Tripe | Ruff by Thomas Ruff

Inspired by some of the earliest photographs of India and Burma (Myanmar), Ruff's series, 'Tripe | Ruff', commissiond by the V&A, reimagines a set of 1850s architectural and topographical images by British Army Captain and photographer Linnaeus Tripe. Encompassing over twenty prints, 'Tripe | Ruff' is the latest series in Ruff's 35-year investigation into the medium of photography.

Portrait of Major-General Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902), Madras Army, 1880s, British Library, Photo 612(1)

In preparation for the series, Ruff scoured the museum's collection of over 800,000 photographs. He was captivated by the haunting quality of Tripe's large-format paper negatives, revealing temples, palaces and monuments that in some cases no longer exist. Made over 160 years ago, when he was an official photographer for the East India Company, Tripe's work is widely regarded as one of the great achievements in early photography.

Ruff was drawn to the scale, beauty and aesthetics of Tripe's negatives – specifically the way in which discolouration and damage to the paper mark the passage of time. He was also fascinated by Tripe's early 'retouching' processes, in particular his painting the reverse of negatives to add different effects, such as clouds and foliage.

Working with the V&A's historic photography collection adds a new dimension to my work. It's the first time I’ve ever worked with paper negatives. I was fascinated and astonished by the beauty of Tripe's negatives and how he created them. In the age of digital photographs, I find it really interesting to revisit these images. Throughout my career I have produced a lot of negatives, but I've never really looked at them, except as the master for printing. Yet, Tripe's negatives have a pictorial quality that is really incredible. Tripe | Ruff is about the history, the different processes, techniques and technology of photography, and how rich the photographic world really is. The series is about curiosity, discovering something new and beautiful, and wanting to share it with the world.

Thomas Ruff
Left: Waxed paper negative by Captain Linnaeus Tripe, 1850s. Museum no. RPS.2721-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Right: Tripe_01 (Amerapoora. Mohdee Kyoung), by Thomas Ruff (b. 1958), C-type print, 2018. Museum no. E.830-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London / Courtesy of Thomas Ruff and David Zwirner Gallery

For each 80 x 140 cm print, Ruff began by combining the distinctive colour of Tripe's negatives with that of the positive albumen print on-screen. He then enlarged the negative by over three times its original size to reveal the structure of the paper and minute detail captured by Tripe. While Ruff predominantly works with images on a computer screen as digital files, he acknowledges that printing the image and hanging it on the wall is one of the most important steps in his creative process. It is only through this act, by looking at each image for days, weeks or months, that he can determine whether a work is finished.

By digitally reinterpreting photographs made over 160 years ago in places such as Mysore, Rangoon (Yangon) and Trichinopoly (Tiruchirappalli), Ruff gives Tripe's evocative images a new context. He emphasises their hidden details, resurrecting them with spectacular new life. It is a kind of collaboration between artists that bridges the centuries.

Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A
Background image: Tripe_17 (Trichinopoly. Street view, the rock in the distance), Thomas Ruff (b. 1958). C-type print, 2018. © Courtesy of Thomas Ruff and David Zwirner Gallery