Two Exhibitions in One Day: Ruff & Wenders

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.






Preparation for Assignment 4

So far in FiP I’ve approached the work in a very linear manner. I opened the workbook, started at page 1 and worked my through. I did the Exercises in numerical order and completed the Assignments at the end of each chapter. For FiP I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, after all it is designed to be a developmental programme and so each stage follows on from the last.

But now I’m thinking seriously about moving on to the BA course where the Assignments have a greater significance than here. I suppose, in the degree it would be possible to fail an assignment or be given a lower mark that might influence the final outcome. Hence for Part 4 and picking up from a comment by my tutor made, I’ve adapted a slightly different approach this time.

Throughout Part 4 I have been fully aware of the Assignment. As I progressed through the Exercises I’ve been considering how I might approach the final Assignment and even found that one of them overlapped with my preparations for it.

The proof of the pudding etc will come in my tutor’s reaction to my work but I do feel this has been a useful change in my approach. Rather than turning the page at the end of chapter and discovering what’s needed for the assignment, this time when I reached that point I had a coherent set of ideas in place for me to pursue.

Assignment 4 is about following a theme. While it’s OK to create your own I chose one from the list offered in the workbook and selected ‘Power Struggle’. Living in coastal Suffolk the fact we have 2, nearly 3, nuclear power stations close by is never far from one’s mind or line of vision. While I would naturally lean towards an anti nuclear standpoint, any developed or considered understanding of the situation would recognise that it is a complicated and nuanced situation.

In an attempt to focus the thoughts over the theme of ‘power struggle’ and the local nuclear situation I produced this mind map. Please excuse the poor handwriting and bad spelling (such a shame the Bic biro doesn’t come with a spell-checker…)


Ass 4 Mind Map

Exercise 4.12 Presence/Absence

I really can’t imagine my life without birds. If I hadn’t have taken notice of the birds seen on family holidays in the Lake District then I have no idea what kind of life I’d be leading now. Coming from inner city Hull, Cumbria was a culture shock! And while mountains and lakes were obvious differences I also noticed interesting and colourful birds we didn’t see back home.

That initial childhood curiosity was an embryonic phase that ushered in a life-long preoccupation with birds. For the Christmas of 1976 I got my first pair of binoculars and I’ve not looked back since. Birding has influenced so much of my life. I screwed up my A levels because birds were more interesting than studying. When I finally did get my educational act together birding informed where I went to university and since then has influenced career choices and even where I live now. And, yeah, I met my partner while out birding. So, if over 40 years ago the young me hadn’t been curious about the Chaffinches, the Pied Wagtails and the Wheatears, I have no idea what the middle-aged Dave would be doing now or where he’d be doing it.

Below is my response to Exercise 4.12. It is an allegoric exploration of how the absence of birds from my life might be interpreted.


Ex. 4.12 Presence Absence


Personally, it is an uncomfortable thing to consider and to look at. This image suggests more than an alternative life trajectory were birds didn’t figure very much. The absence of the pictures and the appearance of the hooks that held them in place are suggestive of some kind of memory loss.

Having completed this exercise, the results remind me of the work of another OCA student, Rob Townsend. He recently shared on-line some images on a theme of dementia, where faces were ‘scratched out’ from family snap shots. These could be inferred to either depict a loss of memory or, even the ‘loss’ of family member whose condition meant they no longer recognised their loved ones.

This exercise turned out to be quite a ‘heavy’ subject and nothing like the purely hypothetical journey I thought I was starting at the beginning. Acknowledgement perhaps, of how a photographic project might evolve over time and adopt a life of its own beyond the initial idea.


Project 3: Learning From Other Photographers

Using the ‘mind map’ approach in my sketchbook I undertook quite a thorough reflection on my photography to date. It took some time having mulled over it for a few days before putting my thoughts on paper.

