During his time as a student Ruff worked as the ‘art director’ for the Dusseldorf post-punk band EKG. In return, the band members modelled for Ruff’s early photographic experiments. It was at this time that he began working on a series of portraits, a genre that had all but vanished from the Dusseldorf Academy.

Ruff embarked on a period of research into the history of portraiture and carried out his own experiments with composition and framing. He decided on a style of portrait that would be as neutral as possible, with the aim of emphasising the face of the sitter. Ruff requested that his models try to be expressionless, and each one was photographed wearing their ordinary clothes, against a plain background.

French theorist Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1982), suggests that it is possible for a photograph to convey deep emotion, and that there is a moment when the subject of a photograph makes a direct link with the emotions of the viewer through the surface of the image. Ruff, however, takes a much more pragmatic view, convinced that a photograph is only able to express the superficial – literally showing us the surface of its subject (and in itself the photograph is nothing more than a surface).

Ruff first produced these works on a large scale in 1986. The Portraits consolidated his international reputation and gave him the financial support he needed to begin work on a series of photographs of buildings.