Thomas Ruff is an innovative lensman who has devoted his career to exploring the boundaries of photographic manipulation. The German artist studied objective photography under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and went on to create widely-exhibited series of portraits, nudes and computer-altered images. Ruff spoke with TIME about his techniques, formative influences and where he’s going next.
Your photogram series is inspired by 1920s photograms [camera-less photography where objects are placed on photographic paper and exposed to light]. How did you modernize the process from when it originated close to a century ago?
I had the idea of trying to make some photograms, but quite soon I realized that I cannot do it in this old-fashioned technique. I didn’t like the limitation of size. Also, I did not like the idea of the chance, of those uncontrollable things that can happen when you put [an object] on the photographic paper, you remove it, and then you want to in a way reconstruct the image you did before. So quite soon I developed the idea of doing all of this in a virtual darkroom.
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Can you explain how you created the ma.r.s. series?
That also happened by chance. I was surfing on my favorite webpage NASA two years ago and I discovered they had put 3D black-and-white photographs of the Martian surface online, and that you could download them, with a resolution that is really incredible. I had been playing around with low-resolution images before, where I changed the format of the image, the perspective. I transformed this black-and-white image, and then I gave color to the landscape.
You studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher when you were a student in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Did that experience have a big influence on the development of your aesthetic?
I think yes—I’m still practicing what I learned there [laughs].
You seem to want viewers to see the man behind the machine, to see the photographer’s influence and manipulation of the work. How does this affect the authenticity of your work?
I think if I pick an image—author it or use it for my work—it automatically becomes authentic because I used it. If I appropriate images, I make them my own.
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Do you feel there is any kind of narrative thread that runs throughout your career?
I wouldn’t call it narrative. You could call it curiosity in all the different techniques and practices in photography—investigation about how photographs are produced, how they are perceived, how they are manipulated.
In the late ‘80s you worked on a monumental scale with a portrait series. Would you consider working on such a scale again?
I think it’s not only me, but my whole generation—like Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Jeff Wall—who really had the feeling that the traditional photographic format is not really satisfying, that we wanted to create images with a physical presence, bigger than a 4 x 5 inch print. I think also with big format, photography really became accepted as not art second degree, but art first degree.
You’ve used pornography as a subject in the past. What about it interests you?
When I started with nudes, I did not think about pornography. I just found that most of the whole artistic tradition of nude photographs in a way is a 19th century style thing. I decided that my nude photographs could be harder. My art, I never made for children; I made it for adults. Of course then, a lot of the sources I used came from pornographic sites, not only professional sites, but also amateur sites. I also think that TV also became more and more pornographic. Our society seems that people need this kind of voyeurism and at the same time, people want to show all.
Is there anything you’re currently working on that you can tell us about?
I’m really busy with the photograms and ma.r.s. these days. Maybe in one or two years, something new will show up.
Thomas Ruff’s latest exhibition, “photograms and ma.r.s.” is on view at the David Zwiner gallery in New York March 28 to April 27.