Monday, May 6, 2013

Photograms That Aren't: Thomas Ruff at David Zwirner


David Zwirner recently showed two series of images by German photographer Thomas Ruff.  One set is derived from data gathered by satellites of the surface of Mars and relayed back to Earth. Ruff’s ma.r.s. photographs are appropriated from NASA’s website, then manipulated. Ruff adds color and enhances the texture and detail, so that the end result is a hybrid of photographic description and the artist’s imagination. The second body of work is called photograms. This work has been compared to that of Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. As someone who at times works with direct photography, I was curious to see these impressively large and refined images in person.


Thomas Ruff's installation at David Zwirner

Despite the title, they aren’t actually photograms. What Ruff has done is utilize a software program which replicates the projected path of light as it interacts with virtual objects. To the effect: if I put this virtual sphere here and this ribbon form there, and the light source is here, how would the light reflect, refract and bounce around those objects? Where would the shadows be cast? What if I move the light source here instead? All this is calculated with a few clicks of the mouse.

The better description then, is that these are simulated photograms. For a while, I wondered if the fact that these images are the result of a mathematical model rather than a physical interaction mattered. In theory, Ruff’s method permits a degree of complexity that would be very difficult to achieve working with physical objects. And because the images are digitally printed, he is free of the size limitations that usually – although not always -- constrain darkroom experimentation. And they are beautiful to look at.



Photogram by Man Ray

Photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy


Thomas Ruff, photogram series

To the extent that these images are taken at face value as photograms, something is missing in Ruff's process: in effect, we have the end without the middle. The wonderful aspect of the photogram is you never know exactly how it is going to turn out. Results exists at the intersection of chance and control. Given any set up, there is of course a predictable range of possible outcomes, which you learn once you’ve tinkered around a bit. But in practice one often works without being able to predict a specific outcome. And, as anyone who has engaged in the practice will tell you, a good part of the work is to come up with a process that  will produce interesting images. A traditional photogram embodies an engagement with process, something which seems short-circuited in Ruff's work


Thomas Ruff, photogram series
Thomas Ruff, photogram series

I suppose one could argue that Ruff's photograms are really no different than a computer-generated dinosaur, an extension of what the special effects industry already does in film and television to a somewhat obscure photographic practice.  At worst, what we end up with is a sophisticated, cool, and tasteful form of computer illustration. For some, the degree of detachment and immateriality in this work may in fact be its charm. 

For another perspective, there’s an interesting discussion of the exhibition at the DLK Collection blog.  One point made in that discussion is that the size of this work is unprecedented. Compared to other forms of enlarged photography -- Gursky as one example, but there is a very very long list -- this is simply not true. I actually see the size as introducing a few problems. I assume that Ruff's intention is for the experience of looking at the prints to be immersive. Unfortunately, as the viewer moves closer to the work, the Plexiglas to which the prints are mounted generate enough reflections that it is very hard not to be aware of the surface of the Plexi and, then, what is behind you in the gallery. Another, more significant, disappointing aspect of the size is that when you do move closer, there is nothing more to see. In other words, no finer structure or detail or new perspective that was unavailable from further back. The size gives you nothing in terms of scale. (The ma.r.s. images, do in fact have that more, so the experience of part and whole is much richer in that series, although I don't find the ma.r.s. pictures as interesting visually as the photograms.)



Thomas Ruff, ma.r.s. series

There are lots of artists mining and re-presenting historically accepted forms. There are lots of artists scouring the internet for source material: from google maps to porn to all kinds of everyday applications of photography. In general, this seems like a quite reasonable, if somewhat obvious, thing to do. Ruff is one of the more facile and elegant of the recycler/mediators. What is missing is some reflexivity: what is the nature and effect of all this mediation? And what is its connection to how we live now?

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