Cars racing down Berlin’s AVUS highway, planes landing high in the mountains, the Spartacist uprising, insurgency in Upper Silesia, a self-portrait in free fall: As a war reporter and an air gunner, as a commercial director and a businessman, Willi Ruge bore witness to social turmoil and was fascinated by the technical possibilities of modernism that opened up with the dawn of the twentieth century. Rather than observing silently from the sidelines, he plunged right into the fray, often putting himself into the center to the extent that he stepped into the image as a subject. This approach led Ruge to develop more than just the role and self-conception of the photo journalist: Instead of a clear-cut, objective portrayal of his subjects, he conveyed subjective experiences which seemed to have been captured merely by chance. His visual experiments and reportages fed the public appetite for entertainment and catastrophes, while allowing the viewer to identify with his personal perspective.
With his passion for sport, aviation, and car racing, Ruge perfectly fit the role of the ideal protagonist in this era of optical sensations and speed. His thirst for adventure took him on travels around Europe, Africa, South America, and even into war zones. His best-known photo series show the photographer himself carrying out spectacular feats. The extreme overhead shots, dizzying worm’s-eye views, daring angles, tilted horizons, radical close-ups, and unusual perspectives on the unfolding action reveal his debt to Neues Sehen (New Vision). Ruge’s work brings together a heterogeneous mix of politics, a fascination with technology, a love of experimentation, and visual irony and storytelling.
To balance out his extraordinary experiences, Ruge also sought the concentration of the photo studio. This is where he carried out his visual experiments, staging scenes and creating the “Fantasy of Small Things”—quiet photographic studies in the tradition of the European avantgarde. At the same time, he caricatured the work of traditional photographic studios with a sharp irony. Here, Ruge both exploited the new technical possibilities of photography and used concepts of functionality, effect, and authorship—up to and including the conscious cultivation of his own image.
The curator and photo historian Ute Eskildsen has researched the exhibition Willi Ruge . Fotoaktuell for C/O Berlin and curated together with Felix Hoffmann to assemble the first worldwide retrospective. Around 140 vintage photographs from Ruge’s oeuvre—some of which have never been exhibited before—will be on display. The images had to be laboriously tracked down in numerous agency and publishing archives, as Ruge’s entire image archive
was destroyed during an air raid on Berlin-Schöneberg in 1943. This exhibition marks the continuation of C/O Berlin’s series on contemporaneous historical photography, which has already exhibited the life work of Roger Melis, Fritz Eschen, Will McBride, and Rudi Meisel. Steidl will publish a catalog on the occasion of the exhibition.