Category Archives: Exhibitions & Books

Four Portraits by Thomas Ruff – National Portrait Gallery, London

at the national portrait gallery – october 2017

There is a landing at the back of the National Portrait Gallery, half-way down the flights of stairs where you are confronted by four enormous heads, three facing you and a fourth on the wall to your left.  Tying-in to the big Whitechapel Gallery retrospective of his work, these four photographs are a small subset of Thomas Ruff’s 1980s’ series, Porträts (Portraits).

I looked at the four women’s faces for a while, and watched other people looking at them; then I went home and found the interview with Ruff referenced at the end of this post. All quotes from Ruff come from this interview; all commentary is mine.


In a way I wanted to blot out any traces or information about the person in front of the camera. I also wanted to indicate that the viewer is not face-to-face with a real person, but with a photograph of a person. Quite often people at the exhibitions say, “Oh, that’s Heinz, that’s Peter, that’s Petra,” because they’re looking through the photograph, confusing the medium with reality. By blowing the portraits up to a colossal scale, I forced the viewer to realize that he is not standing in front of Heinz, but in front of a photograph of Heinz.

At first, I thought the lighting glaring off the – presumably not non-reflective – glass in front of the picture was annoying. But then I began to see it as a further distancing strategy: no matter how close you come to them, either through their sheer monumental scale – I reckon each woman would be about thirty feet tall if these were full-length portraits – or just physically as you are drawn closer and closer, you never get quite close enough to resolve who the person pictured is. And further, as you step in,  you are aware not only of the frame that surrounds each print, but also of the white border around each photograph, drawing attention in turn to the ‘frame’ determined by Ruff as he set up his camera. You are definitely looking at pictures, not at people.


I don’t think that my sitters build stone walls, but rather that they say to the viewer, “You can come this close, but no further.” Maybe my portraits are anachronistic because even though they show every detail of the skin, clothes, and hair of the sitter, they still don’t try to show any of his or her feelings.

Based on Ruff’s discussion elsewhere in the interview, I take ‘anachronistic’ here to refer to the early Victorian view that photographs made ‘automatically’ or without the agency of an operator, inscribed indexically by  ‘the pencil of nature’ rather than the bulb-release of the artist.

The pictures seem to exist somehow outside of history, but Ruff is quite clear that their making was heavily influenced by the zeitgeist of the time of their making in the early eighties. He was working in pre-reunification West Germany; Orwell’s 1984 was being examined as if was a prophecy rather than a cautionary tale written nearly forty years earlier and surveillance imagery was everywhere; in the aftermath of the Baader-Meinhof group’s campaign of bombings and kidnappings, people – and particularly young people, like Ruff and his subjects – in the BRD were continually being asked to produce their identity papers.

It may be that because the ideas contained in Bladerunner are once again in the air (the original was released in 1982; it was the first surround sound film I ever saw, in Aberdeen, the day before I saw Elvis Costello on the Imperial Bedroom tour) but they to me, they look like replicants (Philip K Dick’s term for androids) or maybe, since Ruff is German, Kraftwerk’s robots.

Which in turn moved me onto the Krautrock bands’ (and other groups of European musicians’) attempts to make music that was not rooted in American music – the blues in particular –  instead using repetition (think of Jaki Leibzeit’s drumming with Can or pretty much anything by Neu!) and the rejection of overt emotion (Kraftwerk – the difference between ‘fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn’ contrasted with the Beach Boys’ ‘Fun, fun, fun’…) in playing and performance. Is the repetition of the typology in the work of the Bechers happening in the same space as the drumming of Jaki Leibzeit for Can? Is the tension between extreme revelation  of Ruff’s enormous ID pictures somehow linked to Kraftwerk’s cold, yet fascinating and engaging music?

‘Theirs [Arbus and Avedon’s] is a glib, New York version of sentimentality, one that thrills itself with the hysterical belief in antagonism and grit as truth, but that’s sentimentality all the same. Provocative as their pictures may seem to be at first, people love them – perhaps counterintuitively – for that titillating myopia, because they corroborate, rather than challenge, our baser preconceived notions.They never make the more evolved leap to a form that genuinely tries to create a unique means for people to perceive one another.’

