Porträt (P. Lappat), 1987 by Thomas Ruff.
Porträt (M. Roeser), 1999 by Thomas Ruff.
Porträt (A. Kachold), 1987 by Thomas Ruff
Ruff’s project Porträt 1986-1991 is a collection of photographs made like passport I.D. photos, only Ruff used a large format camera and printed the photographs size 1600 x 1205 mm at a printing quality for exhibiting in an Art Gallery. (In an interview with Gill Bank for the magazine Influence, Issue 02. Ruff admits that on giving copies of the printed photographs to his models he also printed additional copies in passport size if asked.)
In creating work such as this, is Ruff asking us to question who dictates our identity? (1)
Porträt was motivated by an atmosphere of state control that pervaded Western Germany in the early 1980s. Ruff recalls having to carry I.D. all the time as it was very common to be stopped by the police and asked to produce his I.D. whilst at college 1984 was just around the corner and he and his fellow student would discuss the parallel world of George Orwell’s 1984 and could such a world be already in the making. It was with these thoughts that Ruff started to produce portraits of his friends and colleagues that provided a great deal of surface detail but kept back any information of identity. Ruff was challenging what a photograph can actually hold and retain in terms of identity and questioning who has the control? From theses photographs we can see two females and one male, we can only approximate their ages, possibly in their 20s or early 30s? We can identify their sex, we can only guess at their social status as possibly middle class? Educated? Yes, likely (if we have guessed correctly to their social status). political ideology? Sexual orientation? Parents? Religion? Favorite colour? Choice of music? Etc, etc? Can not be even be guessed at.
Whilst a lot of control over identity remains with the subject, the subject has no control over how his or her photograph is disseminated. New meanings can be attached to these photos depending on how they are used. These photos could be classed as police identity mug shots and distributed as, Most Wanted and Dangerous, they can be put on a passport to provide freedom to travel anywhere in the world, they could be used as identity to obtain access to a college, a library or to the office at his or her place of work. There are probably unlimited uses for the image, each usage changes the subjects identity to suit the purpose. The use of a portrait can be a powerful thing in the wrong hands. Perhaps this is what Ruff was implying, and that the dystopian world of ‘Big Brother’ from George Orwell’s book 1984 is always a constant threat of reality.
OCA, Self and the Other, page 21.