Gil Blank: Many of the portraits you’ve made are of people whom you know personally, but whom most viewers would not. You have a relationship to the subjects, but it would seem those relationships are totally neutralized in the photographs, by their uniform structure and plain, premeditated approach. Was the relative anonymity of the subjects a central part of the process? Did the individual relationships, as manifestations of your own individual knowledge of each person, ever enter into the process? Were the relationships totally incidental, or was the fact that you knew each person a specifically complicating fact that you wanted to see if you could address, avoid, or get around in the series?
Thomas Ruff: When I started with the portraits, it was with an awareness that we were living at the end of the twentieth century, in an industrialized Western country. We weren’t living by candlelight in caves anymore. We were in surroundings where everything was brightly illuminated—even our parking garages. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, and you were being watched all the time. When I started making the portraits in 1981, my friends and I were very curious about what might happen in 1984, Orwell’s year. Would his ideas come to fruition?
They already partly had, because in Germany there were the events surrounding the Red Army Faction, a terrorist group founded by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and others. They plotted—and in some cases carried out—the assassinations of politicians and industry leaders, were captured, and then died under suspicious circumstances while in government custody. So the police were very nervous; there were a lot of controls placed on daily life, and we were often required to produce our passports for inspection.
My idea for the portraits was to use a very even light in combination with a large-format camera, so that you could see everything about the sitter’s face. I didn’t want to hide anything. Yet I also didn’t want the people I portrayed to show any emotion. I told them to look into the camera with self-confidence, but likewise, that they should be conscious of the fact that they were being photographed, that they were looking into a camera.
I wanted to do a kind of official portrait of my generation. I wanted the photographs to look like those in passports, but without any other information, such as the subject’s address, religion, profession, or prior convictions. I didn’t want the police/viewer to get any information about us. They shouldn’t be able to know what we felt at that moment, whether we were happy or sad.
GB: So in a sense they’re “non-portraits”—they work directly against the most commonly valued aspect of the genre, that it captures some unspoken essence of the person, or more to the point, reveals a hidden truth. You seem to be saying that you actually made the portraits for the opposite reason: as stone walls, as a way of showing everything in order to reveal absolutely nothing. You extend this notion in a vast array of your other series, exploding the idea of original perception. Do you not retain any hope in photography as a way of understanding personal experience?
TR: I think it depends on the intention of the sitter, on how much information he or she allows to be shown. I don’t think that my sitters build stone walls, but rather that they say to the viewer, “You can come this close, but no further.” Maybe my portraits are anachronistic because even though they show every detail of the skin, clothes, and hair of the sitter, they still don’t try to show any of his or her feelings.
But to your question: Do you not retain any hope in photography as a way of understanding personal experience? What do you think about the portraits Richard Avedon did in the American West, where he asked workers, employers and housewives to stand in front of a white background? They’re also stone walls, except that they’re wearing their work clothes, or have little accessories to link them to their lived life. Does that information help very much, or isn’t it just a cliché in the August Sander mold?
GB: That’s precisely my point and the challenge: every portrait maker has to face down the soggy temptations handed to us by photographers like Sander and Edward Curtis, the excited claims of being able to categorize and familiarize the entire world through images. Your mention of Avedon emphasizes that much of portraiture has been incapable of escaping Curtis’ ghost. Avedon and Diane Arbus are to my mind arch perpetuators of his sentimental tradition. Theirs is a glib, New York version of sentimentality, one that thrills itself with the hysterical belief in antagonism and grit as truth, but that’s sentimentality all the same. Provocative as their pictures may seem to be at first, people love them—perhaps counterintuitively—for that titillating myopia, because they corroborate, rather than challenge, our baser preconceived notions. They never make the more evolved leap to a form that genuinely tries to create a unique means for people to perceive one another.
TR: It’s also probably got something to do with the person in the portrait. In my case, they were people between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-four, and life hadn’t yet left any signs on their faces. They weren’t babies, but they hadn’t had too many bad experiences, either. They were in that state in which everything is still possible. If you make portraits the way Avedon or Arbus did, of people with a long past or a strange life, you can’t escape the Curtis ghost. The same thing happens in photographs of children. All parents want their child’s smile as proof that they’ve done a good job of parenting and that the child is happy.
My portraits look so Appollonian because the sitters provide a perfect surface onto which the viewer can project anything, bad and good experiences alike. They’re neutral and friendly, like Buddhas. They’re vessels you can fill with all of your wishes and desires.
GB: But that openness can double as a form of visual opacity and blockage, and highlights the enduring portrait conundrum. We’re faced with both the fundamental urge to understand our experiences, as well as all of the glaring historical examples of portraits that sentimentalize or exaggerate that struggle. We want to know things, and we also realize that there’s a great barrier in life to that knowledge, but it’s useless to stoop to mourn. Simply giving up is not a viable option. And you haven’t, because you still make pictures. So the question remains, and it’s at the very core of the photographic undertaking, epitomized by portraiture: How do we go about learning anything about experience, about ourselves and each other? Can you be utterly sober, can you speak as plainly as possible in pictures, without submitting to nostalgia or sensationalism or cynical cliché, and still manage some kind of approach within them to—as you put it—our actual, lived lives?
TR: All I can say is that it depends on the codes or clichés you’re trapped by in your own life.
GB: And the stripping away of those social and photographic conventions is usually the preliminary reading people have of your series. The first time I saw your portraits, I was inclined to view them strictly in a formal context, as dry and rigorously effective deconstructions of the portrait genre. But now you’ve thrown me for a turn. By invoking a specific and highly personal period in history, your statements here suggest that there is indeed an additional element of direct experience involved in them, and so that for all their sobriety, for all their absolute refusal of allegory and symbolism and sentiment, they’re nonetheless inextricably bound to real lives.
TR: Oddly enough, the same perception occurs even to me. Sometimes I think the portraits of Petra or Martin or whomever else don’t represent the people themselves, but are merely examples of a type of photographic portraiture. And yet because these people sat in front of the camera when I made the exposure, there’s a lot of real life and the actual person in each photograph. Sometimes I think the photographs are schizophrenic: the real people and their reflections spliced together.
© Copyright Gil Blank and Thomas Ruff