Art In Conversation
Thomas Ruff with Will Fenstermaker
On ViewDavid Zwirner Gallery
September 15–October 22, 2022
Aldous Huxley wrote eloquently about what is certainly a universal desire to transcend ordinary human experience—and which is also the compulsion driving both religious mysticism and image-making. In The Doors of Perception, first published in 1954, he relays his own experience with mescaline, the hallucinogenic alkaloid produced by peyote. Known as “the book that launched a thousand trips,” The Doors of Perception became a seminal text among Timothy Leary and the American hippies. Thomas Ruff’s new “d.o.pe.” series is named after Huxley’s book, and the images of fractals folding back on themselves, tessellating into infinity, do superficially resemble the visual hallucinations that Huxley describes as well as the psychedelic art that became a mainstay of 1960s counterculture.
Yet Ruff’s project is much more than an exploration of altered consciousness. These new works look back to his earliest days as a photographer and the kind of fantastical imagery he enjoyed as a teenager in southern Germany. For over forty years, Ruff’s work has been characterized as an investigation into photographic objectivity. His “d.o.pe.” works are rich with new forms of possibility. Algorithmically generated as a series of Mandelbrot sets (a basic fractal named after an IBM engineer), they extend his long-standing interest in photographic computation. Photographs made the objectification of our entire world possible, and image-generating algorithms (not unlike the ones that Ruff uses in this series) are now at work cataloguing, modeling, and predicting entirely new swathes of human experience. “As Ruff examines the historic and contemporary tools of technical images,” writes Duncan Wooldridge in an essay on the series, “he presents how images and computational technology subtly give shape to the world that is about to be.”
Ruff’s “d.o.pe.” works hold within them a series of emerging tensions: The tension between rampant mathematics and divine geometries; between pareidolia and the destruction of symbolic order; between known visual criteria and unmediated experience; between the infinitesimal scale of human history and the superhuman chartering of cosmic activity. The way these tensions push and pull as you navigate these images constitutes a strange and at times uncomfortable process of emergence. But that is to be expected, because visionary experience has always been inextricably linked to the capacity of our belief in images.
Will Fenstermaker (Rail): Your “d.o.pe.” series was inspired by, among other things, Aldous Huxley’s writings on mescaline as well as some formative experiences you had as a teenager in Germany. What happened in the Black Forest?
Thomas Ruff: At school I had to read Brave New World (1932), which I liked a lot, and soon after I found his book The Doors of Perception (1954), where he writes about his experience with mescaline during the fifties. Until the late sixties, many used these at-that-time legal drugs in California because they can give you a new visual experience, a new view on the world. I had this kind of strong visual impact when, around 1974, my friends and I listened to music by Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa, or The Doors while smoking dope. Our rooms were covered in posters with psychedelic images, and of course we read the comics of Robert Crumb.
So I guess at that time I was a dope-smoking sixteen-year-old amateur photographer with no knowledge of artistic creation and a big affinity for mathematics and physics. I had my 35mm Nikon and I tried to shoot as beautifully as possible: sunsets, light in the woods, landscapes, combining images by making sandwich slides. The “d.o.pe.” work might be a flashback to that time.
Rail: This was before you applied to the art academy at Düsseldorf, right? What did they think of the beautiful landscapes you brought them?
Ruff: [Laughter] Somewhat naively I wanted to study at an art academy where they also taught painting and sculpture, as I thought that’s the place where you learn to make beautiful images. The art academy at Düsseldorf was the only one in Germany with a class on photography at that time. Strangely, Bernd Becher accepted me, but I did not understand why. I was shocked when I saw the Bechers’ work, as it was the complete opposite of my own images so far, which I believed were fantastic. During my first year at the academy, occupying myself with art history, photography, and art theory as well as looking at art, there was a switch. I realized that everything I did was insubstantial, and that’s when I started to learn from Bernd and Hilla Becher.
It’s funny, their retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has all of these sketches and process images, and you can see they were trying out things they told us we were not allowed to do in the class! As a senior student, when I asked Bernd why he accepted me, he told me, “Thomas, the photographs you applied with were kitsch. They were not your own images, they were just imitations of images you saw in amateur magazines. But I liked your colors, they had potential.”
Maybe I was always looking for a less-kitsch version of these images I took in my adolescent years. Actually, I already wanted to make the “d.o.p.e.” images twenty years ago, when I was working on the “nudes” (1999–) and “jpegs” (2001–07), but the technology wasn’t there yet. And I guess they would have looked completely different.
Rail: And why did you decide to return to this moment now, forty-some years later?