The most significant learning point for me is that I’m not turning out be the photographer I thought I would be. When I last studied photography at a formal level, we studied ‘the greats’ Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams etc. The younger me was enthralled by HCB and at the beginning of FiP I’d have said that I’d want to produce work like his. The reality is that photography has moved on a long way from my early studies and FiP has exposed me, not only to a wider range of photographers but also broadened my appreciation of what photography can be.

Throughout this reflection exercise one theme has underpinned my thinking: and that is I consider myself still to be on a learning curve. Feeling there is still much to learn my reflection addressed the five key genres (see the scanned pages from my sketchbook)


Project 3 -1


This Project then asked a more narrowly defined question about what sort of photographs do I want to take. That is a little easier to answer. My own work centres on the natural world and I’d like to take this further exploring the overlap of the natural and human world in my local landscape. All of that said my mind remains open to new possibilities and idea of staged photography is one I’d like to explore too. On a personal level I’d like to photography cycle racing but I don’t think I’d be approaching it from the perspective of a sports journalist. (see the scanned sketchbook page)


Project 3 -2a


The next part of the Project was easy too. I started to look through my copy of Photography: the Whole Story to find a photographer whose work impresses me. There is one image that I found jaw-droppingly impressive the first time I saw it and that is Andreas Gursky’s Paris, Montparnasse.



Andreas Gursky’s Paris, Montparnasse in situ on a gallery wall


For the next exercise we are asked to consider a photographer’s work that impresses us and then to emulate their work. Gursky’s work here serves as an introduction for I discovered he was part of the Dusseldorf School, a group of photographers who had been taught and influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Despite it’s monumental size Paris, Montparnasse still retains an objectivity in approach that was found in the work of the Bechers. I have already written about their work in Part 3 of FiP:

(see: )

Their work appeals to me on several levels. While I like the subject matter, I’m primarily drawn to their pared down aesthetic. Their deadpan approach to camera angles and use of monochrome in flat light creates it own aesthetic. Combine this with their grid like, repetitious approach to displaying the subject matter and their work then creates a taxonomy, an historical record of industrial architecture.

So for the next exercise I have chosen the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher.



Hacking , Juliet: Photography the Whole Story (Thames & Hudson) 2012



Exercise 4.9 Repetition

Confession time! I sidestepped one of the requirements of this exercise. I don’t know if that makes me a bad person or not but I chose not to set up and photograph a still life. Instead I decided to revisit one of my on going themes, trees. And not just any tree, probably my favourite of the ones I’ve trained my camera upon.

During my partner’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment for cancer trees took on a new significance for me. This one is old; it carries dead branches and its twisted, asymmetrical shape seems to reflect a hard fought right to life. Perhaps for me trees, particularly this tree, are acting as a metaphor for the journeys our own lives take and sometimes endure.

So I kinda slipped away from the still-life requirement and drove the short distance to my tree. Just like in the layered images here:

Layering Multiple Images

I photographed the tree along a180-degree arc. However, instead of layering them I’ve selected 6 of images and placed them in a grid. The order doesn’t reflect the order the photos were taken in but rather an aesthetic arrangement that seems to look best – broadly based on keeping the low grassy horizon aligned across the images.


Ex 4.9 Repetition - 1


The result is interesting in that the tree looks very similar in each image, only varying slightly between images while differences in the foreground and background are more obvious. I am interested in trying to depict the 3-dimensional qualities of trees and this approach is something I could explore further.

To keep more in line with the requirements of the exercise I have also produced this one, where I selected one image and reproduced it 8 times:


Ex. 4.9 Repetition


I like this one image because the light was strong and behind the camera. For me this grid doesn’t create the same intrigue as the first work – I’d be interested hear what other think about this. However, it does have a consistency of colour that the other lacks. This is due to the changing position of the camera relative to the sun as I moved around the 180-degree arc. Perhaps taking the photographs on a day with flat light might have helped.

