Between 1981 and 1991, the artist Thomas Ruff collected over 2500 newspaper photographs from German daily and weekly publications. Covering a broad range of topics such as politics, finance, sport, history, culture, science and technology, the images were chosen because they struck Ruff as unusual or odd in some way. It wasn’t until 1990, motivated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, that Ruff started to re-photograph these images to create his Newspaper Photographs series. I asked Christoph Schifferli, the initiator of this new book Zeitungsfotos from the publisher Bookhorse a few questions regarding this project.
Jeffrey Ladd: When did you discover Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos series?
Christoph Schifferli: The first time I saw a larger set of Ruff’s Zeitungsfotos was at an exhibition at the Mai 36 Gallery in Zurich about ten years ago. I was quite fascinated by this body of work and I went back to the gallery several times.
JL: Was there ever an artist book made of that work before?
CS: No. Actually the Zeitungsfotos have been rarely published at all, and generally only a few images at the time in a post-stamp size format – at least until the wonderful catalog for the exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna in 2009 showed a larger selection of these pictures.
JL: Many other artists have been working with appropriated imagery before, for instance Ruff’s countryman Hans-Peter Feldmann, do you think Ruff’s series operates very differently from Feldmann’s work in his books like Voyeur?
CS: There are a number of artists who used images from the daily press as material for their work and quite a few published artists’ book using these pictures with their distinct granular newsprint aesthetic. Among the early ones were Klaus Staeck with “Pornografie” (1971) and Hans-Peter Feldmann with “Überfall” (1975).
Compared to Feldmann’s Voyeur or similar works like Sol Lewitt’s Autobiography (1980) or more recently Batia Suter’s Parallel Encycloedia (2009), Thomas Ruff renounces any given combination or juxtaposition of images as they can be arranged in different sequences for every exhibition.
JL: Much of Ruff’s earlier work made around the time of this Zeitungsfotos series held a straight and clear description exemplifying what photography does best which is describe faithfully what is before the lens – I am thinking mainly of his portraits – and it seems from these newspaper images onward Ruff’s work is progressively breaking faithful description and perhaps testing its limitations by introducing blur, unsharpness and pixels. On the surface, this seems in distinct contrast to much of work from other “Becher School” students, how do you see this work in comparison?
CS: That’s an interesting question. My feeling is that Thomas Ruff’s approach is actually quite consistent with the aestethic of the “Becher School”, since he takes very precise pictures of these blurred and partially fuzzy images. That’s one of the aspects of this body of works that fascinated me from the beginning: Ruff used a color film to shoot these black and white newspaper images and later on printed them as color photographs.
JL: By removing the texts and picking these images solely on their merits as images, there is an interesting play happening where the viewer might know some of the historical information about the photos but maybe not the whole context for that specific photograph. Those bits of factual information do however linger while the viewer tries to look at the image objectively yet (at least in my case) cannot totally dismiss the bits of context that his or her mind is piecing together. By showing random newspaper photographs, say of Hitler, do you think someone is capable of viewing them completely and only as their merits as images without that battle of historical context creeping in?
CS: Probably one of the most efficient ways to “neutralize” the intrinsic meaning of an image is to change its context. That’s exactly what Thomas Ruff did by recreating these images as photographic color prints and showing them in a museum or gallery context.
JL: I am curious about the book’s size, which is rather small. The images are maybe even smaller in this book than they were when originally published in newspapers. Can you elaborate on how the size of the book was chosen?
CS: Yes they are smaller. We wanted the book to be compact and handy which is not an easy task when dealing with 800 pages. We wanted something you can grab for a short time and browse for a sequence, as well as for longer periods which can evoke a feeling of “reading.” While working with the material, this parallel became more and more obvious. It’s very much the lack of text that gives you the feeling of reading, provoked by one’s own associations. From that point of view the book neutralized the images and offers open readings.
JL: Also, the placement of the photographs is interesting as they sometimes run a little bit into the book’s gutter depending on their size or cropping. I am probably reading too much into this, but, is that placement important to remind the viewer how any original image is ‘disrespected’ a little when printed in a newspaper? Printed on cheap paper, broken up by a large printing screen and then most likely viewed for about 5 seconds and then thrown out?
CS: We tried to work with a few designs that could be applied to all of the images. What we finally decided was to start with the largest image onto a double-page spread in maximum size as a kind of baseline. From there the size of all other images were adapted on the page accordingly and in keeping with their original proportions. Generally placed on the right side of the double-page spread, surprisingly few made it into the gutter. In the sake of “objectivity” we could not save those few from running into the gutter. We enforced the rigid system we set up believing, after all, they could take it. On the other hand we put a lot of work into image correction, to avoid “moiré” patterns.
JL: Did Thomas have much input while creating the book?
CS: When Lex Trueb, the designer and publisher of the book, and I saw an exhibit which gathering all 400 images glued to cards for presentation purposes at Mai 36 Gallery, it became obvious that this would make an interesting book. We were attracted by the specific form and quality of representation and we’re thinking either about making the book with facsimiles of the cards or working with the gallery’s digital documentation files.
When we approached Thomas Ruff with the idea, he had doubts about such a book, assuming that it would be boring after 50 pages. Happily we convinced him that the book’s condensed form would offer new ways to perceive the work. Especially the series “wholeness” would become more important and the sequential arrangement would develop some narrative.
As the papers from the different newspaper aged over the years, we agreed on eliminating the different background tones and replace them with one unified beige tone on which the images were printed in black. In that sense the single image is again being “objectified” in favor of the series.
Thomas then offered to re-photograph the original newspaper cutouts digitally which adds another interesting detail; the images in the book are not mere reproductions of the artworks – it’s a new work on it’s own – an artist’s book.
Also by Ruff:
Hatje Cantz, 2014