Even though I know that the internet makes people voice their opinion quite strongly I am quite surprised about the negative (and - occasionally - outright dogmatic) responses to Thomas Ruff’s new work. We are to accept digital photography, but when somebody applies all those obvious digital tools, mirroring - as I noted - remixing of sound, then that’s suddenly so terrible?
It’s interesting (and somewhat sad) to see how many people sent me emails worrying about copyright. The issue of copyright is really not all that relevant in this context. We’ll have to assume that that issue has been sorted out - Ruff’s work is being shown by US galleries so that’s a pretty safe assumption. Plus this is not a weblog about law. This weblog is about photography1, or more precisely about the kind of photography commonly referred to as “fine art”. And the question I’m interested in is not whether “I could do that” or whether Ruff was “stealing” images but what kind of artistic merit this work does/can/could have (or not).
Given there are no comments here (with the issue of comment spam being unresolved, probably until I move this blog to hew hosting and a much newer version of Movable Type) I’d like to quote from an email that Eric Mims2 sent me. Eric’s email contains a few points that some other people also made: “The nude series isn’t interesting conceptually enough to get past the aesthetics. His processing […] doesn’t seem to add anything when viewed as a series. The concept might be there, but for me the visuals are boring when seen as a group. The same goes for the new work, though I like it much more. He has picked interesting images (from where I don’t really care), but it’s impossible for me to not look at it and think ‘bad jpeg compression’. Seeing it huge in a museum might give a different feeling. Also, if I didn’t use Photoshop everyday I would surely look at it different. […] Reminds me of some the famous photos that were simply turned upside-down and displayed (one with a tree, another with a car in the desert). Well the photo may or may not be spectacular, but that small ‘manipulation’ makes the viewer think differently about the image and it adds to the artwork. More than likely, there are many people who see Ruff’s newer works (and don’t instantly think of what Photoshop plugin he probably used) and really enjoy the work. […] As for the copyright issue, I think most viewers will quickly realize he is not the original photographer in these series (well if they read the statements about internet thumbnails, there would be no doubt). Has anyone heard of Warhol, Baldessari, Hannah Hoch or any other artist in history who appropriates images for their work?”
I’m not sure whether I’d agree with everything Eric wrote. I actually like the Nudes better than his most recent stuff - but I don’t think I have my opinion fully formed, yet. In any case, I think a large part of the appeal of Thomas Ruff’s work is that it pushes how we view photography - and photography as an art form - into a direction that many people feel uncomfortable about. And that’s how you can potentially create something exciting new.
As Roy Hammans3 wrote “It reminds me of the debates around David Hockney’s explorations of Polaroid composites in the 1980s. Personally I would hang both on my wall and enjoy them as pieces representative of a certain aspect of technology and its relevance to the artist. I personally have always found JPEG ‘artifacts’ interesting and have explored them on occasion myself. Likewise, it has often occurred to me that there might be a way of utilising the massive amount of pornography that permeates society in a way that may be both challenging and descriptive. In my own personal view, neither Hockney nor Ruff have quite succeeded, but kudos to them both for trying out new ideas.”
1 As always certain restrictions apply.
2 I obtained Eric’s permission to quote his email. My thanks to Eric for sharing this!
3 Also quoted with permission. Thanks, Roy!