; barely noticeable are the stamps and scribbles on the astronaut’s face in “press++01.16” or the red scrawl above the battleship in “press++41.06.” And maybe that’s the point. Technological revolutions aren’t meant to be messy, but rather products of perfection that the public can easily buy into. By elevating editorial commentary to front-page news, Ruff locates the public’s image of modernity within the hands of others, as a construct of the media industry.

Thomas Ruff, “press++01.20” (2015), chromogenic print, 89 3/8 x 72 7/8 inches (click to enlarge)

In “press++01.20,” it’s difficult to discern between reportage and artifice, reaching a near-humorous effect. At first glance, this work depicts an armada of airplanes; perhaps even a battle fleet. Upon closer inspection, the image contradicts itself on two accounts. First, we might realize that these are model planes set upon a black backdrop. Second, we can just barely read the photograph’s accompanying note, which explains how the photo is staged. We are forced to reckon with each image’s objectivity, reconciling visual information with the textual.

There is nothing particularly innovative about press++; rather, the series is a return to the 1920s German Dada practice of photomontage. Ruff’s digital composites are politically subversive — and, at their best, disruptive of the entire technical process of image sharing. What the works in press++ interestingly show are the many ways in which a photograph can be taken, and how it transforms as it travels between camera, computer, and printer. Ruff seems to say that technology has created a very loose sense of ownership over photography, and that the idea of a source has become obsolete in our digital age. However, the editorial marks on Ruff’s artworks speak to the contrary: they emphasize an idea of ownership, calling out the artist’s barebones appropriation of a press image.

Thomas Ruff, “press++41.06” (2015), chromogenic print, 90 1/4 x 72 1/2 x 2 3/4 inches (click to enlarge)

And, to be honest, this series, while an interesting thought experiment, is overwhelmingly dry in its aesthetic approach. The decision of an artist to simply enlarge appropriated images no longer impresses. Too often, the enlarged art object is monumental in size, but not in content. Remember Richard Prince’s vacuous Instagram series? But I digress.

At his best, Ruff documents and epitomizes the metatheatrics of art. For whatever trouble photography had in legitimizing itself as an art form, he is prepared to stand his ground. Ruff wins this art historical fight by reaching into the past for his materials, pulling double duty as a rehabilitator of two lost art forms: journalistic photography and printed media. For the contemporary viewer, press++ encourages us to think more critically about who touches the media we consume. And although the internet is largely free of fingerprints, Ruff’s work beckons us to maintain that same criticality.

Thomas Ruff: press++ continues at David Zwirner (533 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30. 

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