Ruff: For me, it’s a reminiscence of my youth. I felt it was time to think about these fantastical images, images that don’t make sense at all, that just show up. Perception, as well as the position of photography within it, has always played a big part in my work; I’m always questioning whatever we’re looking at and how the image was generated.
If you go back in the history of photography, the nineteenth century was much richer in terms of technique, because every photographer had to be a scientist, an optician, a mechanic, and a chemist. Everybody developed his own method of taking and developing a photograph. With the invention of the Leica and 35mm film, these things became standardized. And then, from around 1930 through the ’70s, there was this strange belief in authenticity: Somebody is shooting, and we think that’s capturing the reality as a true moment.
When I started as a photographer, working with analog film was common, but of course during the last forty years there has been a dramatic change in photographic methods. Around 2000 the internet turned up, and that was not just a big technological change but also an important change in the distribution of photographs and information. Today we are helpless without the internet.
Rail: It’s become a way of being in and perceiving the world.
Ruff: It’s like a third hand. [Laughter] My work is very much about technological images, the perception of them and the belief or disbelief in them. I have always switched between pretty objective analog or digital photographs and “calculated” images, like the “zycles” (2009) or the “Photograms” (2012–), all created virtually with 3D rendering, because photography has evolved into virtual images. And I’m still questioning all of these artificial images. Straightforward photographs don’t really exist anymore, so I’m more interested in technical images. You have to be careful with them—a lot of people believe virtual images are real.
Rail: When you say “photographs don’t exist anymore,” what do you mean? That images aren’t contingent on the optics of a lens and camera?
Ruff: I mean using a camera, lenses, film, capturing what is in front of the lens without manipulation. Of course, there are a lot of photographers out in the real world who do great work, but I think they’re a minority. Virtual images are now much more common than conventional still images.
Rail: Well, photography has been disassociated from the body since the beginning—the camera is a device that’s free from the human hand—and so this progression feels somewhat inevitable and not like a radical break. But to go back to Huxley briefly: The Doors of Perception is about mescaline, but it’s really about visionary experience and circumventing ordinary consciousness, which he says is limited in perception and mediated by symbol systems, and accessing a realm of divine significance. Your “d.o.pe.” series draws its name from the text, but what is its ultimate influence on the work?
Ruff: The connection is just that the series is about images you might see when you take mescaline or similar drugs. I don’t take drugs anymore, but when I’m creating these images they remind me of the kind of visual experience Huxley was writing about. In these works I’m also thinking of Hieronymus Bosch and his Garden of Earthly Delights (1490–1500), and of Matthias Grünewald, another painter from the fifteenth century. They must have taken mushrooms. [Laughter]
Rail: Drugs are sometimes seen as gateways to the divine—to heaven and hell. In Huxley’s writing, technology and narcotics operate hand in hand, and the fractals in your works are algorithmically generated. Today I tend to hear about mescaline and psilocybin in the context of micro-dosing, which the tech and wellness industries promote because it appears to provide mental health benefits without actually initiating a trip.
Ruff: I did not know that, but of course I can imagine.
Rail: So it’s not about transcending the human—it’s about making the most mundane human activity more comfortable and efficient.
Ruff: The brave new world?
Rail: I don’t want us to get too caught up here because the chemical is just a catalyst. But I do want to clarify your network of references in this project—psychedelic art, altered consciousness, mysticism and photographic technology—because it’s very rich. Huxley writes about a “valve” between the divine and the mundane that we normally travel through in small increments, but that mescaline allowed him to bypass entirely. He says certain artists seem able to bypass the valve by natural means or through meditation. At one point, the pleats in his trousers spark a revelation about cloth and tapestry in Botticelli and El Greco and Vermeer, and these artists’ ability to access the “intrinsic significance” of ordinary things even in portraiture. I’d note here that your “d.o.pe.” works are also printed on textiles. Do you see a relationship between art-making and visionary experience?
Ruff: Well, as an artist of course you want to go beyond what you see or what is imaginable. And yes, I wanted to create visionary images where we cannot tell what is what, what is organic and what is nonorganic, where you have no idea of the scale. Something you haven’t seen before.
Rail: I’m interested to hear you describe them as organic, because I’ve been thinking of them as a kind of technological artifice.
Ruff: They’re both. They’re organic and nonorganic. They remind you of things you’ve seen in nature, but of course they’re all artificial. One of the works in the show at David Zwirner is black and white, and that one looks like outer space. Next to it is one that feels aquatic, like something you’d see from a submarine. Some of them look like forests and when you zoom in they resemble seeds or fronds. They really deal with the irritation of scale, with the movement between macro and micro. You see things in the fractals as you navigate from macrospace to microspace.
