Tag Archives: Thomas Ruff

The notion of ‘implied spaces’, part 1

I came across this term as a result of following the blog of the same name: here. It was the photographs that originally attracted me, with their multiple layers and mixed subject matter, but I subsequently became intrigued by the idea of an implied space. When I reviewed the work I did for assignment 4, and before I looked into the meaning of the term, I had concluded that the images in the work had an element of implied space, as in they and their contents hinted at what had gone before without making it obvious. We look at the chaos and imagine what the rooms looked like when they were in use.

However, after a bit of digging around, I found that the term is actually one that is used in art and architecture, and it has a different meaning. In simple terms, Art1011 defines it as the illusion of created depth in a 2 dimensional work, but here are a couple of more complex explanation, using literature and theatre as well as art for examples.



So, in essence, in an image, an implied space is one where the position of figures and implied leading lines suggests a depth of perspective rather than a flat, two-dimensional space. Let’s take a couple of examples from my own work. Both of these images were taken earlier this year in Nice. The first gives no clue of three dimensionality at all (quite deliberately) while the second has implied lines of perspective, making it seem more three dimensional.

I’d like to now explore this concept in three different ways. Firstly, there is the idea of creating that three dimensionality by other ways than perspective, one of which I have been playing with and which fellow student Catherine is also looking at: producing a 3D images using Photoshop layers. My first attempt was blogged in a previous post, and it was surprisingly successful, but I am interested in trying to produce the same effect in a part of an image rather than the whole thing. Lo and behold, it also works!


I suspect that 3D photography might lead me down a bit of a blind alley, but there is no doubt it is fun. (Must look up to see whether any art photographers use this technique in their work. Thomas Ruff does, but is there anyone else?)

The second idea is to produce the idea of perspective in a way that refers to the concept of foreground, middle ground and background through actual layers, rather than implied layers. I am thinking of the way that Thomas Ruff’s interest in examining various qualities and elements of the image rather than the overall effect here.  Here are two examples from my work this year. The first uses actual layers within the frame while the second is a created piece, using Photoshop layers.

To be continued……


Thomas Ruff – Size is everything

I visited the Thomas Ruff exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery yesterday, prior to going to listen to Annie Liebowitz’s talk at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a bit of a rush, but well worth the short space of time I spent there. Ruff likes experimenting with the materiality of the image, which is something that appeals to me as well, and my over-riding feeling was that I’d like to see a lot of more his work than was on display. It was a bit frustrating to be limited to a relatively few of his processes, and I will be looking at others in the future.

The exhibition was a retrospective, showcasing his work from 1979 to the present. It started with his university work, the Portraits, Interiors and buildings. These seemed of their time and place with a style reminiscent of the New Topographic group, which of course he was exposed to, being based in Dusseldorf at this time. However, from about 1991 his work veered away from the Brutal, very deadpan aesthetic and Ruff started the experimentation that has since become his hallmark. The exhibition included lithographs, chromogenic colour prints, granolithographs, collages and a host of other techniques. Later, as digital photography took off, he became interested in how the digital photograph is made up, and began to look at the concept of the pixel, the essential meaninglessness of an image when it is expanded past the point where the subject can be made out, while he also maintains a long term interest in astronomy. His images tend to be large, very large in fact (which is where the post title came from) and it is interesting to see how he contrasts the incredible detail of his Mars images with the highly pixelated opposite of the images of 9/11 and space rockets. He also played with photograms and scans as well as inverting negatives and other variations on analogue photography. More recently, he has been playing with digital images to experiment with what is possible by focusing on particular elements that form part of the make-up of the images.

Some of the parts that I did not like included the series Substrates, where he repeats and alters comic images until the meaning has completely disappeared, producing huge multi-coloured prints of nothingness. (My own experiments with reducing images to their colour palettes follows in a similar, but less extreme path, which retains elements of the structure of the original, albeit significantly altered). The zycles series, although visually arresting, did not make me want to know more about how he had achieved the patterns, and some of the phg images were abstract in a way that did not appeal, although others were fascinating. 

