A couple of years ago, while browsing Ebay for vintage photographs, German photographer Thomas Ruff happened upon a collection of mid-century press photos featuring models, crime scenes and astronauts in space, the kind used by old newspapers and magazines. When the photos arrived, Ruff noticed that the markings on the backs – rubber stamps and handwritten editors' notes – were just as fascinating as the photographs themselves.
‘I found the juxtaposition of front and back rather interesting,' he says. 'Today, all print media use computer programs to edit images. This was impossible 30 years ago, and editing was done by hand.’ Through trial and error, Ruff started to reposition these old photographs in a modern digital context, ‘using superimposition and montages of the back on the front’. The resulting series called 'Plus++,' on show at Sprüth Magers Berlin, represents a departure from Ruff’s renowned portrait style.
press++50.08, by Thomas Ruff, 2016. © Thomas Ruff. Courtesy Sprüth Magers
In the C-print press++51.14 (2017), a snap of a Baltimore Museum exhibition superimposed with editor’s notes and hand-drawn brush-line cropping instructions, Ruff nods to the early 20th-century German 'fotomontage' movement. ‘Combining the front and the back of this image became a photo-montage that reminds me of the... 1920s,' he says, ‘which Bauhaus, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters all had a part in.’
A fashion model and (fictional) murder-scene investigator get the same treatment in press++32.58' (2016) and press++50.08 (2016). Here, ruff riffs on the rapidly evolving status of the photograph, and how this new technology was significantly impacting on the way we see. ‘It’s about the use of day-to-day photographs and the alteration of them,' he says. ‘I’ve always been interested in the changes and the history of photographic images as well as its technology. This is another genre in my exploration into the history and respective technological processes of photography.’