I was interested to discover that photographs of San Quentin inmates played a formative role in Stefan Ruiz‘s career. At 4:45mins, Ruiz talks about his position as an art teacher at San Quentin and his compulsion to make portraits.

From a battered Fujifilm box held together with gaffer tape, Ruiz pulls out a wire bound album of prison portraits:

“I really wanted to take pictures of them so I started taking all these photos. I put this whole little notebook together … and I would carry this box [everywhere]. This was before laptops. I used to bring this to Europe all the time and I’d show this. This was what got me jobs.

Ruiz goes on to explain that he was employed by Caterpillar to imitate the look of those San Quentin portraits. Ruiz’s contact at Caterpillar then moved to Camper and the relationship continued. After Camper Ruiz went to COLORS Magazine as Creative Director (Issues 55 – 60, April 2003 – April 2004). All the while, Ruiz was perfecting his “well-lit” and “polished” style.

Some observers are turned off by the fusion of art/documentary/fashion employed by Ruiz. Common criticism of this multi-genre work is that it can depict poverty as glamorous, violence as eye-candy, and people as consumable props in a visual world obsessed with surface.

The flaw to these dismissive crits is that cinema has been forging this type of imagery for decades; yet, we expect slick augmented reality in the moving image. Ruiz’s use of lights instead of B&W film and the blur of a Leica is hardly an attack on documentary and certainly not on realism (since when has photography ever plausibly claimed a monopoly on realism, anyway?).

Ruiz’s portraits have a solid footing in reality; they are devoid of photojournalist cliche and require participation from the subject. And as far as commercialism is concerned – at least in the case of COLORS – the relationship of money to Ruiz’s aesthetic experiments is acknowledged.

Ruiz likes to “work with the person.” From telenovela actors to hospital patients and clinicians and from rodeo queens to refugees, Ruiz has connected with his subjects through a transparent discussion about what they can achieve together with a device that records and stores their likeness.

The VBS profile of Stefan Ruiz* is a great introduction to his past, present and future trajectory. Highly recommended.

* I apologise for the crude use of screengrabs in this post.