In the body of work and book JPEGS by Thomas Ruff (Ruff and Simpson. 2009), the artist uses the compression technique JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group 1992) to create new images (or series) from existing photographs/images either made by Ruff himself or “found” in archives.

In his essay; Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel, David Campany (Campany,D. 2015) immediately steps over the Elephant in the room; copyrightability. Nevertheless, he refers in paragraph four exactly that issue:

“Colin MacCabe put it in his biography of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, ‘In a world in which we are entertained from cradle to grave whether we like it or not, the ability to rework image and dialogue … may be the key to both psychic and political health.’”

This phrase in the biography is exactly MacCabes interpretational defence in the ongoing discussion on the matter of copyright and whether the re-user of existing work acquires new (copy)rights as creator/artist. (Derivative art can only be copyrighted when elements are added to the original, and the question arises, is using a third party compression technology sufficient?) Godard is also known for his montage mode of filmmaking, mixing relatively few live-action shots with the majority material taken from cinema’s history (archives) creating also derivative work.

Next Campany elaborates on the definition and usage of archives and how archives are used throughout modern art and photography (increased by digitalisation?) where Campany agrees on the reuse and/or reordering of “archive material” to create new entities, as is the “re-ordering” and selection of present images into low quality (=high loss) JPEG images.(On both I disagree but that might be a matter of technical progress or at least of visual enlargement of either technology, showing flaws of lossy compression technology (JPEG) should not be confused with digitalisation or pixel visibilities as such)

Campany seems to place digitalisation and image compression technology under the same category and he concludes the pixel is quite different from the grain in analogue film. On the other hand, the work of Ruff, in general, is perhaps more about the journey of photography from analogue to digital then this isolated “jpeg” subject might suggest.

Joerg Colberg (Coberg, J. 2009) is more clinical in his review of the book and work “jpegs” by Thomas Ruff. He does not dispute the work and photographs as such but questions if using the visualisation of compression technologies (JPEG) is not a too thin derivative or addition to further undisputed good photographs.

the question of Colberg seems to ask: Is the visualisation of a (far by perfect) image compression technology sufficient as an expressional concept in art?

Both authors do not argue the images used, nor the reordering of work or selection and the end results. However, where Campany agrees on using jpeg visualisation and extreme large blow-ups of existing and even “found” photographs as an artistic concept, Colberg takes a more reserved stance on these matters and admits he does not get a satisfying or justifiable answer from the author Ruff within the book. Opposite Campany he prefers the book-format above large gallery blow-ups make the concept work. Neither takes stance on copyrightability.


‌David Campany. (2015). Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel – David Campany. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2019].

‌ (2009). Conscientious | Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2019].

“Imitation vs. Copying in Photography: The Issue of Derivative Works.” PetaPixel, 8 Feb. 2017, Accessed 8 Sept. 2019.

Maccabe, Colin. Godard : A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. London, Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2017.

Circular 14. U.S. Copyright Office.

Computerphile, and Mike Pound. “YouTube.” YouTube, 2019, Accessed 8 Sept. 2019. (2019). JPEG. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Sep. 2019].

‌Examples JPEG

Below one of the images from Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work, subject the Twin Towers, New York 9/11. The rework by Thomas Ruff works really well on this image and surprisingly adds perhaps even more drama and some abstract.

Ruff, Thomas. “Jpeg Ny02.” Metmuseum.Org, 2019, Accessed 8 Sept. 2019.

Below two images shot by myself but without the intrinsic drama of the images used by Ruff. Two Seagulls in Amsterdam and an image of a woman in front of some signs, some funny results on jpeg blocks. This JPEG-blow-up technique does not really add anything to either image. I zoomed in to the specific 8×8 (pixel) jpeg block of the woman’s face to show a JPEG-block in monochrome.

van den Berg, Bert. Meeuwen. 2019.

Face isolated in JPEG 8×8 Block – van den Berg, Bert. Left-Right. 2019.