Portrait 1986 (Stoya) is a large colour photograph by the German artist Thomas Ruff depicting a young man, shown from the front and gazing out towards the viewer. The man’s head and shoulders fill most of the frame, and his features are set in a neutral arrangement. Although his hair is styled and he wears a deep yellow shirt and striped set of braces, the pale background, the blank expression and the even, flat tones in the image reveal little about the personality of the sitter. Tate’s version of Portrait 1986 (Stoya) is numbered two in an edition of four.
Ruff created this portrait in 1986 in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he had studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakadmie in 1977–85. It is part of a large series of works entitled Portraits that Ruff began in 1986–91 and resumed in 1998 (see also Portrait 1988 (C. Pilar) 1988, Tate P78090), and its descriptive title gives the series name, the year that the photograph was taken and the name of the sitter. The works in the Portraits series are each identical in size and feature a young male or female sitter presented against a white background and staring out towards the viewer with a blank expression. Each was made using a standardised technique: the sitters, who were all friends and colleagues of Ruff, were positioned before a large format camera that was mounted on a tripod and covered in a black cloth. Ruff composed each scene using the inverted image that appeared on the camera’s focusing screen, after which he inserted a film holder containing the photographic plate, closed the camera, set the shutter, re-covered the camera with the black cloth and took the photograph.
Ruff was among a generation of artists including Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky who studied under the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the 1970s and 1980s. The work made by artists of this generation reflected the documentary objectivity – the use of even lighting, frontal presentation and the repetitive, serial format for exploring a subject – that characterised the Bechers’ photography, a style that was itself influenced by the 1920s German realist tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit or ‘New Objectivity’ painting and photography. Ruff stated in 1997 that ‘I have an idea of an image, but I can’t find the image because it doesn’t exist yet. So I have to make it myself’, and his Portraits, which act as both representations of individuals and standardised records of faces and bodies, could therefore be considered a reflection on the truth value of the photographic portrait (Ruff in Centre national de la photographie 1997, p.19). As Ruff explained in 1989:
I don’t believe we can still make portraits in the conventional sense of ‘representing a personality’ today. At least I don’t claim to do that. Which is why I imitate portraits. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal of reality in my portraits.
(Quoted in Thomas Ruff: Works 1979–2011, exhibition catalogue, Haus der Kunst, Munich 2012, p.26.)
According to the critic and curator Régis Durand, Ruff’s portraits can frustrate viewers due to their combination of clear, detailed presentation and the erasure of the sitter’s identity. As Durand observes, ‘They are perfectly and massively “realistic” and precisely because of this realism they undercut any attempt to look for clues that would allow one to go beyond them’ (Durand in Centre national de la photographie 1997, p.16). In this sense, the realism of these portraits could be seen to be the source of both their absorption for the viewer and of their potentially alienating blankness – one that curator Okwui Enwezor has described as a form of ‘guarded nakedness’ (Enwezor in Haus der Kunst 2012, p.13).
The curator Emma Dexter has compared the objectivity and monumentality of Ruff’s Portraits to the social documentary portraiture of German photographer August Sander (1876–1964), situating Ruff’s portraits in a postwar German culture in which ‘These subjects, young German adults of the late twentieth century, seem to have escaped the confines of history and race … Perhaps [they] are evidence of the abnegation of experience and memory in contemporary Germany.’ (Dexter in Cruel and Tender, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2003, p.19.) Furthermore, in 2004 the artist discussed the sociological impetus behind the series in relation to the political upheavals experienced in Germany in the early 1980s that led to the increased surveillance of the country’s citizens:
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.
(Ruff in Gil Blank, ‘Interview: Thomas Ruff’, Influence, no.2, 2004, p.51, http://www.gilblank.com/images/pdfs/blankruffintvw.pdf, accessed 5 May 2015.)
Despite this, the art historians Norman Bryson and Trevor Fairbrother have suggested that Ruff’s portraits offer an ambivalent view of this new culture of observation, stating that they ‘locate so precisely the forces that move through the faces and subjectivities of people living in a society in love equally with spectacle and with surveillance’ (Bryson and Fairbrother 1991, p.94).
Norman Bryson and Trevor Fairbrother, ‘Thomas Ruff: Spectacle and Surveillance’, Parkett, no.28, 1991, pp.92–6, http://www.davidzwirner.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/TR-Parkett-Bryson-91.pdf, accessed 5 May 2015.
Cruel and Tender, exhibition catalogue, Tate Modern, London 2003, reproduced p.41.
Matthias Winzen (ed.), Thomas Ruff: 1979 to the Present, New York 2003, p.183, reproduced p.183.
Supported by Christie’s.