Exercise 4.7 Juxtaposition

I’ve been aware of John Heartfield’s work for a long time now. His photomontages struck a chord with me many years ago. They are both powerful and poignant but I have to recognise that I may well be judging them from a Post WW2, late 20th century perspective. I’m sure they were impactive in their day, and the Nazis must have hated him! However, when we look into any historical context we have the benefit of hindsight. The image below was made in 1932 but we know what happened in the years that followed…


Picture 086


The FiP workbook also invites us to look at the work of Heartfield’s contemporary, Hannah Hoch. While Hoch’s work often commented on the role of role women in German society in the early 20th century she would also direct her art to critiquing the state. The image below shows the head of state and his finance minister in bathing costumes, lifted from a newspaper and juxtaposed against an embroidery pattern. Germany was going through a tense and rebellious period and this simple artistic act mocks the two men as out of touch with the lives of many German people. The use of an embroidery reference also serves to emphasise the distance between the politicians and the work and lives of women.


Hoch Heads of State


Both Hoch and Heartfield were part of the Dada artistic group. For Dadaists art reflected the difficult and turbulent times in which they found themselves. Their art didn’t hold back in its acknowledgement of the everyday street violence, food shortages and the failings of politicians. For many the photomontage was the best way to express their feelings through art. The photographic element brings a sense of ‘truth’ while the juxtapositioning added a dream-like quality. In discussing the superior quality of photography over painting in the political commentary in Dadaism and of Heartfield’s work in particular, Hughes argues that:

“Only the realism of the photograph, its ineluctably factual content, made his work credible and, to this day, unanswerable.” (Hughes, 1991: 73)

So, having done the ‘pre reading’ for this exercise, I set about making my own work. Leafing through magazines and newspapers I became a bit frustrated as nearly all of the larger images, that would serve as the background, had text imposed on them – it’s something magazine editors can’t resist. Also and more significantly, I was struggling to come up with an idea.

What I really wanted to do was emulate this early 20th century German political photomontage I’d just researched. I am a political animal at heart and I wanted to express something about how I feel. Magazines and newspapers would provide me with found images and as these were failing me I decided to look elsewhere; to the internet where a wider range of images was available.

So, with a range of printed photographs, a pair of scissors and a ‘Prit stick’ I set about creating this, my own piece of political photomontage. And if anyone is struggling to understand it, it’s not about Brexit!


Ex. 4.7 Juxtaposition




Robert Hughes (1991) ‘The Shock of the New’ Thames & Hudso



Exercise 4.5 Layers – Look Who’s Back!

In the early days of my FiP journey I feel I treated the exercises in a rather clinically way. When photos of shadows were needed, I photographed shadows, when blurred movement was required I sought out the same. I appreciate the exercises are there for us to consider a function of the camera or particular approaches and techniques in image making. But as my photography is evolving I’m increasingly seeing opportunities within the exercises to make the kind of images or shoot the kind of subject matter that appeals to me.

That said, the creative process cannot be rushed too much. I pondered over this exercise for a few days, as initially my mind was blank. So, it required the use of a window and reflections to create a layered image with foreground and back background. There was an easy option involving large retail spaces. I work not for from shops like Tesco, M & S, and Next. I could loiter around these, particularly at dusk and take advantage of the large windows and bright lights. Yes I could but it would probably have been a technical and rather soulless response to the exercise. Then, late one evening while relaxing on the sofa the answer was staring me in the face.

Eagle-eyed followers of this blog will know that chez Dave is blessed with a conservatory. If you’ve missed it don’t worry; it only appears in the periphery due to its need for a good tidy up and de-clutter. Staring through the sitting room window into the conservatory I spied all the reflections and layers I needed. After a couple of test shots were taken it was identified that the windowsill also needed a good de-clutter. After some reflection I came up with a solution: the usual domestic detritus was removed and replaced with the three figures used in Ex. 4.1 – an opportunity to revisit this still life. Moreover, with a nod to Part 2’s lighting theme they were then lit from the left with a red cycle light to add a little atmosphere.

Ex. 4.5 layers 1