Willi Ruge

Curated by Ute Eskildsen & Felix Hoffmann

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 aerial gunner, as a director of commercials and a businessman, Willi Ruge bore witness to social turmoil and was fascinated by the technical possibilities of modernism at the beginning 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 entered the image as a subject. This approach led Ruge to develop more than just the role and self-conception of the photojournalist: instead of a clear-cut, objective portrayal of his subjects, he conveyed subjective experiences that 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 shots from above, 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.

Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s was more than a throbbing metropolis with countless cinemas, theaters, ballrooms, nightclubs, and dazzling neon signs; as the capital of art and culture it was also the center of an emerging press and photography scene. With his agency Fotoaktuell Ruge was able to supply the expanding periodicals market with plenty of visual material treating current social, political, and scientific topics. Yet Ruge did not belong to the band of photographers who capitalized on the illustrated periodicals boom in the 1930s by turning their hand to photo reportage. He had already established himself as a sought-after press and aviation photographer in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

To balance out his extraordinary experiences, Ruge also sought the concentrated solitude 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 avant-garde. 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 – including the conscious cultivation of his own image.

Willi Ruge . Fotoaktuell is based on research conducted by the curator and photo historian Ute Eskildsen for C/O Berlin; the exhibition, which was curated in collaboration with Felix Hoffmann, is the first retrospective worldwide. 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 and Will McBride. A catalogue will be published by Steidl on the occasion of the exhibition.

Willi Ruge was born in Berlin in 1892. He completed his schooling at fifteen and began training as an optician before turning to photography. At the same time, his passion for aircraft construction was awakened. He became self-employed in the early 1910s and called his business Presse Verlag Photoaktuell. Over the years, it went by different names, such as Presse-Illustrations-Verlag and Presseverlag Fotoaktuell GmbH in the 1920s and 1930s. He was an aerial gunner and reporter on both the eastern and western fronts of World War I from 1914 to 1918. During the Weimar Republic, he photographed the insurgencies in Upper Silesia, the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, and the French occupation of the Ruhr. In 1921, Ruge founded a film company and produced promotional films for the German aviation industry. His images were published both in Germany and internationally, and his reportage Photograph Myself during a Parachute Jump (1931) catapulted him to international fame. In the 1930s he traveled to South America and Africa as part of his work for the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. During World War II he was stationed as a “special-class photo reporter” in Poland, Norway, France, and Africa. In 1946 Ruge received certification from the American military government, enabling him to photograph for DANA, the German General News Service. In postwar Germany Ruge worked for publications such as Weltbild and Quick. In 1953 he moved to Offenburg in order to work as an aeronautical advisor for the publisher Franz Burda. Willi Rude died in Offenburg in 1961.

View more images on the C/O Berlin website.
Also opening that day at C/O Berlin: Danny Lyon »Message to the Future«

Guided tours Saturday and Sunday 2 pm and 4 pm . Saturday 6 pm in English language

Accompanying program (German)
> 19.10. Vortrag . Deutsche Fotojournalisten und ihre Zweitkarrieren nach dem Nationalsozialismus more
> 16.11. Curator’s guided tour with Ute Eskildsen more
> 21.11. Panel-Diskussion: Bildjournalismus im Wandel der Digitalisierung more


Sep 16 — Dec 3, 2017
Opening Reception: Friday, Sep 15, 7 – 12 pm
Accompanying program: please see above


Amerika Haus, Hardenbergstraße 22-24, 10623 Berlin
[Charlottenburg | Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf]

Opening hours: Daily 11 am – 8 pm

Admission: 10 € / reduced 6 € | Online Ticket

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