Ruff reckons he hasn’t made work using his own cameras since 2003. Instead he has adapted found imagery, from online porn to NASA’s images of Mars. Today he is interested in photography’s tendency to fictionalise in the digital age. “There is no raw, straight photography any more,” he says, referring to the shift from physical film to digital files. The former relied heavily on the material world, with images created by light hitting chemical-coated plastic. The latter records images as long strings of data, which can be manipulated like never before. “When photographers work with the raw digital file, it’s just a source to create their perfect work.” The photograms clearly channel this severance from reality. “In our digital darkroom we create material that doesn’t exist in the real world, such as copper chrome, a virtual metal that makes incredible reflections from the curved forms it covers,” he says. “And we build very complicated objects that you can’t manufacture by hand.” The biggest struggle though was getting the right image quality.
“‘You have to ‘render’ the image,” he continues, referring to the most technically complex aspect of 3D graphics, by which the software’s mathematical approximation of a 3D scene is transformed into a 2D image. “Rendering for 2,000 hours creates a high-resolution image. With a network of ten computers it still took us a couple of weeks to create one work.” As he points out it’s only when he prints that image “that it becomes a photograph”, at least in the conventional sense.
This doesn’t mean that Ruff sees photography as a dying art. “Since the very beginning, photographers used telescopes and microscopes, and made X-rays. Photography is not as limited as people think. Now you have a miserable lens in an iPhone but the software does all the corrections. What is the camera? Is it the software or is it the lens? There is constant change.” He laughs. “I don’t worry about the future of photography.”
Skye Sherwin is a contributor to the Guardian.
Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979 – 2017 is at Whitechapel Gallery, London, until 21 Jan 2018.