Object of Desire: Thomas Ruff

So the portraits, which resemble passport-style photographs in their format and lighting, subvert several conventions in photography. At first glance they appear almost anti-narrative in their tight cropping (much like a headshot) and lack any background details. In this regard, they appear as documentary (as opposed to artistic) in convention. In reality, however, numerous clues suggest otherwise. For starters, their larger-than-life scale insinuates a deviation from the norm. Additionally, their being twice (if not thrice) the size of the normal human head grants them a certain power or vantage point over the viewers. In that regard, they appear to be staring back at the viewer, and as such reverse the object-subject dynamic, thriving on their subsequent activation. The viewers feel compelled to continue examining the shots, which would have probably been overlooked had they been inside a passport or on top of a state-issued identification card. It is then that the viewers begin to understand the level of manipulation on behalf of the sitter (and not just the photographer in his meddling with the size–that is just a ploy to clue viewers in to look closer,) as seemingly neutral signs–a hairpin, a cross-bearing-necklace, red lipstick, messy curls, scruffy cheeks–become indicators of personality and individuality. Viewers become quick to guess the background, status, level of attractiveness and history (among other things) of the people photographed. Vicariously, viewers therefore learn more about their own system of executing judgments as much as they do about the conscious (or perhaps not?) manipulation of the sitters. The portraits are no longer objective, but deeply personal self-presentations and meditations on evaluating otherness.

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