The Whitechapel Gallery is to stage the first major London retrospective of photographs by Thomas Ruff this autumn. Organised by the institution’s director, Iwona Blazwick, the survey will include examples of all the German artist’s key series—from his billboard-sized portraits of friends shot in Düsseldorf in the 1980s to his exquisitely coloured photographs derived from Japanese manga.
“This is an artist who changed the language of photography,” Blazwick says. “His entire oeuvre is very complex, but there is one central theme running through it: what is photography?”
Early on, Ruff’s portraits cemented his reputation on the international art scene, but he rarely turned the camera on himself. The Whitechapel exhibition (27 September-21 January 2018) will include the only works to depict the artist: L’Empereur (1982), a sequence of eight images that show Ruff slumped over two chairs. At the same time, a selection of his colossal portraits from the 1980s will go on show at the National Portrait Gallery.
Thomas Ruff's Porträt (P Stadtbäumer) (1988) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's press++21.11 (2016) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's nudes lk18 (2000) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's 16h 30m / -50° (1989) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's Interieur 1A (Interior 1A) (1979) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's Zeitungsfoto 101 (Newspaper Photograph 101) (1990) (© the artist)
Thomas Ruff's neg0india_01 (2014) (© the artist)
Astronomical imagery has played a key part in Ruff’s 40-year career (after finishing high school he was faced with the decision of becoming either a photographer or an astronomer). In addition to his Sterne (stars) series (1989-92)—photographs taken by a telescope at the European Southern Observatory—the retrospective will feature photographs of the surface of Mars captured by Nasa in space.
Other series to go on display include studies of suburban homes, a group of works based on negatives (conceived after Ruff realised his children had never seen a negative) and pixelated images of disaster scenes such as 9/11 taken from the internet.
The exhibition will close with two groups of photographs that resonate with today’s debates about the power of images in the media and the capacity to generate fake news. The Zeitungsphotos (newspaper photographs), conceived in the early 1990s, reproduce clippings without headlines or captions, severing them from their original context. Meanwhile the recent Press++ series features archival photographs from US newspapers sourced on eBay. For Blazwick, Ruff is interested in “photography as a carrier of world history”.
The retrospective is the latest in a long line at the Whitechapel Gallery to premiere artists who use photography, including Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Nan Goldin and Paul Graham. “It’s a great history, it’s something that is in our DNA,” Blazwick says.