I found this exhibition quite inspiring, not because of anything Ruff ‘has to say’ particularly, but because of his interest in deconstructing the idea of photography and then playing with the elements he uncovers. Also, his way of appropriating images from newspapers, advertisements and other media to alter, so that they become something different is something I would like to explore. So many ideas to consider and to play with . I came home and tried out a very simple version of his 3D images of the craters of Mars, using simple techniques that I found on the internet, and surprisingly, the concept actually worked. See below.


Smile, please!

p1490840Following up some of the discussion about my assignment at the Thames Valley Forum, I have been looking at the position of the Smile in current art photography. A question was put to me about why I had photographed my subjects smiling, and had not asked them to stand still and look blankly at the camera. My response was that I had wanted to capture the individuality and spontaneity of the subjects, but clearly this was considered by some to be incorrect, and they argued that the Smile is a mask which detracts from understanding a person. It was time to do some research and find out where the smile sits in current art photography.

Historically, painted portraits tended not to depict people smiling, and there appears to have been a practical reason for this. The teeth of most people were very poor because of lack of dental care and the majority tended to hide this by keeping their mouths shut for paintings. The advent of photography did not change this much, because for many years people needed to remain absolutely still for several seconds while the image was taken, and it is much easier to hold a straight face than to smile. Added to this, having a photographic portrait made was a serious (and initially an expensive) matter, and not something to be diminished by levity. Thus the serious portrait has traditionally been the preserve of the unsmiling. That is the easy bit; things get more complicated in recent times.

The idea of smiling for the camera only seems to have appeared in the early 20th century, and Dean (2011) has traced it back to public school photographs. From the start it was perceived as being deceitful and untrustworthy; the smile was seen as being a mask which hid the true nature of a subject. By opening their mouths and crinkling their eyes, subjects could pretend that everything was just fine, even when it wasn’t. Morris (2002) argues that the smile has evolved from pre-language appeasement gestures, and that it is now one of the most complex facial gestures that humans make, with a multiplicity of meanings, ranging from happiness to nervousness, friendliness to superciliousness. Correctly interpreting the meaning of a smile can make the difference between a successful and a disasterous encounter with a new acquaintance.Furthermore, the smile is easily open to misinterpretation, and often used as a sign indicating lack of mental faculty .


© Roger Ballen

From early on, art photographers have shied away from the smile, and my understanding is that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the smile has connotations of snapshots rather than serious photographs, people laughing on holiday for their friends back home, even if they were having a miserable time. Equally, the smile is ubiquitous in advertising, and is often associated with sentimentality, forced bonhomie and superficiality, so for photographers trying to differentiate themselves from this type of photography, a more serious demeanour in their subjects is helpful. I can understand this concern, but have a niggling feeling that there is a similarity between these ideas and the snobbery about colour and digital photography which was eventually overcome, and which allowed a significant expansion in creativity as a result.

The second reason is more complex. Diane Arbus talked about how her photography attempted to capture the gap between what the sitter hoped they would look like and what the photographer observed. Similarly, Joyce Tennison opined “we hide our bodies [with clothes] but our faces are naked and exposed.” Roland Barthes talked about how he became different when in front of the camera, and felt himself starting to ‘pose’, without consciously thinking about it. This makes for a very complex transaction between the photographer and the subject, with as Angier argues, the expert photographer trying to capture the individuality of the subject in an off-guard moment. Trying to sneak a peek behind the mask, as it were. He suggests as an exercise that we find a willing sitter, who should sit facing the camera and just look at it for an hour, while the photographer waits to press the shutter at the exact moment when the mask slips and their true nature is revealed. As an idea, this sounds potentially interesting, but also horribly dull for both participants. There is a feeling , articulated by Dijkstra, that this moment when the mask slips is about purity, something essential about human beings. Her images exude personality so she maybe has a point.


© Rineke Dijkstra

Moving forward, Thomas Ruff is the acknowledged grandfather of the current trend for a blank, expressionless stare. Ruff did his photography training under the Bechers, and consequently his portraits are minimalist and straightforward, in the manner of a passport photograph. This was a quite deliberate harking back to typology and the New Topographic movement, although Ruff has admitted that the images are heavily posed and his subjects prepped about how they should stand and what they should wear, so the concept of them being truly honest portraits is difficult to accept. Ruff argued that the blank expression is the ‘normal’ expression that people wear when they are not under scrutiny, and therefore it is a truer representation of them than any other expression or pose.


