Camera-less Photography

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) is one of the internationally most important artists of his generation. Already as a student of the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art in the early 1980s, he chose a conceptual approach to photography. His work, which explores the most diverse genres and historical varieties of photography, represents one of the most versatile and surprising positions within contemporary art. The comprehensive exhibition at K20 focuses on series of pictures from two decades in which the artist hardly ever used a camera himself. Instead, he appropriated existing photographic material from a wide variety of sources for his often large-format pictures.

“To understand how a pictorial genre actually works, I have to produce a series; I want to uncover the secret behind image generation”

Thomas Ruff in conversation with Ute Eskildsen

Thomas Ruff in conversation with Prof. Dr. Susanne Gaensheimer

The Power of Press Photos

Where do we use photos?
What happens when photos are printed?
How do aesthetics and statements change?

The artist explores these questions in various series, in which he draws on image material from other photographers, processes this, and thematizes contexts. For his series “Zeitungsfotos”, the artist collected and processed newspaper photos to test the familiarity with the motifs and their reliability as carriers of information. In the series “press++”, he reveals the work traces of newspaper staff in conflict with the photos that were taken especially for use in the newspaper. In his new series, “Tableaux chinois”, he examines the use of photographs in political propaganda and reveals the artistic stylization of the photos with reference to the feasibility and time-related aesthetics of the printed products.

Thomas Ruff, Zeitungsfoto 014

Thomas Ruff, Zeitungsfoto 014


The works in the series “Zeitungsfotos” (Newspaper Photos) were created between 1990 and 1991 as color prints framed with passe-partouts. They are based on a collection of images which the artist cut out of German-language daily and weekly newspapers between 1981 and 1991. The selected motifs from politics, business, sports, culture, science, technology, history, or contemporary events reflect in their entirety the collective pictorial world of a particular generation. The artist had the selected images reproduced without the explanatory captions and printed in double column width. In this way, he questions the informational value of the photographs and directs our attention to the rasterization of newspaper print.

Thomas Ruff, Zeitungsfoto 060

Use the zoom function in the image example to make the screening more visible.

Thomas Ruff, press++ 60.10

Thomas Ruff, press++ 60.10


Black-and-white press photographs from the 1930s to the 1980s, which were taken primarily from American newspaper and magazine archives, are the source material for the “press++” series. Thomas Ruff has been working on this series since 2015, scanning the front and back sides of the archive images and combining the two sides so that the partially edited photograph of the front side is fused with all the texts, remarks, and traces of use on the back side. When printed in large format, the often disrespectful handling of this type of photography becomes visible.

Going Digital

How are pictures made today?
How do photos printed on paper differ from photos viewed on the Internet?
Where are photos stored?

The investigation into the various pictorial genres leads to the archives and image stores of the past and present. The Internet offers seemingly inexhaustible sources of images by providing fast access to digitized, originally analog image material from older times and digitally created photographic material. As a researching artist, Thomas Ruff also finds here material for his studies, image production, and reflection.

Thomas Ruff, nudes pea10

Thomas Ruff, nudes pea10


An Internet research into the genre of nudes drew Thomas Ruff’s attention to the field of pornography and the images that were freely available on the World Wide Web at the turn of the millennium. The motifs and the special formal features that characterized the state of the art at that time became the starting points for new works. The found pictures had a rough pixel structure, which had already aroused the artist’s interest before. Thomas Ruff processed the found pictures in such a way that their pixel structure was just barely visible in print. By using motion blur and soft focus, by varying the colors and removing details, he gave the “obscene” pictures a painterly appearance and directed the eye to the pictorial structure and composition. The artist selected his source images according to compositional aspects. The choice of motifs shows a broad spectrum of sexual fantasies and practices.

