I recently took a trip down to London, primarily to the Thomas Ruff exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery but I also swung by the Photographers Gallery where I saw an exhibition by Wim Wenders.
My developing interest in the work of the Dusseldorf School led me to want to see the work of Thomas Ruff. A former student of Bernd Becher he was one of the founders of the school. The exhibition is a retrospective covering works from 1979 to the present. Overall Ruff didn’t disappoint; I was itching to see some work from Dusseldorf and this exhibition gave me a satisfying scratch. However, I’m not sure if the retrospective is the best way to experience an artist’s work. Yes, we can see a broad range spread over the years and note how their approach has evolved and transformed. But it does feel akin to a high-class buffet, where despite the range of quality delicacies before us we ignore the cucumber sandwiches and headed straight to the prawn vol au vents and black olives. But then, may be that’s what a retrospective is all about.
The exhibition opens with a series of photographs of domestic interiors. These are said to be the homes of friends and acquaintances. There is a simple clean and uncluttered aesthetic to these German homes of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The images are certainly still lives, representing the stylistic tastes of those who lived in them. The text accompanying the series argues that through the absence of people and domestic mess in the photographs, we can sense “an atmosphere of melancholy, restraint and even repression”. This is quite possible but I couldn’t help but wonder if the night before Thomas came round with his camera, the occupants of these nice middle class homes set too with a duster and hoover. But perhaps that would be the behaviour of the repressed.
Many of the images on display are huge in size, the portraits being a case in point measuring nearly 1.5 x 2 metres. Their size makes them impressive, where every dimple, freckle or minor skin blemish is presented. They left me wondering if Ruff has a playful side to his personality. Portraiture in western art has tended to concentrate on drawing out the character of the person, where lighting, posing and props were all consciously chosen to give the viewer a psychological insight into the subject. Ruff’s deadpan passport style photographs turn this historical approach on its head. Ultimately it may be futile to attempt to dra a psychological insight from a ‘cleverly’ constructed portrait but are these so different from work of Ruff? In the production of his images he is still making choices about lighting (two umbrella studio flashes, judging by the catch lights in the subject’s eyes), background and the position of his subject.
Jude, providing a sense of scale to Ruff’s large portraits
Two photographs on display that didn’t really work for me depicted the night sky. These images were taken from an astronomical survey mapping out the whole of the sky and so technically not of Ruff’s making. Again, huge prints whose size seemed to comment on the enormity of the cosmos. Unfortunately, wherever one stood to view them the ceiling lights of the gallery were reflected in the glass. Perhaps in many images our eyes ignore such things but as these are predominantly black the reflections were quite striking.
Some of Ruff’s works I would like to have seen more of were his ‘Houses’. Only two were on display; one of a street and the other a small factory. Like his domestic interiors both are empty of people but that seems to be only part of the aesthetic. While the subjects are human constructions the lack of human activity renders them stark and unreal: though in an urban setting there is nothing indicative of human activity which stands at odds with their design and function.
Ruff has even produced work in 3D
Further into the exhibition we see how Ruff has made use of found images and digitalized creations made without a camera. This latter aspect of the retrospective appeals to me less. In part because I don’t know enough about abstraction and so respond to it at a fairly primitive level: those are interesting shapes, I like that colour pallete etc. So with these I responded warmly to his ‘Substrates’ with their bright rainbow like colours, while the dark and muted Man Rayesque ‘Photograms’ gained a lesser emotional response from me.
But don’t let this final comment give an impression of disappointment with this exhibition. Far from it, in fact I bought the accompanying book, which isn’t something I do every time. Overall, it met with my expectations. I came looking for the deadpan and found it in his portraiture, interiors and buildings and I love this stuff! This clean unfussy aesthetic allows for a clear investigation of the subject matter.
The unexpected surprise for the day was the film director Wim Wenders exhibition (Instant Stories) at the Photographers’ Gallery. This place does what it says on the tin and so a gallery trip to London would seem incomplete without swinging by. I’d done no preparation for this, other than a quick look at the galley’s website so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. This open minded unprepared approach worked well today but then perhaps I like surprises.
The exhibition consists entirely of Polaroid images. Each one framed like a ‘proper’ art photo but their small size is unusual for a gallery space and of course, utterly contrasts with the works of Ruff. Being of a certain age, I passed the milestone marked ‘reading glasses’ a few years ago which meant I had to get up close to these images to see them well; again quite different to Ruff’s whose work can be admired from afar. I quite liked this intimate feature of the polaroid, these are works on personal and human scale and harked back to a time when people would pass their holiday snaps, fresh from the developers, around for friends to look at.
But this similarity with photos from the chemist is short lived. In the video accompanying the exhibition Wenders talks about the uniqueness of each Polaroid. And of course he is right. Unlike the negative and the jpeg these images are not designed to be reproduced over and over again. Each Polaroid is a singular captured moment of time rendered on to light sensitive paper. Despite this rather sophisticated, intellectual consideration of Polaroid images, the product itself was marketed as an easy access to photography. The cameras had few controls and felt and looked toy-like. Though not inexpensive per image they were about fun, about taking snap shots and this aspect of the Polaroid is present in Wenders’ work.
Wenders explains it better than me…
Many of the images are simply snap shots taken during the making of his films. They show landscapes, interiors, friends and colleagues, though he also used them in research and planning to record such things as locations. One series within the exhibition was taken by a lead character in the making of a film called ‘Alice in the Cities’. This film echoes the Lewis Carroll’s character Alice but in contemporary (early 1970’s) USA. Being a road movie, it is perhaps no coincidence then that the images have a tourist like snap-shot appeal to them.
From ‘Alice in the Cities’. With a nod to pop art?
While I don’t use a Polaroid there is comment made by Wenders that had a resonance with me. In the exhibition’s notes he says that using a Polaroid didn’t feel like photography; that it was casual and fun, perhaps even reckless. This idea that one can still take photographs and not be serious is something I have in my own practice. When I go out to take ‘proper’ photographs I take my bulky and heavy SLR. Its size, and the fact I shoot in manual, slows me down, and so my images are pondered over and considered, most of the time. By contrast when I’m just ‘out and about’, I carry a small point and shoot camera. Very often this comes out for fun and I find myself being far more experimental with it. Some of my favourite images have been taken with this camera but I lament not having the better quality SLR with me at the time. Nonetheless, I see a parallel in this with Wenders regard for his Polaroid.