Made in the Machine: Thomas Ruff
Thomas Ruff, phg.01, 2012. Chromogenic print from the Photograms series.

Thomas Ruff, phg.01, 2012. Chromogenic print from the Photograms series.










Thomas Ruff, Zycles 3080, 2009. Made with Cinema 4D software.






WORDS BY: John D’Agostino


“I believe that vision has little to do with our eyes and more to do with our brain. The brain sees, not the eyes.”      -Thomas Ruff

One of the more enigmatic former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Ruff (born 1958) works in experimental series, creating defined bodies of work with an overarching logic in technology, computer generated abstraction, and an expertise in a machine kind of seeing.

His approach considers the means and possibilities of the photographic medium in an eclectic oeuvre of stark imagery, from computer-generated Pop imagery, to appropriated interplanetary images captured by NASA, to obscured pornography, to the next generation of digitized photograms.

Perhaps an apt commentary on the differing concerns of the scientist versus the artist, Ruff’s MA.R.S. images actually originate solely as black and white pictures from NASA, who do not bother to capture in color simply because it would make the data 4x bigger to download.

Thomas Ruff: ma.r.s.08, 2010.

Thomas Ruff: ma.r.s.08, 2010.


Ruff takes the NASA generated imagery and effectively “colorizes” the images himself, much as Ted Turner did some years ago with black and white movies. This lends a surreal, eerie and fictional quality to the images, as the color is quite literally ‘added’ after the fact, and not simply tuned or adjusted.

‘It is maybe because photography has been misused such a lot that I think you have to be very careful when you’re looking at a photograph. You always have to know the conditions under which it has been made – because otherwise you cannot read it, or you could misunderstand it, or the image can be misused. Since photography is such a realistic medium, it pretends that everything you’re looking at was in front of the camera. But in the meantime it wasn’t.’          -Thomas Ruff


If photography pretends to show us reality, Ruff delights in showing us the deception behind it, almost as a kind of Penn & Teller figure, eager to pull back the curtain on the manipulations in his process.

Thomas Ruff, Andere Portrait, 1985.

Thomas Ruff, Andere Portrait, 1985.


One of Ruff’s lesser hailed but brilliant projects is his series of Anderes portraits. Using an analog machine Berlin police used in the 1970′s to create composite pictures of witness descriptions, Ruff reconstructed artificial faces, mixing two faces at a time, male with male, male with female.

Ruff’s photographs have lost their innocence. Their new-found authenticity, if they have one, is in a pre-arranged reality true to Ruff’s vision of it. He considers himself an investigator of the medium.

His photograms series, currently up at Zwirner gallery, turns this well known photographic tradition on its head, making them digital, multiple, and enlarging them to gigantic sizes.

Formerly one of the most ‘handmade’ of mediums, made literally by placing objects directly onto photographic paper and exposing them without a camera (to great effect by masters like Maholy-Nagy or Man Ray), Ruff’s illusory depths here are created entirely in computer via a ‘virtual darkroom’ that employs lighting effects and simulated objects.

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.03, 2012. Chromogenic print.

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.03, 2012. Chromogenic print.


Ruff’s work is a repeated exercise in a technology mediated vision, where process is unavoidable. And yet, it is, in the end, as always, a promise.

New technology promises us that it will allow us to see new kinds of images – and that the images made with these processes will be inherently new, exciting, significant. And that these images will be as good, if not better? than the old-fashioned handmade.

The digital may indeed yet fulfill all of these promises. Or it may not. Interestingly, much of Ruff’s latest work is so quite literally computer generated that some of his projects could technically be thought of as more “computer illustration” than photography. For Ruff’s “zycles” and photograms, (unlike his colorized MA.R.S pictures for example), have no actual counterpart in any kind of reality.

For me, the most troubling aspect of this technological promise is the degree (or not) to which such processes can still project at least a modicum level of humanity, for that in the end, is the eternal question. Do computer generated images eventually throw out the baby with the bathwater? Do they somehow lose their humanity in the process? At present this is still unclear.