As a starting point for further thought, this rejection of American culture seems worth noting. I am of a similar age (or a bit younger) than Ruff, and I remember The Clash being ‘bored with the USA’ and all the other rejections of ‘Rock‘ by the musicians I was picking up on during the late seventies and early eighties. There’s something to explore here, some balancing European photographic tradition to be examined as parallel to the American one developed and sustained by MOMA and Szarkowski…


More immediately though, one of the things that is becoming apparent to me as I work through IaP and receive (somewhat unfavourable) tutor feedback on my assignments is that it is easier to produce art-style pictures of people that you don’t know. Also, as I have already quoted Grayson Perry as saying – if they’re not smiling, it’s probably art (with it’s counterbalancing ‘if they are smiling, it probably isn’t’).

Ruff has already discussed the way that photographing older people  – he uses the examples of Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus – whose story could be said to be written on their face, can lead to a sentimentality of approach separate to the question of whether they are smiling or not (although generally in both Avedon and Arbus, they are not) , before he adds photographing your children into the mix:

All parents want their child’s smile as proof that they’ve done a good job of parenting and that the child is happy. My [Ruff’s] portraits look so Apollonian because the sitters provide a perfect surface onto which the viewer can project anything, bad and good experiences alike. They’re neutral and friendly, like Buddhas. They’re vessels you can fill with all of your wishes and desires.

This is close to Gombritch’s idea (discussed in Bate) of sfumato, or of leaving space for the spectator to project their own self into a picture of a stranger by reducing individual identifying detail in the picture, but it takes it a bit closer to what I was trying to do with some of the photographs in assignment 2. I used pictures of my children, on holiday, and  – in two of them – they were looking happy! 


‘[Ruff’s subjects were] people between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four, and life hadn’t yet left any signs on their faces. They weren’t babies, but they hadn’t had too many bad experiences, either. They were in that state in which everything is still possible.

I had thought this too, looking at the pictures at the NPG. I had even gone on to think about the difference between the four pictures on display here and the (fascinatingly and variably readable) pre-execution mug-shots taken in Soviet prisons during the great terror that I had sat and watched sliding by as part of the Images of Conviction exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery last year.

What I had not thought about was how this meant that I would be unable to make a similar portrait of my generation, now as today (when we are moving through our fifties) our faces are too battered, too readable for this approach to work. ‘Sentimentality’ would have reentered the picture space. This raised the question in my mind of whether James (who is fifteen) was old enough to be pictured in this way as a blank canvas, devoid of my sentimental projections as his father (Alice, at four-and-a-half, definitely is not).

I set up Ruff’s 1987 standard portrait lighting (you can see the two diffused strobes, placed right and left, slightly above the eyeline, reflected in the pupils of his subjects) and stood James in front of the most neutral of the living room walls. I told him ‘to look into the camera with self-confidence, but likewise, that [he] should be conscious of the fact that [he was] being photographed, that [he] were looking into a camera.

Unlike Ruff, I did not use a view camera (you could make a significantly larger-than-life print of these from the files produced by camera though) but James did a grand job of being my subject I think; I will include the first picture of the three above in the revised set for Assignment 2 I put in for assessment, next year, replacing the one of him buffeted by the wind on the boat as we headed north. I would not use the profile (too obviously a mugshot reference, and so adding prompts for a reading) but may also put in the picture of the back of his head. We’ll see.


I will go to visit the full retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery next week, I think. There will probably be a longer, update piece…

All quotes have been taken from an interview with  Ruff by Gil Blank, originally published in Influence Magazine (Issue 2, 2004) and accessed online at Gil Blank’s artist’s site on 12/10/17

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on the portrait chapter in Bate – a resusable reference

I have read this chapter again and again. I have referred to it on numerous occasions here and in my log for Context and Narrative. A summary of what is in it will be of benefit, I think…

After starting off with a potted history of the development of portrait photography in the nineteenth century, Bate gets onto the two topics I’m going to discuss here: What are the elements of a portrait photograph and how do we read them? and What is it that we do when we look at pictures of people and why do we like to do it? Continue reading