Thomas Ruff, jpeg ny01


Images distributed worldwide through the Internet, as well as scanned postcards and illustrations from photobooks, are the visual starting point of the “jpg” series, on which Thomas Ruff has been working since 2004. In it, he focuses attention on a feature that determines all images compressed in JPEG format and becomes visible at high magnification. By intensifying the pixel structure and simultaneously enlarging the overall image, he creates a new image that resembles a geometric color pattern when viewed closely but becomes a photographic image when viewed from a greater distance. Here, Ruff uses ideas from the painting of late Impressionism and combines these with the digital possibilities of the twenty-first century. By using the entire range of images published globally and simultaneously discussed in recent decades, he allows the series to become almost a visual lexicon of media imagery and a reflection of its characteristics determined by the medium.

Propaganda Images

What are photos used for?
Which reality do photos depict?
How do photos affect reality?

In addition to the motifs and the formal as well as technical possibilities of photography, Thomas Ruff examines the possible uses of photos. With his adaptations of images from Chinese propaganda material, he makes the ideological appropriation and manipulative character of the images his theme.

Thomas Ruff, tableau chinois_01

Tableaux chinois

For many years, Thomas Ruff has been preoccupied with the subject of propaganda imagery. For “Tableaux chinois”, the artist scanned images from books on Mao published in China, as well as from the magazine ‚La Chine‘, published and distributed worldwide by the Chinese Communist Party. He stored them in such a way that the offset raster screen was preserved. He then duplicated the images and converted the offset raster of the duplicates into a large pixel structure. As a result of a long editing process on the computer, a composition is created which brings together the characteristics of the various time-related media and exposes the propaganda image as manipulated.

On Par with the Pioneers

What is a negative?
How have photographic techniques changed in the course of history?
Does a digital image look different from an analog photo?

The transition from analog to digital photography took place in the 1990s, at a time when Thomas Ruff was already successful on an international level. In addition to the characteristics of digitally processed and circulated photos, he examined the special features of the production and processing of analog photography. The exhibited photo series reveal Ruff’s engagement with nearly 170 years of photographic history and technology.

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.08_II

Thomas Ruff, r.phg.08_II

“I paint what cannot be photographed, and I photograph what I do not wish to paint.”

Man Ray, handwritten statement reproduced in Man Ray, exh. Cat., Galleria Il Fauno, Turin, 1974, no pagination


Fascinated by photograms of the 1920s, Thomas Ruff decided to explore the genre and develop a contemporary version of these camera-less photographs. Beyond the limitations of analog photograms, the artist has been developing his versions of photograms since 2012, using a virtual darkroom to simulate a direct exposure of objects on photosensitive paper.

Thomas Ruff, em.phg.01

Thomas Ruff, em.phg.01


In 2014, Thomas Ruff began to work more intensively on the visual appearance of the source material of analog photography, the “negativ”. In order to make its photographic reality and pictorial quality visible, he transformed historical photographs into “digital negatives” In the process, not only the light-dark distribution in the image changed; the brownish hue of the photographs printed on albumin paper also became a cool, artificial blue tone.

Thomas Ruff, neg◊lapresmidi_01

Thomas Ruff, neg◊lapresmidi_01

Thomas Ruff, neg◊marey_02

Thomas Ruff, neg◊marey_02


Flower photograms by Lou Landauer (1897–1991), which Thomas Ruff had acquired, as well as the work on the photograms, gave him the idea of working with another photographic technique that has been used since the mid-nineteenth century: pseudo-solarization (also called the Sabattier effect). This is a technique discovered by chance, in which the negative/positive is subjected to a diffuse second exposure during exposure in the darkroom, resulting in a partial reversal of light and shadow areas in the photographic image. For his series “flower.s”, which he has been working on since 2018, Ruff first photographs flowers or leaves with a digital camera, which he had arranged on a light table. During the subsequent processing on the computer, he applies the Sabattier effect.

“Actually from time to time I try to take a photograph of a flower or several flowers but it just looks boring, it doesn’t work, so it seems that I cannot take photographs of flowers.”

