Portraiture - Don’t Smile At Big Brother
Richard West talks to Thomas Ruff

Source - Issue 32 - Autumn - 2002 - Click for Contents

Issue 32 Autumn 2002
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Richard: Were you interested in portraiture before you were interested in photography?

Thomas: No. I must confess that I was only interested in photography. I didn’t have any art classes the five years before my high school exam and I wasn’t interested in art at all. I think it was just by chance that a friend of mine bought a 35mm camera and I saw him photographing and I thought, ‘this looks good’, no special interest in portraits.

Richard: Do you have a memory of family albums?

Thomas: Yes of course I have, this kind of photography is covered by the family itself, this doesn’t have to be done by professional photographers.

Richard: What meaning do these photographs have for you, do they serve a different function from the work that you’re doing now?

Thomas: Of course they have a meaning for everybody who has their own family album. I think these albums prove a very important thing in photography, that is using photography as a prosthesis. These family albums are used as a prosthesis for the history of the family. You probably don’t remember precisely the street where you grew up but if you look at the photographs, looking at you running through the street you remember every single detail. Even if it is not high or intended photography it is still very essential for everybody.

Richard: The reason I wanted to start with this is because it is a completely different function for portraiture from the portraits that you are taking. You have studied portraiture, would this have been all types of portraiture, are you equally interested in painting and historical portraiture?

Thomas: Yes of course, my education took place in an art academy and I soon realised that there is not only photography but also the history of painting, of sculpture, that photography is just another medium for doing all these things. I was aware of what had been painted or carved before photography was invented. If you look at the first portraits with the coloured background they remind me of paintings by Cranach. This is a very simple style of portraiture, a very strong foreground, the person themselves and then the background is either landscape or plain colour. Probably that was one thing that made me go to this kind of format, this essential passport framing or cropping.

Richard: What is your own experience of art. Would you go to look at portrait paintings because you enjoy it?

Thomas: I really don’t know what attracts me when I see an image on the wall. But you definitely see there are better and not so good portraits. Lucas Cranach the elder just made fantastic portraits and if you compare them to his contemporaries you see that they are definitely not that interesting. I don’t know if he found a formal solution for this genre or if it is something to do with the person that is portrayed. People say my portraits are anonymous, they are cold, there is no emotion in them. But maybe it is something to do with how portraits right now are used and of course if you use a portrait in an advertisement it has to be a happy face and I don’t deliver that happy face. Or if you look at the family album you also have to have that happy face. Maybe that is why people are a bit offended by my style. If you look at them after a hundred years you don’t have any information about these people, they want this information: who is this person, what kind of profession do they have. They want to know the kinds of thing a photographer cannot deliver.

Richard: When you are looking at a Lucas Cranach portrait what is the pleasure that you derive from these pictures?

Thomas: Probably it’s the preciseness. I think he painted surfaces quite perfectly. If you don’t have any idea how they lived at that time you see a person that is wearing clothes that you are not familiar with, there is a landscape in the background that is gone. It is a portrait of a person, to look at a face is one of the most interesting things for us, because we communicate with faces, so the painted or photographic portrait is very attractive to look at. It’s in our genes I think.

Richard: Maybe to go back to the photographs in the family album. The people that want information about the Lucas Cranach picture, is that because they want to make this picture like the picture in their family album?

Thomas: Yes maybe. But there is a big difference between the portrait in the family album and the Cranach. I know a lot about my family but I know nothing about the person who sat for Cranach. The art historians write very precisely that if he looks to the left it means this, if he wears this kind of chain it means that etc. etc. They also try to understand every square millimetre of the image. But I must confess for me that is of no importance. I don’t need that information.

Richard: Do you think that the Cranach was serving the same need as the family picture?

Thomas: I think so yes. But at a completely different level of technique and money. If you could afford a portrait of yourself in 1400 you must have been a very important person, you must have had a lot of money. Nowadays you just need a camera and you can do the same.

Richard: But there is a paradox that we are still looking at the Cranach picture. Does the difference between the Cranach and family picture describe why this picture is interesting? Is there also something in the Cranach picture that is interesting for the same reason that the family picture is interesting?

Thomas: If you take the whole of mankind, you have 4 billion people. All of them have been documented in family albums but it is not at all interesting to go through all these things. If you go a bit back in time and you have 50 Cranach paintings. They represent mankind at that age. The Cranach is a kind of prosthesis for our consciousness of history. This Cranach represents the 50,000 people of that time. Nowadays with photography, with the family album everyone is represented. It hasn’t become better it’s just the quantity that has increased not the quality.

