1a Thomas Ruff’s jpegs

Research point

Read the reviews by Campany [7, OCA p.32] and Colberg [8, OCA p.32] and, if you haven’t already done so, use them to begin the contextual section of your learning log. Try to pick out the key points made by each writer. Write about 300 words. If you wish, you could add a screengrab of an image from Ruff’s jpeg series, and one or two of your own compressed jpegs (taken on auto mode of course!). You can achieve the effect quite easily by re-sizing a photograph to say, 180 x 270 pixels, and saving at ‘zero quality’ compression. If you use Photoshop’s ‘save for web’ you can see the effect immediately without having to save, close and reopen the file.

OCA, Photography 1: Expressing your Vision, p.32

JPEGs, Thomas Ruff

Ruff was born in Germany in 1958, developed an interest in photography in his teens and attended Düsseldorf Art Academy from 1977 to 1985 where he studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher (known for their grid presentations of industrial architecture photographs). He shares a studio in Düsseldorf with Andreas Gursky. His earlier bodies of work include large scale portraits (1981-85), architecture (“Häuser”, 1987 and 1991), Sterne (manipulations of sourced astro-photographs, 1989) and Nudes (manipulated images sourced from internet pornography, 2003) [1]. In 2009, Ruff published JPEGs, internet-sourced images, reduced (where necessary) to low resolution and then enlarged to emphasise the pixilatory effect of JPEG compression.

Less than 25% of Campany’s article [2] deals directly with Ruff’s JPEGs §. He describes Ruff’s work as a whole in terms of opposites in tension: “as public as it is private”, “as anonymous as it is personal”, “at once familiar clichés and estranged visions”. He examines at length the use of found objects and “the archive” in various art forms, implying that Ruff’s use of other people’s images has a long and honourable artistic pedigree. In the single paragraph addressing JPEGs, he suggests that extreme pixel enlargements demonstrate the underlying physical similarity between digital images that nevertheless allow an infinite range of aesthetic expression within the constraints of the medium, again invoking opposites, “to simultaneously emphasize and de-emphasize [the] specific”.  
The most interesting and incisive part of the article contrasts the analogue “scattered chaos” of photographic grain with the “grid-like, machinic and repetitive” pixel structure in the digital image, noting that nowadays even images that are analogue in origin are usually viewed as digital, pixel-based scans on digital media. He praises Ruff’s lead in bringing the “cold [technology]” to public attention through the JPEG series that emphasise its simultaneous “figuration [and] abstraction”.

Colberg [3] notes and dismisses the question of whether Ruff’s JPEGs constitutes photography. He quotes an interview [4] in which Ruff describes the origin of the JPEG project. The failure of Ruff’s photographs in New York following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, led to him to look at online images, many of “terribly low resolution” and in turn to explore the effect of pixilation. As noted above, however, Ruff had already manipulated sourced digital images in previous projects.
Colberg compliments the large format book edition of JPEGs, regarding this as a more effective and appropriate scale for publication than the “gigantic prints in the Zwirner gallery” which were “a tad too pretentious” and too large for the image detail available. While acknowledging that many of the manipulated images the the JPEG series are intrinsically beautiful (irrespective of their origins which might or might not have been) Colberg doubts whether Ruff’s concept is sufficient to justify the project or, indeed the hype that surrounded it.

In conclusion, Ruff’s JPEGs series is a notable example of an artist exploring the limits of medium specificity and a fascinating way to end this section of the course.

[494 words]

§ The article contains 1427 words, the sixth paragraph, dealing mostly with JPEG contains 281 (20%), even including the last paragraph only brings the proportion to 26%.

JPEG kj01, Ruff
Figs. 40-43
JPEG kj01 © Thomas Ruff [5]
Sunflowers, B&Q Bucket, Brighton West Pier

1. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Ruff [accessed 7th August 2018]
2. Campany D.,Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel http://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel [accessed 6th August 2018]
3. Colberg, J., Review: jpegs http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff [accessed 6th August 2018]
4. Ruff interview with Max Dax,published in Dreissig Gespräche, edition suhrkamp, 2009, trans. Colberg.
5. The Guardian (11th June 2009), Thomas Ruff’s best shot, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jun/11/my-best-shot-thomas-ruff [accessed 7th August 2018]

[7] Campany, http://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel [accessed 6th August 2018]
[8] Colberg,  http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff [accessed 6th August 2018]


My initial reaction to the description of Ruff’s JPEGs series was both cynical and sceptical. However, reading the two reviews has provided some enlightenment. Campany’s comments on grain and pixels are interesting, although whether Ruff had such considerations in mind is open to question. Colberg remained doubtful on the strength of the concept. When it came to the practical exercise, though, that was immense fun, which could suggest that Ruff undertook the project as a trivial aesthetic adventure. Without knowing the man, it is impossible to tell. The difference between viewing the images at different scales (click the images above) is significant and offers an insight into Colberg’s comments on the gallery display.