Thomas Ruff jpegs and “jpeg”

Discussing his book  Jpegs (2009), the German photographer and artist, Thomas Ruff explains that while downloading images from the Internet he noticed the pixellated quality. “It created quite a painterly, impressionistic structure, and rendered parts of what was often an ugly image very beautiful. I looked into it, and found the Jpeg file-compression software was responsible,” he says (Benedictus 2009). He began blowing the images up to  2.5 by 1.8 metres. “When you see it from about 10 or 15 metres away, you think you are looking at a precise photograph, but if you go closer, to within about five metres, you recognise the image for what it is. Then if you go really close, you can’t recognise anything at all: you’re just standing in front of thousands of pixels,” he says (Benedictus 2009).

Ruff uses jpeg as one of his tools, deliberately saving and re-saving images at higher rates of compression in order to get the image aesthetics he wants, but his subject is not jpeg. He uses the effects or traces of the jpeg protocol (as found in the dot jpegs he appropriates) to “symbolise”. Talking of one of his  images he says: “I used a shot I took from a hotel room in Kyoto, Japan, in 2002. I was just 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” (Benedictus 2009). Here the traces of jpeg are used as part of a wider exploration of aesthetics and politics. Here, “a pixellated square is ugly, but if you present it in the right context it can become beautiful” (Benedictus 2009).

For Art World magazine, “the images fracture and pixelate to reveal, or more accurately to foreground, surfaces consisting of intoxicating mosaics of coloured grids. Stand back, and an (often apocalyptic) image emerges: up front, the photograph’s constituent elements and its underlying digital structure predominate” (Lane 2009: 136). Here the jpeg form ‘reveals’. An ‘underlying digital structure’ is harnessed in a wider signifying cause. Ruff goes on to tell the magazine that he: “discovered that if you compress digital files using JPEG compression, the system creates what I felt was a very interesting pixel structure… So I started an investigation, asking myself, ‘How does it work? Where does it come from?’ And then I decided to create whole images with this kind of abstract structure” (p 136). Leaving aside Ruff’s reluctance to unpick “the system”, what is important here is that the pixelated formal traces of jpeg’s operation are the equivalent of choice of film for Ruff: Kodachrome versus Velvia, Tri-X versus Pan-F. Each has a different quality and aesthetics appropriate to a particular photographic or artistic signification.

Ruff foregrounds the traces of jpeg. He even, like pixel art, arguably foregrounds “the digital”. But this commentary is secondary to a critique of representation (whether the saturation of images or Art Photography’s penchant for the hi-res (Fried 2008)) and change or as Bennett Simpson calls it: “an allegory of dispersion” (2009). Simpson argues that it “seems impossible to view Ruff’s photographs as pictures without simultaneously viewing them as processes” (2009). It could however be argued that because the work is made up of “photographs” it is the jpeg as a protocol/process that is most ‘unvisible’. One sees pixels and digital effects. One sees and read signs. As Daniel Miller warns, semiotics can be “as much a limitation as an asset” (Miller 2010: 12) or as Jane Bennet has it, things are never entirely “exhausted by their semiotics” (Bennett 2010: 5).

Ruff’s teachers, Bernd and Hillla Becher, famously developed an objective practice, painstakingly and dispassionately cataloguing blast furnaces and objects of industrial capitalism. Ruff’s approach could do the same. He could catalogue our image-saturated web and culture. Fifty ‘jpegs’ (sic), 5,000, 50 million taken and/or donwloaded. Given the resources he could print them all 2.5 metres by 1.8 metres, an objectivist catalogue or archive to parallel Google, Yahoo and Facebook’s own. Such a work would doubtless add to his critique of aesthetics, politics and mankind’s impact on the environment. This archive could expand the range of jpeg’s traces that were foregrounded. Here one would be confronted not only with pixelation and digital compression but the ubiquity and interoperability that makes those archives and archival practices (and software) possible. It may even open up some of the alliances and translations that run through digital imag(in)ing – the enfolding of that imag(in)ing with Apple and Google business strategies, the relation between the stream of imag(in)ings and the information economy of search and data mining etc. If one were able to see ‘through’ the signification inevitable in a photographic exhibition, one could be faced with a critique beyond “mankind’s impact on the environment”.

What one could not see and would not be confronted with is the protocol that sets those significations, those aesthetic traces and those alliances in motion. That, withdraws from view.

  • Benedictus, L 2009, Thomas Ruff’s best shot, The Guardian. Retrieved February 1, 2011,  from
  • Bennett, J., 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.
  • Fried, M., 2008, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before, Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Lane, 2009, Thomas Ruff: Space Explorer, Art World, 12 (August/September), pp. 136-43.
  • Miller, D., 2010, Stuff, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Ruff, T., 2009, Jpegs, Aperture Foundation, Inc, New York, NY.
  • Simpson 2009, Ruins: Thomas Ruff’s Jpegs, in Ruff, Jpegs, Aperture Foundation, Inc, New York,.