Thursday, 14 April 2011

Stefan Ruiz

Finally, some time to write something fuller: a long-overdue post on American photographer Stefan Ruiz. Talented, knowledgeable and humble, Ruiz has been shooting for around twenty years now, crafting a pared-down, distinctive and influential style, especially with his editorial work. I'm sure readers who follow photography are familiar with at least some of his images.
Ruiz has had a fascinating career. As a student he studied painting and sculpture at the University Of California; after that, he began working at San Quentin State Prison, teaching art therapy to some of the prison's most dangerous inmates in the mid 90s. In at the deep end. As he taught, Ruiz became increasingly fascinated by his pupils, and, having gained their trust, he began to take their portraits, using a very simple, formal style using a 4"x 5" plate camera, an approach which he has continued to use throughout his career. This approach requires participation, collaboration and patience on the subject's part, and the resulting portraits have a real seriousness and gravitas, and a sense of respect for the subject is implicit in his portraits. An art history student, the influence of the formal portraits of Italian Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca was apparent in his work from the start.
Drawn more towards photography than teaching, Ruiz collated his prison portraits into a crude portfolio which he showed to art directors and photo editors (long before the advent of laptops, when hand prints from negs were the norm). Based on the strength of this series Shubhankar Ray, who was to become a long-term collaborator, gave Ruiz his first serious commission, to shoot a campaign for Caterpillar workwear in a similar uncompromising style. The campaign, which met with acclaim, gave Ruiz confidence in his style and approach, so he left his role at San Quentin to shoot full time, and when Ray moved to the Spanish shoe company Camper, the two collaborated again on an iconic series of campaigns which helped cement both their reputations. The irreverent subjects - both people and places - made for a droll, award-winning campaign, and showed that Ruiz had an eye for the unexpected and the poetic with his architecture and landscape work too.
Ruiz became Creative Director of Colors magazine in 2003, where he shot stories for the magazine as well as commissioning a generation of younger photographers whose work explored similar themes to his own. He also steered the magazine away from its previously controversial and confrontational aesthetic, and gave it a more serious and considered feel.
Since moving on from there in 2004 he has shot numerous campaigns and editorials (including various in-depth travelogues on Central and South American cities, including Sao Paolo, Rio, Lima, Bogota and Medellin) and also worked on serious long-term personal projects. No doubt influenced by his Mexican parentage, one such project is his 'Factory Of Dreams' series, exploring the world of Mexican Telenovelas, the soaps that grip most of the Mexican population and elevate the lead actors to the status of national heroes and idols. The series is due to be released as a book in 2012.
Below are just some of his photographs from the last 15 years, which really only scratch the surface of what he is about. Readers interested in finding out more about Stefan should look at his own website,, and those with a spare 20 minutes should definitely watch the recent VBS Picture Perfect special where Ruiz talks about his life and work in depth.

Astana, Kazakhstan, 2006

Colombian Fashion Week, Medellin, Colombia, 2009

Salton Sea, USA, 1999

Santiago, Chile, 2005

David Byrne, New York, 2010

Amy Jo Hubbard, Miss Rodeo Wyoming 2004, Las Vegas, USA 2004

The Baiterek, Astana, Kazakhstan, 2007

Hyrdo-electric plant, Medellin,Colombia, 2009

'Amarte Ed Mi Pecado', Televisa Studios, Mexico City, Mexico, 2003

Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2006

?uestlove, New York, date unknown

Bogota, Colombia, 2007

'El Pirata', Mexico, 2003

Halifax, Canada, 2006

Sports centre, Medellin, Colombia, 2009

Bernard, Lukole Refugee Camp, Tanzania, 2000

Lukole Refugee Camp, Ngara, Tanzania, 2000

San Cristobal, Lima, 2007

Kaydee Nelson, Miss Rodeo Utah 2004, Las Vegas, USA, 2004

Phe Ruiz, San Francisco, USA, 2002

James Brown, Aiken Country, USA, 2002

Jenna Jameson, Scottsdale, USA, 2004

Naples, Italy, 2002

La Paz, Bolivia, 2003

Narcotecture, Bogota Colombia, 2007

Balu Deshak, Madhaya Pradesh, India, 2002

Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2001

Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2006

Narcotecture, Bogota Colombia, 2007

Rene Vallejo Psychiatric Hospital, Camaguey, Cuba, 2001

Pan Americana Highway, Peru, 2005

Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City, Mexico 2003

Ouarzazate, Morocco, 2001

Night club, Medellin, Colombia, 2009

Medellin, Colombia, 2009

Medellin, Colombia, 2009

Liza Minelli, NYC, USA, 2002

Marat Kozhagaliev, Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2006

Medellin, Colombia, 2009

All images © Stefan Ruiz