Thomas Ruff

Dermatological Realism

"Why can people not just go and look at them and say: Aha, a large photo, a large head? Why can't they just accept the picture as a picture and say: Thank you Mr. Ruff, you did that well?" Thomas Ruff's words amount to an ironic polemic against arbitrary interpretations of his photographs, and he likewise challenges the general availability of all things visible. From the mouth of a pupil of the Düsseldorf Academy of Art this comes as no surprise. Bernd und Hilla Becher, who teach at the latter institution, have promulgated a way of photographing architecture that is based on strict photographic realism, and in so doing have founded a veritable school.

But "accepting a picture as a picture" neutrally, dispassionately and without passing judgment – that is no easy matter. Thomas Ruff's portraits are unsettling simply on account of their immense scale. Every detail, every pore, every pimple on these large-size faces is visible. We would never stare so brashly at a living person. Ruff's photographs dispense with this barrier of modesty. We stare at the persons photographed – and they stare right back. However, their distanced gaze in the pictures does not infest us. On the contrary, it awakens our emotions. We like or dislike the characters. Some faces appeal to us, others less so. And then we begin to think about who these people could be. What are their occupations? Where do they come from? What is the story behind them?

Man is, by nature, curious. We want to know what is hidden behind the facade, and a face is in a sense a facade. In the 18th century, there was a widespread interest in physiognomy, with people trying to draw conclusions about someone's character from his facial features. A great deal of this activity was pure speculation. But today, who would dare claim that a focus on the physiognomic was completely foreign to him? We may see photographs with our eyes, but the images occur in our minds.

Biographical information


born in Zell am Hammersbach


studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, photography class of Professor Bernd Becher

lives and works in Düsseldorf