India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Verve People
May 21, 2011

Picture Perfect

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Known for his high-impact, surreal photography, New York-based Mike Ruiz has impacted the face of the still image globally. Speaking about his all-consuming passion, in an exchange with Verve, the lensman zooms in on the ‘It’ quotient that has coloured his life…

A roster of the bold and the beautiful people who have faced his lens would find pride of place in the world of fashion, art and entertainment. Though he is best known for some of his most cutting-edge fashion images and portraits, Mike Ruiz is an artiste who has dabbled in myriad disciplines. The Quebec-born former model and actor – who is a celebrity in his own right – works with the biggest stars of the world enabling them to show off their best face to the world. In India a few weeks ago, he captured Aishwarya Rai Bachchan for Verve’s shoot in an iconic fashion. The man with the Midas touch – seen in the frames he creates – speaks about the magic of it all….

When and how did your passion for the lens develop?
It developed when I was 30. My passion for photography blossomed quite surprisingly ‘out of the blue’. Prior to picking up my first camera, I had no inclination towards photography.

Do you remember the first photograph you have ever taken?
I was about six or seven years old. I remember my parents had one of those very old 110 Kodak Instamatic cameras – the kind with the square flash on top – and I took a picture of my mom. She was my first model!

Professionally though, my very first subject was Mimi Rogers, acclaimed at the time for her role in Someone to Watch Over Me with Tom Berringer. Incidentally, we might also remember her as Tom Cruise’s first wife (smiles).

You worked as a successful model for more than a decade. Facing the camera is a different zone….
By and large, modelling was a very positive experience for me. I was blessed to be able to work with some of the most renowned photographers of the time – David LaChapelle and Ellen Von Unwerth, among many others. Furthermore, being in front of the camera gave me the opportunity to learn many of the technical aspects of photography – and more importantly – it gave me the opportunity to learn how to treat the models as well as staff and crew throughout, in a positive environment and encouraging manner.

Being a successful actor and model, what prompted you to move behind the lens?
As much as I enjoyed modelling, when one has modelled for as many years as I have, it becomes very taxing on the body and psyche to maintain a certain look. In my late 20s, I was becoming increasingly compelled to find a new creative outlet of artistic expression. Literally, that opportunity fell in my lap one Christmas morning, when I received my very first camera. I had an epiphany at that moment, realising that photography was my calling. I haven’t looked back since.

Is it easier being a photographer, having faced the camera before?
Having been in front of the camera allowed me to experience, on a very visceral level, what to look for when I am behind the camera. I can’t say which side is easier. Each one of the professions has its rewards and drawbacks. But I have to admit that my life as a photographer has been the most rewarding professional experience of my life.

Being a celeb yourself, how do you handle the fragile sensibilities of all the celebrities you have photographed?
I am able to compartmentalise my life in very effective ways. My celebrity status is quite separate from my work as a photographer. When I am on set or location, my subjects are my main focus. I ensure that they are comfortable with the shoot: from conceptualisation to execution to the finished product. I consider myself the consummate professional and appreciate being portrayed as such. I recognise that my personal fame has been a huge factor in my success as a photographer, but I never let it go to my head. I realise that it’s all part of a branding effort and I always intend to capitalise on it for a greater good. For example, I am very visible on TV in America and I use every opportunity to speak of all the charitable organisations, which I support.

As far as other celebs’ sensibilities go, there is no one more sensitive to them than myself (laughs). But my sensitivity allows me to sympathise with the constraints faced by other celebrities, which definitely makes for a better, and much more comfortable shooting environment.

Is it easy being in the celeb zone all the time?
Being constantly in the public light can be a drain sometimes but I find an equitable balance, as I am very much a homebody. My home is my sanctuary – a respite from an otherwise gruelling schedule. There’s nothing better than having a home-cooked meal, curling up on the sofa and ‘zoning out’, watching TV.

Your optimism and sense of hope are something that people have talked about. Your comment on where they spring from….
I grew up in a lower middle-class town in Montreal, Canada, that didn’t offer much hope for the likes of me. I was an overweight, insecure child who, in desperation, found solace by delving into the inner recesses of my imagination. In my childhood world of fantasy was borne my sense of optimism.

A sense of social commitment also drives your vision. What has inspired it?
I decided early on that I would create the kind of life I wanted to live in. Lo and behold, through my unrelenting optimism, my fantasy became reality! I now have this sense of social responsibility that I must share this hope and optimism with the younger generation. I feel that by doing so, I give a voice to many who would otherwise suffer in silence.

What would you define as your blueprint for the future?
There is no blueprint. No one can predict the future, so it’s best to let life surprise you.

As a photographer, what would you say your strengths are?
I think that my strengths transcend me as a photographer and are hopefully applicable to me as a human being. I find my strength in being committed, honourable, respectful, truthful (to myself and others) and try to be as disciplined as possible in following through with every task I am confronted with.

How much does the subject’s sense of style or fashion go into creating a great picture?
That is a pretty broad question. I certainly draw inspiration from the subject. But more often than not, I conceptualise how I want a particular subject to be portrayed. Of course that depends on the creative freedom as well, though. Editorial work allows for much creative freedom but in commercial work, I adhere to the constraints and vision of the client. Of course, when my input is asked for (in commercial work) I am full of ideas!

Your photographs have a cutting-edge surreal quality. How do you achieve that?
That’s the cook’s secret recipe.

Would you like to pick your most challenging shoot?
I don’t know if I would necessarily choose to pick a challenging shoot. However, I do thrive on challenge. Not too long ago, I shot a TV advertising campaign, otherwise known as a ‘gallery’. This was for a science fiction programme. In it, we travelled to the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and shot in the water. It was all exotic and beautiful. The caveat to this gorgeous experience was that unbeknownst to us – the client, crew and models alike – we were in the middle of jellyfish infested waters. Needless to say, we all got stung but the nightmare was under control.

What is your method of working when you are going into a shoot?
In New York and Los Angeles, I count on a wonderful team that is as professional and as passionate about photography as I am. We work as a seamless organism. We are almost telepathic! However, sometimes I go on location and go into ‘guerilla mode’. I love organisation and controlled processes but I also thrive on improvising and troubleshooting on the spot.

Other passions that colour your life?
I love and enjoy good Indian food! That, and dreaming of thick, rich rivers of grape jelly, adorned with all sorts of delectable pastries!

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