Thomas Ruff: the JPEGS debate

Thomas Ruff

Thomas Ruff was born in Germany in 1958 and studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie under Bernd and Hilla Becher. His work to date has had two major strands – his own photography, based largely upon repetition and cataloguing, showing the influence of the Bechers; and the re-presenting of found images from archives, newspapers, cartoons and other sources. In this capacity he has been described as “a master of found and reimagined images” (The Economist, 2017, cited in Wikipedia, 2018). Ruff’s book JPEGS, published in 2009 by the Aperture Foundation, was compiled from images he found on the internet and blew up to monumental scale, intentionally creating jpeg artifacts in the process.

David Campany on JPEGS

David Campany is a UK-based writer, academic and curator.

The pixel has replaced the grain of photographic film… [G]raininess took on the connotations of ‘authenticity’, coded as a kind of limit to which the photographer and the equipment had been pushed… Pixels are quite different. They are grid-like, machinic and repetitive… The pixel represents a cold technological limit, a confrontation with the virtual and bureaucratic order that secretly unites all images… Many of [Ruff’s JPEGS] are images of unpredictability… We switch from looking at figuration to abstraction and back again. The result is a great tension or drama. And it is tempting to see in this drama something of the character of modern life with its great forces of rationality and irrationality.

Jörg Colberg on JPEGS

Jörg Colberg is a US-based photographer, writer and academic.

… [T[he concept itself seems to rely a bit too much on the technique itself. What else is there?… [E]verything would be fine if there hadn’t been so many attempts to convince me that in reality JPEGS is more. What that ‘more’ really is I never managed to find out… At various stages, I thought, ‘Well, now we’re getting somewhere’, only for the author to end a thought. Well, sure, images on the web often have low resolution, and if you blow them up then they show funny patterns… and of course, photography’s role has been changing through its use online – but all that is just so obvious!


Campany argues that allowing a photograph’s building blocks to be visible means that they are part of the image’s message. While the meaning signified by analogue graininess was well established, the semiotics of jpeg artifacts are less clear, but Campany argues that they can be seen as expressing the tensions that are characteristic of today’s technology-defined world. Colberg, on the other hand, remains to be convinced that there is any more to the jpeg artifact than the fact that it’s a very low-res image. I lean more towards Campany’s assessment than Colberg’s. It seems self-evident that when an image displaying jpeg artifacts is consciously presented for view, the artifacts become an integral part of the image and will say something to the viewer that would not be said without them. Whether the message received by the viewer is simply that it’s an extraordinarily low-res image, as Colberg suspects, or something more nuanced, is the point at issue.

In the case of Ruff’s 9/11 images the viewer might conclude that higher-res images had not been available (which indeed is the reason Ruff gives for embarking upon the use of bitmapped images), and this would tell them something about the nature of the event and its recording. In this case the message might be very similar to analogue graininess: that a limit had been reached, specifically in the size of the image captured. It would convey a sense of the urgency of the event – telling us that there had been no time to pick up a larger-format camera and only the smartphones in people’s hands had recorded the moment – and thus give it a sense of authenticity in the same way that graininess did in the past.

But if the viewer concludes that the jpeg artifacts are a stylistic device rather than a necessity, the message they receive might be a reminder of its artificiality, of the fact that it’s not a true representation of the real world, in which case the sense of its authenticity would be reduced. In this case the message would be drawing attention to the constructed nature of the image and not the object or scene represented by it. In both cases, however, there is more being conveyed to the viewer than simply the fact that the image is very low-res. The choice to display an image in this way is a statement of intent as well as a decision about resolution.

From Thomas Ruff’s JPEGS

Experimenting with low-res images

Playing around with making my own very low-res images by substantially reducing then increasing their size, I found that while images of soft-edged forms like clouds or the sea didn’t change their mood very much in the process, those with straight lines or figures acquired a noticeably juddery quality. This highlighted another aspect of Ruff’s 9/11 images – they convey a sense of explosion and tremor more graphically than hi-res images would have done.

References and resources

Campany, D. (2008) ‘Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel’. Available from: [accessed 24/01/18]
Colberg, J. (2018) ‘Review: JPEGS by Thomas Ruff’. Available from:  [accessed 24/01/18]
The Economist (2017) ‘Thomas Ruff’s manipulative photography’. The Economist. (30 September 2017)
Ruff, T.
(2009) JPEGS. USA: Aperture Foundation
Wikipedia (2018). Thomas Ruff. Available from:  [accessed 24/01/18]