Research: Project 3 Surface & Depth – Thomas Ruff













At the conclusion of part one of Expressing Your Vision we studied a small project entitled “Surface & Depth”. In this project we consider two alternate views of the work of Thomas Ruff, a photographic artist who recycles old images, processing them to make creative use of jpeg artifacts, the 8 pixel by 8 pixel square, clearly visible in the first image above “Jpeg rl1104 (2007).”

David Campany 1 , a writer , curator, artist and lecturer at the University of Westminster, describes the work of Ruff as both “aesthetic” and “intellectual”. By aesthetic he means the form of the image and the beauty within it regardless of context. Ruff uses both his own images and those of others, all images being part of a collective photographic archive, to produce images that create a similar response in the viewer, regardless of who the original photographer was: the creative act being the reimagining of the original photograph into a new and very large scale artwork (Ruff’s images are typically printed 5-6 feet wide or tall). In presenting images from the collective archive but presenting it through the artist’s own grid of the use of series and the use of the pixel (in contrast to the historical use of grain to artistic effect), Campany talks about the images tapping into nested archives and how they affect all of us and how the use of images from various archives presents images that may never have been seen before. What he does in many ways reflects modern music with it’s use of the sample and overdub which takes a sample of an older familiar piece of music (for example, Sting’s 1983 track “Every breath you take” represented by Puff Daddy in 1997 as “I’ll be missing you) or older unfamiliar pieces of music such as the samples of blues recordings used on Moby’s 1999 album “Play” to create something new and as creative as the original pieces.

In contrast, Joerg Colberg 2, a writer and editor, whilst describing Ruff’s images as creative and even beautiful, raises the question of whether or not Ruff’s work is even photography. It is photographic but not photography. Historically Ruff discovered his process when his own photographs of the tragedy of 9/11 were mis-exposed or processed and he reverted to looking at images grabbed from the Internet. The low resolution of the images opened his mind to the possibility of deliberately using low-resolution jpeg compression on other images to create large artworks that highlight that technique. In Colberg’s writing he admires the beauty of the outcome but expresses disappointment at “the ultimate thinness of the concept behind it.” He clearly views Ruff as simply applying a thoughtless filter to any image he might come across to create an empty pretty image – an image created solely through a technique, so lacking in any true creativity.

Having tried this myself, I would say the technical side itself is not completely straightforward and nor is the idea of re-presenting another’s original work lacking in creativity compared with the original. Many might same that the multiple Variations on the theme originally written by Paganini are better than the theme and the world is better off for the multiple variations.

I finish this project with a re-imagined version of one of my own images from 2007. I am reasonably happy with it though it doesn’t have the vividness of a Ruff image but it definitely looks better printed.












  1. Bloomfield, R (2014) Photography 1: Expressing your Vision., OCA 2017, p.33
  2. – visited January 2018
  3. – visited January 2018