Ruff started making portraits in 1981 while he was still a student at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. He studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher, and in keeping with the spare aesthetic of their work he set strict parameters for his project: subjects would be photographed showing only their heads and shoulders, wearing their own everyday clothes, and with neutral facial expressions. Ruff intended that large groups of these approximately eight-by-ten-inch color portraits would be hung together, so to add variety he photographed each person against a colored backdrop.
By 1987 Ruff had distilled the project in several ways, settling on an almost exclusive use of the full frontal view, eliminating the colored backdrop in favor of unvarying white, and enlarging the finished work to monumental proportions. Despite the detail that the scrupulous technique and large scale afford, the viewer is left with no insight into the person pictured. And yet, considered together, these psychologically blank portraits convey something of the character of Ruff's generation — the first to be born after World War II.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 102.