Thomas Ruff, in conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Düsseldorf 2018
Thomas Ruff, flower.s_10

Thomas Ruff, flower.s_10

Thomas Ruff, tripe_15 Madura. The Blackburn Testimonial


Paper negatives, which Captain Linnaeus Tripe (1822–1902) had produced on behalf of the British government in Burma and Madras between 1856 and 1862 and that are now in the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, were the starting point for the series “Tripe”.

Thomas Ruff was able to view the existing negatives and selected several of these for his own work. All of them showed clear signs of aging or damage. Ruff had the negatives digitally reproduced and then converted them into a positive, inverting the brownish hue of the negative into cyan blue.

A Different Dimension

How do scientists use photographs?
Does the tradition of travel photography still exist?
Who invents new pictorial landscapes?

Photographs are used in many different areas. In space research, satellite photos are a basis for scientific knowledge about places that were previously inaccessible to humans. In the processing by the artist Thomas Ruff, these photographs become images of never-seen worlds and studies of the imagination, feasibility, and credibility of images.

Please put on 3-D glasses to see the surface of Mars in three dimensions.

Thomas Ruff, 3D_m.a.r.s 16


During his research on photographs from outer space, Thomas Ruff came across photographs of Mars. These were taken by a camera within a probe sent into outer space by NASA in August 2005 and has been sending detailed images of the surface of the planet Mars to Earth since March 2006. The images are intended to enable scientists to obtain more precise knowledge of the surface, atmosphere, and water distribution of Mars.

Retouching and Color

How do photos become colorful?
Why did photographers in the nineteenth century retouch their photos?

Since the early days of photography, monochrome and multicolor retouching has been used or images have been colored. Thomas Ruff explores one possibility in his series “Retusche” (Retouching) as a form of embellishment and an approach to an ideal. His machines are heightened and isolated by coloring the motifs with typical colors of industrial production. For the work groups “m.n.o.p.” and “w.g.l.”, the artist partially colored photos of exhibition situations in order to highlight forms of presentation in museums and design intentions in exhibition practice.


A color photograph of Sophia Loren, which Thomas Ruff had seen at an exhibition in Venice in 1995, drew his attention to a practice of representation as old as photography itself: the coloring of photographs. Whereas in the photograph of Sophia Loren, a star was “embellished”, by the additional color, Ruff decided in 1995 to apply this practice to ten portraits he had seen in the medical textbook ‚Das Gesicht des Herzkranken‘ (The Face of the Cardiac Patient) von Jörgen Schmidt-Voigt from the 1950s. He applied “make up” to the faces with a brush and protein glaze paint, applying eye shadow, rouge, and lipstick.

Thomas Ruff, 0946

Thomas Ruff, 0946


Around 2000, Thomas Ruff acquired roughly 2,000 photographs on glass negatives from the 1930s. These comprise the image archive of the former Rohde & Dörrenberg company from Düsseldorf-Oberkassel, which produced machines and machine parts. The photographs were originally taken for the production of the company catalog and reflect the company’s entire product range. To facilitate the manual cropping of the illustrated object at that time, the respective products were often photographed individually against a white background; the print was then retouched and further processed for final printing. Ruff emphasized this extremely elaborate preparation and image processing—the analog counterpart of digital processing by Photoshop—by coloring individual areas of the digitized images by means of deliberately set colors, similar to retouching, for the works in his series created between 2003 and 2005.

Thomas Ruff, m.n.o.p.08

Thomas Ruff, m.n.o.p.08


Two series by Thomas Ruff are based on black-and-white photographs from famous museum presentations of the 1940s and 1950s in New York and London. Thomas Ruff partially colored the installation photographs digitally with a color scheme reminiscent of the 1950s and enlarged them. While the artworks were left untouched — out of respect for the artists and their works — he colored the carpets, the walls covered with fabric, and the ceilings. Through this treatment, he underscored the exhibition aesthetic of the 1940s to the 1960s and, with the resulting abstract colored surface compositions, emphasized the design work of the exhibition organizers.

Thomas Ruff, w.g.l.01