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Willi Ruge


The exhibition

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: With his passion for sport, aviation, and car racing, Willi Ruge (1892–1961) was the ideal protagonist in this era of optical sensations and speed. His thirst for adventure took him on travels around Europe, Africa and South America. As a war reporter as well as a commercial director, Willi Ruge bore witness to social turmoil and was fascinated by the technical possibilities of modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century. 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). 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. With his agency, Fotoaktuell, Ruge supplied the expanding periodicals market in Germany in the 1920s and 30s with plenty of visual material treating the social, political, and scientific topics du jour. This first worldwide retrospective including around 140 vintage photographs was researched by Ute Eskildsen, and curated together with Felix Hoffmann. Steidl will publish a catalog on the occasion of the exhibition.

The artist

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.

Photo: Willi Ruge, Dürfte ich Sie etwas nach links bitten. Aus: Der Mann hinter der Kamera. Ein Mienenspiel in 16 Bildern (Detail) 1930er Jahre © IBA-Archiv/ KEYSTONE