Project 3: Surface & Depth

“Today the question of surface and depth has to some extent been replaced by the debate between the virtual nature of the digital screen image and the materiality of film and print” [“Expressing your vision” P32]

In an article in the Guardian from June 2009, Thomas Ruff was moved to state that the image below, an image taken from his hotel room in Kyoto was his best shot.

“I was …looking out of the window, and I saw the scene as a symbol of how mankind changes his environment: the traditional way of living with nature, juxtaposed with modern life. I took the picture through the curtain, as a tourist, without thinking what I would do with it. Only later did I realise it would fit in perfectly with the Jpeg idea, in which a pixellated square is ugly, but if you present it in the right context it can become beautiful”.

Image (c) Thomas Ruff: view from a hotel room in Kyoto, Japan [2002]: jpeg kj01

Image (c) Thomas Ruff: view from a hotel room in Kyoto, Japan [2002]: jpeg kj01

But is it photography? A debate that Joerg Colburg, in reviewing Ruff’s work entitled Jpegs, suggests is something of an intellectual cul-de-sac. In this article, Ruff himself described the images in Jpegs as being ‘terribly beautiful.’; large, extensively pixillated images of the aftermath of 9/11 created from low resolution photographs which, despite their poor image quality were of aesthetic merit. Yet for all of their beauty, Colburg retains a nagging doubt that Ruff’s idea is overly dependent upon technique.

Thomas Ruff jpegs Book cover

Thomas Ruff jpegs Book cover

And I’m left with the nagging doubt that it is the subject matter which gives the 9/11 images their terrible beauty. I can’t quite put out of my mind that the image is a fortuitous accident borne out of the use of camera equipment that cannot quite record the detail of the moment.

Below is a photograph that I took with my mobile phone a couple of weeks ago whilst in Amsterdam. The quality wasn’t great to start with, and once I’d cropped it to get rid of the extraneous material on the periphery, I was left with the image that I wanted in terms of picture composition. It probably still works as a composition, but I can’t help but think that the beginnings of pixellation detract from, rather than enhance the image, although in order to test the hypothesis fully, I should probably make a large print of this. As David Campanay notes at the end of his article “Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the pixel, “(his) JPEG series doesn’t work very well on the internet or computer screen: the images need to be experienced as printed matter, moving from screen to page or wall”.

Benched.... John Callaway [2016]

Benched…. John Callaway [2016]

Cropping still further renders the image little more than the semblance of a man. Is it interesting? To me not really. Does it illustrate the point that Ruff is making? Well to a degree yes, insofar as the pixellated squares are certainly ugly…

Crop.... John Callaway [2016]

Crop…. John Callaway [2016]

Campany suggests that the pixel has replaced the grain of photographic film, and that the pixellated image does not yet have the authenticity afforded to analogue photography. “Today it is almost a cliché but for a while at least grain became a sign of the virtuous materiality of the image and of the virtuous, embodied photographer”. 

I probably need to reflect on this a little more…..


David Campany: “Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel” IANN Magazine No. 2, 2008

Joerg Colberg: Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff”  Consciencious Website, April 17, 2009