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Man vs. Nature
By The Editors
Great photography captures both what is on the surface and the many interpretations of the world as we see it. Michael E. Ruiz, a landscape and wildlife photographer based out of Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland, balances the raw elements of nature with the man-made architecture that captivates so many people.
We spoke with Ruiz about how his love of nature and Cuban culture manifest in his own work as well as what stories he hopes to tell with the work he has done so far.
How has your photography developed over the course of your life?
My love for photography started with my grandmother. She loved to take pictures of our family. She would often reminisce with us over photography. Pictures held deep meaning and memory for her. I learned about my family’s life in Cuba through the few black and white photographs that they were able to bring with them as refugees in the 1960s.
In school, I learned to take artistic photographs and develop film. I found myself drawn towards towards architecture and landscapes. I love the symmetry and the beauty in the architecture of a city. As a child, I learned about the architecture of a city with my grandfather showing me pictures of his favorite Cuban landmarks like El Capitolio, El Malecon, La Habana Vieja, and El Morro. His story’s of the Cuba he loved brought those black and white pictures to life with rich color and incredible memories.
As a teen, I moved from photography to videography. I produced videos at school and as an intern at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. I also worked as a videographer in Texas taking videos of businesses for potential investors. Videography taught me the importance of telling a story.
As immigrants my family placed tremendous value on professional careers in business. My generation was discouraged from seeking artistic careers. My photography and videography became a hobby for many years. In the last few years and with the encouragement of my family and friends, I’ve decided to once again share my art with the world and ruizgallery.com was born.
Some of your photography is inspired by Cuban culture. What parts of that culture do you specifically enjoy focusing on?
The Cuban culture is a rich, vibrant and passionate culture. From the music of the island that raises you out of your seat and moves your body to the rhythm, to bright colors that surround the island, Cuban culture has always had deep, artistic roots. This richness is visible in my photographs with the deep, saturated colors that make up much of my work. Also the vibrance of the culture jumps off the paper in the sharp lines and in the deep contrasts of my black and white photos.
The Cuban culture is simultaneously laid back and deeply intense. This dichotomy is best seen in the mañana culture of the island juxtaposed to the energetic music and dances of the island. I try to capture this dichotomy in my photography.
What narrative do you like telling with your landscape and nature photography?
As you walk through nature, you can be struck by the quiet, peaceful, relaxing, laid back quality of being in nature. Just below that surface is an intensity and a rhythm — a struggle, a beauty. The blossoms of spring, make way to the lush of the summer, until the color of fall captures our imagination before the cruel and bare winter. The flow of water through a raging river dancing smoothly down to ocean to a rhythm control by the mountains and shaped by its own force.
I hope my pictures capture the contradiction of intense passion and carefree, unrushed nature that I see in every landscape I photograph.
We're especially fascinated with your series of building photographs "Street Lamps and Giants", especially the ones contrasting the Empire State Building with construction sites and lamp posts. What inspired the seemingly unrelated comparison?
I have visited many cities throughout the years. The older cities of the East Coast tend to have antique street lamps. They are ornately beautiful all by themselves. Although one day it struck me, these lamps once burned whale oil then later burned natural gas and today are powered by electricity. One generation of street lamp gave way to the next, each shining its light and bearing witness to the growth and changes of our society. These street lamps have stood through the ages as silent sentinels. What stories could those lamps tell use about the street corner that they illuminated from generation to generation?
Who or what has been your biggest influence on your photography?
I would love to point to some great photographer whose works have inspired me to take great pictures. Truthfully my greatest influence was my grandparents, their stories, and my culture. My grandparents kept our Cuban heritage alive for me in the pictures they took and in the stories they told. The story behind the picture was often as good or better than the picture.
In the later years of my grandmother’s life, she suffered from Alzheimer’s and currently my mother suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s. These photographs become even more meaningful as they are the memory keepers. The photographs become vehicles for remembering the past. They retell the stories of our lives.
I am also interested in delving deeper into the concepts of freedom, poverty, and privilege. As I travel, I often counter the homeless population and am challenged to better understand their stories. There is a privilege associated with having a life that documented in photos. Not everyone has that privilege and it challenges me to understand the stories that are missing. I want to know: What is their story? How did they get here? Would they trade their life with me if they could? Both burden and freedom can be found in privilege.
Prints of Ruiz's photography, including photos seen here, can be found on his portfolio.
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