Rail: So there’s an element of pareidolia to these works—of finding significance within the geometric patterns. Can you walk me through the process of how they’re made?
Ruff: I use a fractal software to generate a Mandelbrot set which you can zoom into endlessly. There are millions and millions of layers that look pretty much the same, but at closer observation, they differ slightly. There’s a set of parameters you can adjust, but I cannot really define the rules for this work; it’s just trial and error, dialing in and zooming out. It’s like diving into the moon or flying a drone through the woods. You can only control it a little bit because it’s so complex. Any miscalculations will take you to an entirely different place. Once you leave a place, you will never find the way back. When I find an attractive section, I start the rendering.
Rail: What do you look for while you’re scanning?
Ruff: The Mandelbrot set fractals represent something beautiful, letting us dive into a surreal yet organic world that one cannot capture with the camera. The selection of the details is instinctual, the result of forty years of artistic experience. The images themselves are pretty flat at first sight because it’s just mathematics. That’s why I superimpose several layers of these excursions and make some adjustments. You have to process the images to make them more intriguing.
Rail: One image, d.o.pe. 07 (2022), looks to me almost like an Edward Steichen landscape. You mentioned nineteenth-century photography, when it was more plastic and hadn’t yet settled into an objective mode, and I’m curious if, when navigating these fractal spaces, you felt a sense of possibility and freedom of expression akin to how photography may have seemed at that time?
Ruff: I’d say these associations happen by chance; with this kind of Mandelbrot set, you find a lot of frames that remind you of things you’ve seen before. Then again, I don’t know how much I’m unconsciously attracted to the kind of images that resemble my European art historical background and education. Perhaps those are the ones that I pick. [Laughter]
Rail: And of course the works are printed on carpets, which fuels other associations. They resemble psychedelic tapestries, but also textiles from the American Southwest, which combine the mathematical structure of warp and weft into divine geometries. I also think of mandalas made from sand, which are fleeting images similar to how you described navigating the fractal generator. Why did you decide to print the works on carpet?
Ruff: When I first created these images, I printed them with my Epson printer and I laid all these small prints on the table to decide if I was done with them. Once I finished the first couple of images, I made large chromogenic prints. I thought they looked poor. For fifty years chromogenic prints have all had the same surface: the Kodak paper.
Over the last twenty years things have changed; now we have inkjets that can be printed on beautiful Hahnemühle paper, but even with that I still was not happy. Since these images aren’t actually photographs, I didn’t want to print them like photographs.
Rail: Or signal that they’re photographs—they need to be read a different way.
Ruff: I thought the physical presence of the work should be soft and organic like the images themselves; I wanted the material to support the image. My first idea was to print them on painter’s canvas, but the images are not paintings. Silk felt too luxurious and the size was too small. Suddenly I had the idea of printing them on carpet because it is a soft, organic material that comes much closer to the imagery of this new work—these technological images with all of these associations we’ve been talking about. I found a company in Belgium that makes carpets for restaurants, hotels, and conference centers; they submerse white carpets in pigment.
Rail: You’ve actively explored the transition from photography to technological images throughout your career. You made your “jpegs” right when the shift from analog to digital photography was gaining steam, and when the internet was becoming increasingly central to daily life.
Ruff: And when the structure of photographs changed to the JPEG compression artifacts.
Rail: Right. One aspect of that series was that you divided the works into categories of commonplace images, like “disasters” and “idylls,” and then compressed them to remove identifying features. So there’s this tension between the fidelity or accuracy of the image and the structure of the image. Not to oversimplify it, but when you make those photographs nine feet high—
Ruff: —the “jpegs” were really a cheap trick. [Laughter]
Rail: No, but that tension scales! It becomes a way of expressing how the internet delegates information, and how those decisions alter our perception. It seems to me that we’re living in a world of fallout from hypercompression, and you were very early in exploring that reality. It’s interesting that you mention that fractal image generators weren’t ready for the “d.o.pe.” works twenty years ago. These new works feel more expansive than compressed—there’s a sense of generation, even though they’re artificially rendered. And so I wonder if these works express, in some way, our brave new world of algorithmically generated images, of artificial reality?
Ruff: I cannot say. [Laughter] These images are brand new to me too; I still have to find the words to explain exactly what I did. For the moment I think they are naive, autobiographical images playing around with LP covers, posters, and the kind of pretty images I was looking at nearly fifty years ago. But Duncan Wooldridge wrote an essay on my new work that explains it more brilliantly than I ever could.
