Over at American History X, I discovered one of the best interviews I've read in quite a while - an exchange between Thomas Ruff and Gil Blank that originally appeared in a 2004 issue of Influence Magazine. Below you can find a few excerpts from the interview, however, I would highly recommend reading it in its entirety. It's well worth it.
Gil Blank: Many of the portraits you’ve made are of people whom you know personally, but whom most viewers would not. You have a relationship to the subjects, but it would seem those relationships are totally neutralized in the photographs, by their uniform structure and plain, premeditated approach. Was the relative anonymity of the subjects a central part of the process? Did the individual relationships, as manifestations of your own individual knowledge of each person, ever enter into the process? Were the relationships totally incidental, or was the fact that you knew each person a specifically complicating fact that you wanted to see if you could address, avoid, or get around in the series?
Thomas Ruff: When I started with the portraits, it was with an awareness that we were living at the end of the twentieth century, in an industrialized Western country. We weren’t living by candlelight in caves anymore. We were in surroundings where everything was brightly illuminated—even our parking garages. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, and you were being watched all the time. When I started making the portraits in 1981, my friends and I were very curious about what might happen in 1984, Orwell’s year. Would his ideas come to fruition?
They already partly had, because in Germany there were the events surrounding the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group founded by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and others. They plotted—and in some cases carried out—the assassinations of politicians and industry leaders, were captured, and then died under suspicious circumstances while in government custody. So the police were very nervous; there were a lot of controls placed on daily life, and we were often required to produce our passports for inspection.
My idea for the portraits was to use a very even light in combination with a large-format camera, so that you could see everything about the sitter’s face. I didn’t want to hide anything. Yet I also didn’t want the people I portrayed to show any emotion. I told them to look into the camera with self-confidence, but likewise, that they should be conscious of the fact that they were being photographed, that they were looking into a camera.
I wanted to do a kind of official portrait of my generation. I wanted the photographs to look like those in passports, but without any other information, such as the subject’s address, religion, profession, or prior convictions. I didn’t want the police/viewer to get any information about us. They shouldn’t be able to know what we felt at that moment, whether we were happy or sad.
TR: I’m a human being with an everyday life, so sometimes I’m happy, and sometimes things upset me. During the everyday, things happen and I react. If it’s a personal matter I respond directly, while other things force me to react with an artistic work. But I don’t stay personal. I’m trying to find a form that’s also interesting for other people to deal with.
GB: Which is perhaps why many of your series deal with archetypes. I've never known you to pursue the exquisite single image so valued in traditional photography, but rather you question the accepted iconic form of what we expect an image to be. That frustration of originality is, I think, most poignant and painful in the portraits.
TR: Everybody has his own history of treating images and their iconic forms, but I think a lot of people just aren’t aware of how they can be manipulated by either the government or the advertising industries if they aren’t being attentive. Family photographs are probably inoffensive, but as soon as photographs are made by a professional, you need to be careful, because there is then a vendor/client relationship, and that begins to involve personal/political/commercial interests.
From Top To Bottom:
Portrait (C. Pilar), 1988
Portrait (Stoya), 1986
Images © Thomas Ruff