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Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff Biography

born Zell am Harmersbach (GERMANY) 1958)

Thomas Ruff was born in 1958 in Zell am Harmersbach, Germany. He attended the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf from 1977 to 1985, where he studied under Bernd Becher. Fellow students included the photographers Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, and Thomas Struth. Ruff began photographing landscapes, but while he was still a student he transitioned to interiors (1979–83) and deadpan portraits of friends.

His early portraits were black-and-white and small, but he soon switched to color, using solid backgrounds in different colors. He began to experiment with large-format printing in 1986, ultimately producing photographs up to seven by five feet in size.

Ruff expanded beyond portraiture with Haus (1987–91), a series of building exteriors. In 1989, he produced a series of images depicting starry skies, derived from pictures he had obtained from the astronomy institute of the Ruhr-Universitt Bochum. Ruff's Zeitungsfotos (1990–91) are likewise based on appropriated imagery, in this case newspaper photographs blown up and stripped of their captions. In Blaue Augen (1991), he replaced the dark eyes in twelve of his earlier portraits with blue ones, subverting the authenticity of his own photographs.

During the first Gulf War, Ruff used a night-vision enhancer to render ominous images of the streets of Dusseldorf at night in his Nacht series (1992–96). In 1999, the artist made a series of digitally altered photographs of Modernist architecture by Mies van der Rohe. His series of nudes (1999–2000) are also digitally manipulated images, but here he began with photographs from pornographic websites; his Substrat series (2002–03), based on images from Japanese manga cartoons, continued this exploration of digitally altered web-based pictures. For the Machine series (2003), Ruff made colored prints from large-format glass negatives of black-and-white images of vintage industrial machinery from the 1930s and 1940s.

Ruff has exhibited widely since 1981, with solo shows at:

  • The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1989)
  • Centre National de la Photographie in Paris (1997)
  • Chabot Museum in Rotterdam (2001)
  • Tate Liverpool (2003)

His work has appeared in

  • BiNationale at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1988)
  • International Foto-Triennale in Esslingen, Germany (1989)
  • New Work: A New Generation at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1990)
  • Documenta (1992)
  • Venice Biennale (1995)
  • Biennale of Sydney (1996)
  • COSMOS: From Romanticism to the Avant-Garde at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal (1999)
  • Picturing Media: Modern Photographs from the Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2001)
  • Bienal de Sao Paulo (2002)

He lives and works in Dusseldorf.

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  • 1995 - Arquitectures plurals, Centre de Cultura, Palma de Mallorca
  • 1995 - Bremen; Lindenaumuseum in Altenburg; Museum Wiesbaden
  • 1995 - Galerie Wilma Tolksdorf, Hamburg
  • 1996 - Portraits, Houses, Stars, Night, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
  • 1996 - JURASSIC technologies - revenant, 10th Biennale of Sydney, Australien
  • 1996 - Distanz und Nahe, Kawasaki City Museum
  • 1997 - Oeuvres 1979-97, Centre national de la photographie, Paris
  • 1997 - Galeria Estrany - de la Mola, Barcelona
  • 1998 - Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto
  • 1999 - Cosmos. Del Romanticismo a la Vanguardia, 1801-2001. Centro de Cultura Contemporanea, Barcelona.
  • 1999 - Transmute, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
  • 2000 - How you look at it. Fotografien des 20. Jahrhunderts, Sprengel Museum, Hannover
  • 2000 - Deutsche Kunst in Moskau, Central House of Artist, Moscow
  • 2000 - LMVDR, Haus Lange - Haus Esters, Krefeld
  • 2000 - La Arquitectura sin Sombra. Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Seville
  • 2000 - l. m. v. d. r. 2 , Fordererkreis Krefelder Kunstmuseen
  • 2001 - The Anagrammatical Body. ZKM. Karlsruhe, Germany
  • 2001 - 100 al 2000: il Secolo della Fotoarte, Photology, Bologna
  • 2001 - Galeria Helga de Alvear, Madrid
  • 2001 - Enmanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung, Basel
  • 2001 - Galeria Helga de Alverar, Madrid
  • 2001 - Mies in Berlin, Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 2002 - Thomas Ruff, Photographs: 1979 to present. Irish Museum Of Moder Art, Dublin
  • 2002 - Identificaciones, Museo Tamayo, Mexico
  • 2002 - Mies Van Der Rohe 1907-1938, CaixaForum, Barcelona
  • 2003 - Projektraum 3000, Kunst-&Ausstellungshalle Deutschland, Bonn
  • 2003 - Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Serralves, Porto
  • 2003 - Sex, Karyn Lovegrove Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 2004 - Thomas Ruff Arario Gallery, Chungham, Korea
  • 2004 - Telefonicas Contemporary Photography Collection, Fundacion Telefonica, Madrid
  • 2005 - L'esperienza dell'arte, 51. Biennale di Venezia, Padiglione Italia - Giardini, Venice
  • 2005 - Surfaces/Paradise', Museum voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem, Arnheim, NL
  • 2005 - New Work', David Zwirner Gallery, New York
  • 2006 - BOZAR Palais des Beaux-Arts/Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels
  • 2006 - Thomas Ruff - The Grammar of Photography, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice
  • 2006 - Helga de Alvear - Conceitos para uma coleccao, CCB Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon

Select Artwork



  • Thomas Ruff Nudes - by Thomas Ruff, Michel Houellebecq, Frank Wynne, Harry N. Abrams (April 1, 2003)
  • Thomas Ruff: 1979 to the Present - by Thomas Ruff, Per Boym, Ute Eskildsen, Valeria Liebermann, Matthias Winzen, Charles Rivers Publishing Co. (September 2003)

Quick Facts

  • Thomas Ruff (born 1958 in Zell am Harmersbach) is an internationally renowned German photographer who lives and works in Dusseldorf.
  • Thomas Ruff studied photography from 1977 to 1985 with Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf
  • Ruff developed his method of conceptual serial photography. His initial main topic was the interior of German living quarters, with typical features of the 1950s to 1970s (room portraits and design details).
  • Thomas Ruff's building portraits are likewise serial and reclusive, and have been edited digitally to remove obstructing details.
  • Thomas Ruff published a photographic collection of "Nudes" with a text by the French author Michel Houellebecq.


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