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Doctor sees another side of himself in exhibition portrait

September 25, 2019

But it happened to Dr Tilman Ruff at lunchtime on Thursday.

His portrait, by photographer Nikki Toole, is in a special exhibition at the newly re-opened National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

After looking at the image of himself Dr Ruff said, “I’m not sure I know this bloke.”

And you can see what he means.

In the flesh, his features are soft and his demeanour is gentle. In the portrait, his chin juts out and he is looking purposefully into the distance in a visionary kind of way.

It’s not that he didn’t like the picture – he did. “It’s one of the nicest pictures that anyone’s ever taken of me.”

He thought it revealed a side of him he hadn’t recognised. He said his family think the same.

“It’s a photograph of me that’s captured things that don’t normally become apparent and perspectives and feelings that are quite novel. Most of my family and people who know me have been quite struck.”

Dr Ruff has the gentleness of a doctor and the toughness of a determined campaigner – and the picture gets that.

Since 2012, he has been the joint president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an organisation that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

He was also the founding Australian chairman of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

In front of the portrait, he seemed shy. “It’s such a humbling privilege to visit this hallowed space and to be in such extraordinary artistic and subject company. It’s really quite a humbling honour.

“You look at yourself somewhat anew.”

That combination of softness and resolution comes from the juxtaposition of his taut face and the soft red jumper.

The jumper was the photographer’s inspired choice. When he met Nikki Toole, he was dressed in formal clothes – much as he was when he went to the gallery this week.

But she asked him if he had other clothes. He produced his old, worn farm sweater and she jumped at it.

“I brought this old clapped out, red jumper from the farm. The elbows are both full of holes. It’s worn through. It’s extremely comfortable. Anybody who needs a cosy jumper tends to wear it.

“As soon as Nikki saw that red jumper she said, ‘Take your shirt off. Put that on’.”

And it transforms the impression. It’s turned a man who looks inconspicuous in real life into a visionary.

The picture is in a new exhibition that opened on Saturday called The Look, curated by Dr Sarah Engelow, the historian at the National Portrait Gallery.

“Tilman looks indomitable. He looks determined. I think he looks as if he’s looking into the future,” Dr Engelow said.

Dr Engelow said the staff at the gallery sometimes imagine the pictures talking to each other when it’s closed.

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