In 1989, German artist Thomas Ruff began the series Sterne (Stars, 1989 – 1992). Combining his interests in astronomy and photography, Ruff acquired negatives from the European Southern Observatory and enlarged sections of them to produce large-scale photographs, suggesting the vastness of the night sky. This marked the first time that Ruff worked from photographic material that he had found, rather than made, something he has continued to do throughout his career.
The exhibition Thomas Ruff: Object Relations brings together for the first time—and for his first solo North American museum show—five series from Ruff’s oeuvre where he works with negatives and photographs that he has found or collected. Ruff manipulates these objects in a range of ways—cropping, enlarging, and retouching, among others. Not only are the resulting works often grander or more mysterious in form, they also highlight the act of photography and its ability to transform and direct what we see.
Along with Sterne, the exhibition includes more than 40 works from the series Zeitungsfotos (Newspaper Photographs, 1990 – 1991), Maschinen (Machines, 2003), and Negative (Negatives, 2014 – ongoing). The exhibition will also premiere a new series, press++ (2016 – ongoing).
Between 1981 and 1991, Ruff collected more than 2,500 images from German-language newspapers and weeklies. He clipped images he found particularly peculiar or strange, covering a broad range of topics and from every section of the newspaper, including sports, politics, finance, and culture. Ruff rephotographed and enlarged these images to twice their original size; their method of reproduction is clearly evident in the magnified dot patterns of ink. Divorced from their original context, without any explanatory captions or text, Zeitungsfotos sparks curiosity about the images and their original meanings—highlighting the newspaper’s growing obsolescence as the primary means for disseminating images and information.
For Maschinen, Ruff acquired an archive of glass negatives from a 1930s machine and tool manufacturing company based in Düsseldorf-Oberkassel, created for a sales catalogue of the company’s entire product line. The photographs meticulously document the staging and editing process involved in preparing the massive equipment for the catalogue. Ruff visually highlights the use of backdrops and retouching strategies—visual evidence of the elaborate procedures involved in creating matter-of-fact images. The series draws parallels between this analogue form of photographic manipulation and the pervasiveness of today’s digital photographic editing technologies such as Photoshop.
In Negative, Ruff digitally transforms albumen prints and early gelatin silver prints into cool, artificial, blue-hued negative images. This process not only transforms the colour and composition of the image, but also reverses the negative’s traditional role as a means to an end—the “original” image from which the print is produced. The subjects from the series include nudes, architectural and landscape views, and portraits. Together, they stand as a broad inventory of the uses and appearances of photographs over time. The exhibition features a group of five new Negative photographs, created from works by Étienne-Jules Marey in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s collection.
For his latest series, press++, Ruff turns his attention to press photographs, another form that is no longer in use. The transformation is once again a simple one: uniting the image with the captions, stamps, and inscriptions from the reverse of each print on a single plane. Their large scale recalls the Sterne works and the universe they represent: press++ represents the visual universe—millions of press prints whose number and extent are impossible to fathom.
Further reflecting Ruff’s deep knowledge of and engagement with the history of the medium, the exhibition also includes selections from Ruff’s extensive personal collection of photographic materials, including an 1885 scientific study of a spark by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, electrocardiograms from 1909, nude studies from 1923, and two majestic photograms by Arthur Siegel from the 1940s.
Organized by and presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario
Generously supported by Phil Lind
Special thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts
A highlight of the AGO Year of Photography
Curated by Sophie Hackett