David Ruff: jpegs – My opinion.

I found the exercise, looking at the critiques of David Ruff’s work by David Campany and Joerg Colberg very interesting. Since that exercise did not require my own opinion, and being a very opinionated person, I shall share my own view here.

I think the first thing I want to look at is the thing that Colberg mentioned, but chose not to cover… the question of whether, with these works, Ruff could or should be considered a photographer.

Now I can’t claim to be anything but naive in such matters, but it seems to me that if Ruff was not the person holding the camera, then whatever else he may be, with these works, he is not a photographer.

So this leaves artist, archivist, or curator.

As an archivist, Ruff would be collecting the images, storing them and categorising them.

As a curator he would be more selective, choosing items for display so that the contrast between the images holds a message or meaning, or makes a greater impression than the images alone would.

Ruff does this.

But he does something else… he blows the images up, and prints them in a large form, thus allowing the viewer to see them in an entirely different way. This, I believe is what makes him an artist.


So, my opinion of the works themselves.

I was struck by the contrasting views of Campany and Colberg. While Campany valued the viewer’s attention being drawn to the fact that these are digital images created by limited technology, that have been viewed by millions,  Colberg’s attitude was that all of this was obvious, and so of limited value.

I suspect my own view may be somewhere in between these two, and I shall explain why.

Here is a photo I took in around 2000 on my first ever digital camera. It was (is… I still have it) a Kodak EZ200, and of very limited capability…  but it was the best I could afford at the time.


The image is of the Concrete Cows, by Liz Leyh, in Milton Keynes (I lived half a mile from them at the time). These are considered an iconic sculpture. The image is highly pixelated. So does that make this photo a work of art?

I would say not, and definitely not by the standard set by Ruff’s work.

The point with Ruff’s work is, it’s not just about the pixelation, and it’s not just about the image being of an iconic event or scene. It’s about the fact that millions of people are familiar with that particular image, and it then being blown up into a large form, so that it can be seen in a different way.

I do wonder, if by rejecting the gallery exhibition and concentrating on the book, Colberg may have missed out on the impact such a display creates. It may be like the difference between watching a good film at the cinema, or watching the Blu-Ray at home on a 50″ TV. Yes, it’s more impressive than seeing it on your computer screen, but you don’t get the full impact.


Having said all of that, do I actually like Ruff’s work? I won’t answer that immediately, for I wish to give you a glimpse of my personal taste in certain things first. (I must also add that I haven’t seen Ruff’s work in a gallery either, so my opinion is perhaps of limited value).

I have an interest in history and nostalgia. I like old things. And more specifically, I like old video games. Video games being a very visual thing, I believe they are worth considering in this context, and I shall give you an example of what I’m talking about.


This is a screen capture of Sega’s classic arcade racing game Virtua Racing (played using the mame arcade emulator on my pc).


This is a screen capture of Drive Club, on the Sony PS4.

Drive Club is bordering on photorealistic, while being the much older game, and both technically and visually far more limited, Virtua Racing is based on flat shaded polygons.

So as a gamer, you would think I would prefer the modern, more advanced ‘better’ game? You would be wrong. There is something about flat shaded polygons, that I find very appealing… some kind of retro futurism, that can’t be matched by any amount of realism in modern gaming.

Back in the 90s, polygons looked like the future, and to my eyes, they still do.

So with that in mind, I find Ruff’s work  …’interesting’.

I remember when the phones on cameras were limited in the way that’s being depicted by his work. If you saw an image of a major event on the TV or in the paper, and 9/11 comes to mind, it’s very likely that it came from such a camera. I remember when for most people, the internet was accessed via dialup, meaning images on the web needed to be highly compressed, so that everything wouldn’t just crawl to a halt.

That makes Ruff’s work interesting and of value on a historical level. He is depicting a certain aspect of popular culture, an aspect which has already passed, and indeed, had already passed by 2009, never mind 2016.

I look at his work and my reaction is one of “I remember those events, and I remember when the internet looked like that, and I remember how I felt at the time.”

On that level… I like what Ruff has done.

Aesthetically, though, while I love the retro-futurism of flat shaded polygons in video games, big chunky, fat, pixels in low resolution photographs… I do not like. Not at all.

On an intellectual level, I can appreciate the way the blocky artifacts bring order to chaos, and convert a mass of flame, or smoke, or twisted metal into a series of 1s and 0s… but my eyes simply don’t find it pleasing.

So how is it that I can like the images created by one limited technology, and not another?

I think it stems from the direction the image is coming from. And what do I mean by that?

In the game, the image is coming from inside the technology. It starts from nothing, and better coding, or better hardware create more detail. But whatever the state of the technology, the image produced is never less than it started out as.

With digital photography, the image starts off outside of the technology. It is pure, and complete. It looks the way it looks. The digital camera then translates that scene into something else… and in the case of old technology, something less. It loses detail, it adds artefacts, and frankly, it looks broken.

Yes the same could be said of the grain in traditional photographs… and I like those.

Perhaps it’s that those are somehow more organic. More natural. How they look is the result of chance and physics, and not a calculation where economy is of equal or greater value than aesthetics.



Campany, D (2008) Thomas Ruff: The Aesthetic of the Pixel. AT http://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel/

Colberg, J (2009) Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff. AT http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/04/review_jpegs_by_thomas_ruff/