Mike Ruiz, the acclaimed celebrity and fashion photographer who also stars in The A-List: New York, took some time to catch up with me and share his latest book project, Pretty Masculine.
Where are you today?
I'm in Apple Valley shooting about 10 guys for my expanding Pretty Masculine project. We've been out in a dry lake bed. Our makeup artist brought us to this remote location he knows about, and it's actually very cool. Compared with the chill of New York City right now, it's 80 degrees and sunny here. The light and the weather have been awesome.
Why don't you tell us a little bit about Pretty Masculine?
I had been working with a guy who did an event where a number of models were body painted, and I just thought, "Wow, I'd really love to do a photo shoot with that." So the first series is featuring body painting that resembles tribal tattoos. As time went on we sort of expanded the body painting into floral motifs as well as painting clothes and armor on the models, incorporating some leather wardrobe. Eventually we added actual flowers into some of the pictures. The contrast of the two is really where the title of the series comes from.
When I initially heard the title, I expected it to be very BDSM-oriented and was surprised to see what you came up with.
If anything, there's some Tom of Finland stuff, but that's more attributed to the masculine aspect of what I was trying to convey. All of the images are very polished and hyper-stylized, and there's a bit of a surrealist element to them. That is also a part of where the "pretty" comes into play, with the very super-slick styling and glossy imagery that we produced. Everything in this book, all of the images, are somewhat "perfected." The skin is flawless and the colors are all beautifully enhanced. There were some leather chaps, but it wasn't ever totally about documenting a particular fetish community.
Who else has inspired you?
Pierre et Gilles have played a role throughout my entire body of work. My entire career has of course been influenced by Francesco Scavullo, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Douglas Kirkland, who I'd actually posed for as a model. When I was in front of the camera, Ruven Afanador was hugely inspiring to me because of the way his creativity overtakes him when he works. It was incredible to witness. It showed me just how gratifying being creatively expressive can be.
Let's talk about your modeling days.
I had the fortune of working with a lot of truly amazing and talented people, but honestly, through the majority of my modeling career, I couldn't have been less interested in photography. It's not like I was even inquisitive or it was something that I thought, "I'd really like to pursue this." For the 10 years that I was a model, I spent at least nine where I never asked a single question or hung around a photographer and asked questions. I gravitated more towards the hair and make-up people, which actually ended up benefiting me more, because when I finally decided to start shooting, I had all these amazing and talented friends who were stylists, and I could pull together this stellar team. That certainly expedited my start.
How would you contrast the shots you took today in the desert to what you have in this book?
Almost all of the work I've done up to this point on this project has been in studio, so shooting in the desert had an entirely different vibe. Initially, we set out to do some work that was informed by Mad Max, but eventually things evolved. This is really the first ongoing series of male portraiture that I've done. The guys who came in to model today brought suitcases of wardrobe. Several of them were in the military, so we had them wear elements of their uniforms for a bit. Then later on, one of them had this whole fishnet outfit we had him in. I love that whole sort of creative contribution that happens when you get a group of people together, a collective willingness to participate.
Where do you find your models?
Well there are a number of ways, but something that is important to note about these guys is that I didn't pay them, and they all knew that the proceeds from this project go to charity, and none of them flinched. Because they spend a lot of time working on their bodies, people can project their insecurities on them and assume they're dumb and unaccomplished, when that couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who works that much on their body, who can allocate that much discipline to themselves, it spills over into other aspects of their lives.
You mentioned that the proceeds from this go to charity. Who is the beneficiary?
One hundred percent of the profits from the book go to Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City. Knowing that it benefits GMHC, Jeffrey Sanker and Just Fabulous in Palm Springs have been kind enough to sponsor my recent trip to California to sign the book and raise proceeds for a wonderful organization. Larry Kramer and a handful of others in the '80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, founded GMHC, so it's something of a pioneering organization. They're also very efficient and effective with their funding, which is important to me.
You work with several HIV organizations.
Well, the plight of those living with HIV is not over until there is a cure. Seventeen- to 24-year-olds are getting infected at a much higher rate than previously. There's been a bit of a lapse in education, and I think it's important for us to continue those efforts. All of the charitable organizations I work with benefit a younger generation that could use the help and education.
The book, Pretty Masculine, and limited-edition prints can be purchased online at MikeRuiz.com and in retailers nationwide.