Rail: Yes, he writes that these images represent “a coming-into-being: an inquiry, a question, a speculative or generative emergence,” as opposed to a record of a past moment. This goes back to your interest in technology and belief because new kinds of images lead to new possibilities and beliefs. It’s interesting that these fractal images are algorithmically generated, which—as mescaline did for Huxley—allows you to return to or look back at that state, to extend the ephemerality of that experience.
Ruff: Perhaps what I could say is that when I first started studying with Bernd and Hilla Becher, I really tried to capture reality. When I did my portraits, I realized that the machine, the camera, only records what’s in front of the lens. But actually I was the person who chose the sitter. I would ask them to wear a nice shirt and put their chin up to the light, so the reality was prearranged by me. That was when I first understood that photography does not depict reality, but constructed reality. One thing Bernd Becher told me that I will never forget, he said, “Thomas, if you work with a media you should always reflect the media in the image.” And so that’s what I’ve tried to do the last forty years: if you take a photograph you should also show and reflect the medium itself.
Rail: Your portraits have been compared to passport or identification photographs, where there’s really no interest in recording a sitter’s “essence,” so to speak. Those kinds of images reduce one’s identity to a profile. And then you also made a series of collaged portraits using a Minolta Montage Unit, which superimposes multiple images into one face.
Ruff: When I showed my portraits some critics said they were anti-individualistic and anonymous, but I did not feel that way. They were all my friends. At the academy our heroes were the minimalist and conceptual artists, and I really wanted to make a minimalist portrait. I did not trust photography and I wanted to reduce the portraits, bring them back to point zero, get out anything exotic and just show the face. But because they were all my friends and colleagues, it was still a real portrait of Pia or Hans or whomever. I thought, “That’s not true, they are not anonymous, because every person has a unique face.”
Some years later I came up with the idea to do the opposite by creating “artificial portraits.” I started thinking about how I could do this and found that police machine, a device consisting of a black box with mirrors in the center. You have different mirrors you can adjust to bring in different parts of the image templates. One mirror is transparent, and when you look through it you see a composite.
Rail: And then you photographed the mirror. Were those images large format?
Ruff: Yes, but I printed the “Andere Porträts” (“Other Portraits,” started 1994) on silkscreen because they reminded me of mugshots, and mugshots are normally printed offset and hung in shops to help locate murderers.
Rail: To me, those works seem to anticipate deep fakes. The facial-recognition technology underlying those images also has applications in law enforcement.
Ruff: When I made those works in ’94 and ’95, I already could have used a computer. But I wanted to shoot them analog because I wanted the viewer to realize that it’s a composite—a possible human face but at the same time an artificial face.
Rail: You can draw a direct historical line from the development of cameras to the development of CGI and image-generating algorithms. The danger is that technological images still retain their aura of objectivity today, even as they’re increasingly divorced from reality. As you’ve pointed out, this new work is very deftly weaving together those different states.
Ruff: At a certain point in my career, when I was a young, successful artist, I thought: “This cannot be all. There must be other photographs in the world that are as interesting as artistic photographs.” Scientific or medical photographs look much more interesting to me than the stuff we call art. That’s why I started to make the star photographs, which are more or less scientific photographs. Then I made the night-vision photographs using a device that enables one to see in complete darkness. So I’ve been maneuvering through the history and techniques of photography, looking at what’s possible and what’s impossible. The “d.o.pe.” images are maybe just another addition, except that, as I said before, it’s no longer photography.
The psychedelic colors are a bit like my “substrat” (2001–) works, which are also an abstract interaction of colors. But in another sense the new works are more related to my “Photograms” because I created those in a virtual darkroom. They are artificial: there were no objects, no paper, no chemicals, no lights. I wanted to imitate the photograms I had in my mind, only larger. My darkroom looked pretty much like Man Ray’s, except it was completely virtual. The “d.o.pe.” pictures are also entirely virtual, created with computer software. They have nothing to do with photographs—they’re more about the creation of technological images that look natural.
Rail: Assuming the numbers in the works’ titles correspond to the order in which they were made, the earlier works feel more brilliant, like spring, and the later ones more subdued, like winter. How did your conception of the series evolve as it unfolded?
Ruff: Yes, they’re numbered in order, and I use Roman numerals to collect similar images. I think this progression you’re seeing is also a product of chance. In a way, a fractal set is like a big landscape. When making these images, you start by concentrating on a small spot; when you want to make something different, you move to another location. Every direction leads to totally different landscapes. The more you work with this kind of software, the more sophisticated your understanding gets, until, surprisingly, you find something that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. That’s where I dive in.