Richard: Do your pictures achieve this?

Thomas: When I started the portraits I was in the situation that I was in the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, I didn’t know any older people I didn’t know any children or babies. I knew my friends or colleagues or friends of friends and they were all my generation. And when I decided to do these portraits I of course hoped to get an image of mankind but in a very narrow selection. People then asked me ‘Thomas why don’t you photograph older people. Why don’t you take your camera go to China, go to Japan and do these kind of sociological photographs?’ And I said ‘I’m not interested’. It doesn’t matter what race or what colour the person is it just should represent mankind.

Richard: But why do you use this strategy. For example, you say Cranach, and there is an obvious connection between his paintings and your photographs but if you had chosen a different painter then there would be a connection with a different style.

Thomas: In a way I came to my kind of portraiture after I realised that that was the only possible way for me to do portraits in my kind of living, thinking and dealing with images. I started in about ’80. I started them in black and white and developed them into the form that is in the gallery now in ’81. The idea was that they had to be evenly lit because we don’t live any more in caves or in candle-light. We live in the Western industrialised world where you have neons, light is everywhere even in the car park. And I chose this kind of passport photograph because when you go through customs you are identified by this kind of format. This kind of image represents the person, the personality is very deep and is represented by this small flat photograph. That was very fascinating for me. At the same time I had read George Orwell, 1984, and in a way we were very curious what 1984 would look like. Of course not that much happened. But of course this kind of surveillance increased. Everywhere is evenly lit, everywhere there are cameras, everywhere your photograph is registered. So that was my decision; even lighting, people should look straight forward into the camera, I told them that they should look self conscious but at the same time I told them that they should be conscious that they are going to be photographed. They shouldn’t smile, this look into the camera is more or less looking back into the eyes of Big Brother. That was the reason I couldn’t do them in a different way.

Richard: Did you think of the photographs as a collaboration with the subject?

Thomas: I must confess I’ve never thought about it. I realised that my friends, especially at the Kunstakademie, could act very easily because they had this visual experience and because they had known my work since the first portraits.

Richard: So when you look at the photographs now, do you see the performances?

Thomas: No, not really, maybe because they were 20 years ago.

Richard: You will have a very different experience of the photographs from other people, with depth that other people will not have. Because you know the people you will never see them neutrally in the way a customs person would look at a passport photograph.

Thomas: Maybe I can look at them in the same way because it wasn’t me that was looking at them it was the camera. They are not looking at me or at the viewer they are looking into the camera that stood beside me.

Richard: But you still know the people, so you experience your personal relationship when you see the photograph.

Thomas: Yes you’re right, it’s a kind of family album, I cannot avoid looking at them in this way.

Richard: One thing that changes in your work is the scale of the pictures, how does this change the way you relate to the subject?

Thomas: Maybe the first reason I did the portraits in this size is that I was really tired of people standing in front of a photograph and saying ‘oh that’s Pipa’ and I said ‘No that’s not Pipa that’s a photograph of Pipa.’ So one reason to blow them up is to make it obvious that it’s not a real person you are standing in front of but an image of a person. Then people got it. At the same time because the face was so big the attraction was big, because you could move close to the face in a way you never could in real life. The result was also completely different to the small size.

Richard: Would people still try to find out who it was?

Thomas: Maybe not any more. It’s obvious that it’s a Ruff portrait and people don’t ask these questions any more: is she a secretary, how old is she, does she live alone?

Richard: What is the difference between the same portrait small and big?

Thomas: Maybe the difference is just that if it is a private house and you have a big portrait on the wall people then immediately realise that it’s not a family photograph. If it was small and it hangs somewhere in the room people would ask if this is your brother, sister, niece whatever. It has also to do with how people are used to photography. With a small size there can be this misunderstanding that it goes with the family album with the big size it becomes obvious that it has nothing to do with the family album.

Richard: There is still for me the original paradox of the passport photograph: that the identity of the person which is very profound is there, and at the same time there is nothing. I still don’t understand how you see this yourself.

Thomas: I think I didn’t understand your question, what kind of paradox?

Richard: The paradox between the identity of the person being represented by the photograph and the anonymity of the photograph, the way they co-exist. Sometimes the representation is completely anonymous and sometimes it is connected to the individual.

Thomas: Why are you interested in the people in my pictures?

Richard: In your photographs their identity is almost a secret.

Thomas: It’s not really a secret but maybe I can say that the portraits are the view back to Big Brother and if you are looking back at Big Brother then you have to give as little information as possible.

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