Thomas Ruff’s portraits


We now seem to have got to a stage where any sign of subjectivity or emotion has been erased from the portrait. The blank stare is understood to limit any possible subjectivity of feeling on the part of the photographer, and to allow the viewer to make his/her own assumptions about the sitter, based on his/her own experiences of life and any background context that the photographer provides, i.e. identification and projection. Everyone is beginning to look the same and individuality/personality is being minimised in what appears to be an attempt to achieve authenticity, purity and the unmasking the ‘real’ human persona, the essence if you like. (Dean, 2011) However, it is difficult to square this with Bate’s (2009)  observations that the portrait is a transaction between the photographer and the sitter, with each trying to gain supremacy over the other, but with the ball weighted towards the photographer. The whole process is inherently personal and individualistic, and two photographers photographing the same individual are highly unlikely to produce identical work, as each inevitably imbues it with his/her own context and personality.

I have some issues with this view of the world. The first is that a portrait is supposed to be about the sitter, and if all traces of the individuality of the sitter are removed, is it a portrait any longer, or a piece of constructed photography? Secondly, we as humans are innately emotional. To remove any visual traces of emotion from a portrait not only makes it less interesting to view, but also reduces us all to typologies which only have value when seen as part of a set. Finally, can it not be argued that the blank stare is as much of a mask as the smile? Both are covering up the real feelings of the sitter. The smile though, is more mysterious and begs for interpretation, while the stare gives nothing away.

There have been a small number of recent attempts to reinstate the smile in art photography, notably Dean’s work Smile: a polemic on fine art portraiture (2011) and Amanda Smith’s 2012 attempt to curate an exhibition in Texas on the subject of the Smile. Neither was very successful, and Dean seems to have given up photography work altogether. It seems that the art world is not yet ready to shift its perspective on the idea of the smile as a kitsch, superficial hook which is only acceptable in the advertising world. I have just looked through the latest edition (issues 7852)  of the British Journal of Photography, which is devoted to portraiture, and it seems that emotional expression is slowly beginning to permeate art photography again, and in my opinion that can only be a good thing.


Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. AVA Publishing.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury.

Morris, D. (1977) People watching. London: Vintage.









August Sander and typologies


In photographic terms, typology refers to the grouping together of images on a particular theme, which could be anything from water towers, facial types and signposts, through to ideas, trees and indeed anything else that a photographer feels the desire to collect. Most of us have objects that we feel the need to document whenever we see them, and my own are windows, doors and abandoned farm machinery. I cannot pass an interesting example of any of these without taking a picture. It is impossible to say why I do this, but it must appeal to the inner collector within us.

Below is a very small sample from my windows collection as an example.


I have already considered the background surrounding typology in a previous post and so will move directly on to Sander and his version of the genre. However, it is worth mentioning some of the photographers who I have come across lately who work in this field, including Ed Rushka, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Gillian Wearing. Most recently, I saw a fascinating photographic installation at the Strange and Familiar exhibition at the Barbican, produced by Hans Eijkelboom, which looked at fashion typologies, Taking the idea to its logical conclusion, the Polish photographer Zofia Rydet, who died in 1995 tasked herself (inevitably unsuccessfully) with the enormous project of photographing every house in Poland.

Sander’s most famous series, People of the 20th Century was a set that he hoped would create a visual record of the elements of German society between the wars, ranging from manual workers through to the elite. One can argue at length about how successful or not he was in this venture, but the images themselves are interesting from a technical point of view, and we are asked to consider their similarities.

The subject(s) tend to be looking straight at the camera, in a serious and unsmiling way. They are carefully posed and many show elements of their work-life in the background, although often blurred out. In images where there are no background cues, the subject is often carrying something that tells the viewer his (mostly) job. The images are often beautiful, with a clear sense of the subject’s personality shining through the blandness of their expressions.

Sadly, most of Sander’s work was destroyed, either by the Nazis or in a devastating fire, but we are still able to see over 10,000 of his images, and he was clearly a prodigious worker. I have include a few of his People of the 20th Century images below, as examples.

Interestingly, to modern eyes it is often difficult to make any sensible guesses about some of the people’s professions as even the lowliest worker would often wear a suit.




Ang, T. (2014) Photography: the definitive visual history. Dorling Kindersley. pp.152-3.