Portrait interpretations

Exploring the work of Thomas Ruff

Each student made a portrait of one of his colleagues based on the work of the German photographer Thomas Ruff.

'In the 1980s, Thomas Ruff began work on a series of portraits that aimed to reveal nothing about his subjects...

'He photographed family and friends, and asked them to look completely blank and expressionless...

'... Like archetypal passport photos... young people with dead eyes and empty faces.'

The deadpan images created by Thomas Ruff – of nameless individuals and equally anonymous places – are masterpieces of austere neutrality.

I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait. I take photos of people the same way I would take photos of a plaster bust."
The German artist Thomas Ruff's photographs document what is in front of his camera lens, no more and no less, unmuddied by his own feelings about his subjects. To this end, he pursues what you might call an aesthetic of indifference, choosing sitters who are neither stunningly beautiful nor particularly ugly. All are between 20 and 35 years of age, and look like people we pass in the street every day of the week without a second glance. Ruff asks his models to assume a neutral expression, and most of them choose to face the camera front-on, posed against a white background under even, shadowless studio light. Nothing could be simpler.

The resulting photograph, enlarged to about six feet high, neither attracts nor repels us. When we stand in front of one, we may move up close to examine every mole, pimple, pore and tear duct in the sitter's face. Otherwise, a portrait by Ruff looks like a very large passport photograph. I challenge anyone to remember a single one of these faces five minutes after you have left Ruff's retrospective at Tate Liverpool.
Ruff believes that if you let the camera do the job it does best, it tells you nothing at all. When you ask yourself what information a photo gives you about a person's character, you run into a blank wall. Any personality a sitter may have is there because you, the viewer, have projected your own feelings and prejudices on to the image.
For example, I can't help but feel that the young people in these photographs have no inner life, no past history of any interest, no deep passions. But that is my fantasy. For all I know, Ruff's sitters include artists, composers, poets, and philosophers.
We are so used to interpreting photography in this way that it is almost impossible to admit to ourselves that, at the end of the day, what we are looking at is not a person but a piece of paper chemically treated to produce an image.
To reinforce the point, Ruff made a later series of portraits using a police Identikit technique – that is, he superimposed the eyes and nose of one sitter over the photograph of another, so that the resulting image looks like a real person, but is in fact a hybrid. Though the "person" in the photo does not exist, still we try to scan his or her face for information about them.
Looking at Ruff's studies of the exteriors of apartment complexes thrown up in the 1960s and '70s near his hometown of Düsseldorf, you hit the same kind of deadpan resistance to interpretation. Like the people Ruff selects to photograph, you would probably not notice these badly designed, poorly sited, shabby dwellings if you were to drive past them in your car.
You could, I suppose, impose some sociological or political ideas on the series, but, once again, the blank façades, curtained windows, and empty balconies basically tell you nothing. Ruff even photographed the buildings early in the morning in winter, so that the uniformly grey sky adds no emotional charge to the image. And in that light, the dull colours are utterly unmemorable. Ruff does as little as he can to the photographs, although he will occasionally clean up an image digitally in the interests of creating the neutral composition he is seeking. "If things are the way they are," Ruff has said, "why should I try to make them look different?"