The machine made image is here.
And it is here to stay – that is unavoidable. Someday, as artificial intelligence experts think , we may even have autonomous AI’s, specially designed ‘artistic’ programs, that will create works of art for us all by themselves.

But whether these computer generated forms can still teach us something about ourselves? or somehow convey human passions, human concerns, human ambitions? That is another matter. Or if these new processes, now stripped of their humanity, just provide us back with the cold, logical stare of an algorithm, a computation, a set of data. The artist, now effectively handicapped and complacent, content to just show whatever the machine can now make – much easier than he ever could.

In some cases, technology serves only to terribly alienate both producer and audience. This is no better illustrated than by the sad testament of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel films, whose hamfisted and uncomfortable scenes of dialogue make the original films sound like high Shakespeare. It was often not the actors fault, for Lucas, in love with new technology, forced the hapless all-star cast to stare into empty green screens all day,  “imagining” a dialogue with a to-be-later-added CGI character. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor too, this imagining a non-existent dialogue with technology.

However, the key, I believe, particularly for Ruff, is in his role as mediator of the machine. The real art in his work, if you will, is in the mediation. In the quality, in the degree to which (or not) he can effectively and subtly manipulate the computer generated effects to his own personal ends. At times, his work does indeed feel revolutionary and daring, his commitment to a new visionary kind of take on photography assured.

The HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001.

The HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.


And yet, at other times, some works come across as a little too cold and impersonal, a little too scientific? A little too artificial. One is reminded of the critique of another great science fiction auteur, director Stanley Kubrick, whose  gloomy genius some critics felt lacked an emotional richness, and eventually sympathized a bit too much with the inhuman over the human: all those automated dolly shots into the distance, the sinister HAL computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sadistic drill sergeants screaming at Marine drones in Full Metal Jacket, sexual fantasy and love reduced to shattered myths in the widely misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut. In Kubrick’s seminal Paths of Glory, years earlier, it was all too clear that Kirk Douglas  was  fighting against the automated systems of bureaucracy and control, even if the war could not be won, it was something to at least be resisted. But in later films, it is not so clear at all. The machine, it would seem, finally won.

Actress Sean Young as Rachel, a Replicant, in Bladerunner, 1982.

Actress Sean Young as Rachel, the haunting Replicant, in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, 1982.

And yet, the artificial does not always have to be inhuman, as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reminds us. Ironically, the most “human” and rich and emotionally complex characters in this dystopian future are arguably the Replicants, the artificially created ‘simulation’ human beings. Harrison Ford’s Deckard realizes that his role as bounty hunter / pseudo slave-catcher is the actual act of dehumanization, made even more poignant by the final possibility that he is a Replicant himself, tricked into hunting down his own kind because he is told they are inferior beings. Interestingly, Blade Runner’s Replicants have a passion for photographs – they need them! even if they are based on untrue memories.

As Alan Turing famously hypothesized in his Turing test, the day we are convinced we are conversing with a human being, but rather are in fact really communicating with just a computer or artificial intelligence program, is the day we must treat and “think” of the artificial as the human -even if it isn’t. 

So too, would I then prophesize a ‘Turing Test’ of sorts for the likes of computer generated artwork from artists the like of Thomas Ruff. The times we are fooled into thinking we may be looking at the hand of a human being, and not just some satellite or computer algorithm, is perhaps when this mechanized imagery is at its most brilliantly treacherous, when it is its most compelling.

For while Ruff’s endless experimentations and machinations are inherently fascinating to document and discuss, in the end, the degree to which they can somehow convey the human? is their real test, in my eyes.

In their eerie starkness, their ghostly afterimage, made entirely in the machine, some new kind of humanity – may just emerge.

Thomas Ruff's photograms at Zwirner gallery, Spring 2013.

Thomas Ruff’s photograms at Zwirner gallery, Spring 2013.




Thomas Ruff’s Photograms and MA.R.S exhibited at David Zwirner in New York, Spring of 2013.