Skin deep

Thomas Ruff, Portrait (I. Graw), 1988

Having taken the slow route from the Bechers to portraiture it seems like a good time to ponder the more obvious forward jump, so today I’ve found myself thinking about Thomas Ruff’s Portraits, a body of work he started while still a student of Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and has continued – in parallel with other work – ever since. Initially working in black and white, Ruff quickly moved to colour and made the series using a large format camera so that the faces are recorded in unrelenting detail. At their most simple, these are like passport photographs but for the eessential detail of scale: Ruff’s prints are around two metres tall.

Portrait (R. Huber), 1988

Ruff asked his sitters to face the camera expressionlessly; he is recording their outward appearance with a level of objectivity that is not usually to be found in portraiture. Ruff isn’t trying to reveal anything about his sitters other than what they look like. The aim of portraiture is more usually to try to reveal something of the person within; Ruff’s portraits are skin deep. Several things fascinate me about this work. First of all, there is the extraordinary level of detail recorded; the use of a large format camera with flash means the pictures are pin sharp and, when enlarged to monumental proportions, every pore is visible. Secondly the scale of the print means that though we recognise these as portraits and make the immediate link with passport photography, they are nonetheless made strange by the unfamiliar scale.

Portrait (A. Kachold), 1987

The question of the format is what interests me most though. In mimicking passport photographs, these pictures are a reminder that we are routinely identified by photographs in which we start at the camera without emotion. Though what little is visible of our clothing might give some clues about our personality, ultimately the photographs that allow us to navigate our way through life are ones effectively designed to say as little about us as possible.

In our dealings with authority, it seems, identity is skin deep.

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