LONDON — “The photographic plate is the true retina of the scientist,” the French astronomer and keen photographer Jules Janssen famously asserted in 1888. He had every reason to feel so passionate about the then futuristic medium, which he himself helped developing thanks to his studies in mechanics. Some years earlier the astronomer had managed to shoot the first photograph ever of an entire comet; at the beginning of the 20th century he would publish a groundbreaking series of photographs of the solar surface.
As a young student just graduated from high school in the 1970s, Thomas Ruff was uncertain whether to take astronomy in Heidelberg or photography in Düsseldorf. Astronomy had fascinated him since childhood but eventually Ruff chose photography. At 59, he is now a renowned photographer, one member of the so-called Düsseldorf School, together with Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Struth, who all studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher during the 1970s at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. Astronomy still fascinates him.
His current exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery — Ruff’s first major retrospective in London — pays homage to his longtime passion for the cosmos, featuring series of works directly influenced by his obsession with the universe.
In the late 1980s, frustrated by the unsatisfying quality of his own images, Ruff accessed copy negatives of photographic plates of the sky at night taken by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. He cropped and enlarged parts of the original images and printed the resulting pictures in large-scale formats. Simply titled Sterne (Stars) (1989-92), this series retains much of the original character of the negatives employed, which is to say the images keep something of the look of a scientific document, in spite of the artist’s editorial interventions.
At the same time, though, Ruff’s pictures impose themselves as monumental works of art, shown as they are in large formats (a radical decision in the 1980s that positioned these photographs into the realm of fine art).
There is little difference between Jules Janssen’s photographic studies of the solar surface and NASA’s satellite images of similar inaccessible worlds. In both cases, photography is employed as a medium to access places that would otherwise be unreachable, engaging with innovative technology to reveal something about the unknown.
With his practice, Ruff acts on the positivistic approach that consider photography as a revelatory medium, taking the whole conversation to a higher level, investigating the language of photography and its possibilities, digitally acting on the images to test their limits.
The exhibition at Whitechapel — for once a well-balanced and tidy show with some blank spaces on the walls to rest the eyes — displays Ruff’s long-time engagement with the primary genres of photography, from photo-journalism (Newspaper Photographs, 1990-91; jpeg, 2004-8; press++, 2016-) to portraiture (Portraits, 1981-91), going through pornography (Nudes, 1999-2012) and interior photography (Interiors,1979-83), muddying the waters of our perception in every image, manipulating each of them one way or another.
In this discourse, Ruff even questions the modernist tradition. His fotogramme series (2012-15), for instance, digitally reworks Man Ray’s and László Moholy-Nagy’s famous photograms (photographic images made without a camera by placing various objects on a light-sensitive surface, later exposed to light). Ruff re-enacts those pioneering experiments with photography using a completely digital process, replacing the camera obscura with a custom-made software.
The resulting images, abstract combinations of shapes and colours still as highly aestheticized and elegant as their modernist models, provoke questions on the veracity and history of photography.
What is the role of photography when it manages to mimic and challenge —and possibly replace — even historicized images?
In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Ruff has gathered together an enlightening selection of quotes from various theorists and artists. One of them in particular, by the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg, resonates with the works in the show:
“We cannot observe without disturbing the phenomenon under observation, and the quantum effects that have an impact on the medium of this observation lead automatically to an ambiguity in the phenomenon under observation”.
With each series, Ruff pushes the boundaries of photography further and further. His photographs are precisely the result of the observation process described by Heisenberg: ambiguous traces of their subjects, they constantly bring the focus of the public back to their nature as crafted images.
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 continues at Whitechapel Gallery (77-82 Whitechapel High St, London E1 7QX) through January 21, 2018.