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b. 1958, Zell am Harmersbach, Germany
Thomas Ruff was born in 1958 in Zell am Harmersbach, Germany. He attended the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1977 to 1985, where he studied under Bernd Becher. Fellow students included the photographers Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth. Ruff began photographing landscapes, but while he was still a student he transitioned to interiors and deadpan portraits of friends. His early portraits were black-and-white and small, but he soon switched to color, using solid backgrounds in different colors. He began to experiment with large-format printing in 1986, ultimately producing photographs up to seven by five feet in size. Ruff expanded beyond portraiture with Haus (1987–91), a series of building exteriors. In 1989 he produced a series of images depicting starry skies, derived from pictures he had obtained from the astronomy institute of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos (1990–91) are likewise based on appropriated imagery, in this case newspaper photographs blown up and stripped of their captions. In Blaue Augen (1991), he replaced the dark eyes in twelve of his earlier portraits with blue ones, subverting the authenticity of his own photographs. During the first Gulf War, Ruff used a night-vision enhancer to render ominous images of the streets of Düsseldorf at night in his Nacht series (1992–96). In 1999 the artist made a series of digitally altered photographs of Modernist architecture by Mies van der Rohe. His series of nudes (1999–2000) are also digitally manipulated images, but here he began with photographs from pornographic websites; his Substrat series (2002–03), based on images from Japanese manga cartoons, continued this exploration of digitally altered Web-based pictures. For the Machine series (2003), Ruff made colored prints from large-format glass negatives of black-and-white images of vintage industrial machinery from the 1930s and 1940s. For his recent series jpeg (2007), the artist altered photographs of sublime nature, catastrophic destruction, and futuristic machinery, critiquing the digital age’s impact on the reception of images.
Ruff has exhibited widely since 1981, with solo shows at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1989), Centre National de la Photographie in Paris (1997), Chabot Museum in Rotterdam (2001), Tate Liverpool (2003), Musée d’Art Modern et Contemporain in Geneva (2004), and Moderna Museet in Stockholm (2007), among others. His work has appeared in BiNationale at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1988), International Foto-Triennale in Esslingen, Germany (1989), New Work: A New Generation at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1990), Documenta 9 (1992), Venice Biennale (1995 and 2005), Biennale of Sydney (1996), COSMOS: From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal (1999), Picturing Media: Modern Photographs from the Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2001), Bienal de São Paulo (2002), Moving Pictures at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and Guggenheim in Bilbao (2002), and the Triennial of Photography and Video at the International Center of Photography in New York (2006). He lives and works in Düsseldorf.