With each series of photographs, Thomas Ruff tests the limits of the photographic medium. Not content with formulating a “signature” look, he has consistently introduced new styles and methods. His early Interiors series (1979–83) consists of straightforward representations of the domestic spaces of his West German youth. Like the work of his colleague Thomas Struth, Ruff's series exhibits the influence of their instructors at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher, by depicting banal scenes with a cool detachment. For Ruff, however, this aloofness often extends to his working methods. The photographs in his Stars series (1989–92) were reprinted from scientific negatives bought by Ruff from an observatory, and his Newspaper Pictures (1990–91), were rephotographed from newspapers but without captions. Ruff also freely manipulates his photographs with digital techniques. In Houses (1987–91), he digitally excised details that obstructed his formal vision; his Posters (1996–present) are politically propagandistic collages assembled digitally; and his recent Nudes (1999–present) are manipulated pornographic images downloaded from the Internet.
Perhaps Ruff's two series Portraits (1981–present) and Other Portraits (1994–95) best convey his varied artistic motives. Traditionally, portrait photography attempts to reveal the psychology of the depicted subjects through the strategic use of lighting, color, and setting, or by focusing on particular physical details. Both of Ruff's portrait series undermine this revelatory goal, in very different ways. In Portraits, sitters are placed before a neutral background, facing the camera without expression, bathed in an even light. This method elicits comparisons to passport photos, the mood of which these works share, except that Ruff enlarges these images to upward of two meters in height. While sharing the scale of these pictures, the images in Other Portraits adopt an opposite representational strategy: the subjects' likenesses are clearly altered, their facial features combined employing the same technology used by law enforcement for creating composite image of suspects. While the monumental physical presence and objective rendering of the faces in Portraits overshadow the individual personalities of those portrayed, but in Other Portraits such techniques of exaggeration are altogether absent. In the later series, as in his oeuvre as a whole, Ruff posits photographic objectivity only to expose it as fiction.