The Leathermen is a Mike Ruiz Project

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Photogrpher Mike Ruiz photo from the Leather Project
Photogrpher Mike Ruiz photo from the Leather Project

Beauty, fashion, and celebrity photos — and always with a Canon camera

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

Mike Ruiz stumbled into photography when he found a Canon camera under his Christmas tree. At the time he was 28, a model, and always around photographers and equipment, and had “zero interest” in photography.

Still, Ruiz picked up the camera and studied it. At first, he’d photograph everything and anything in sight, until, after a while, he began noticing “a common thread” in the subjects he was drawn to, as well as in the way he was photographing those subjects.

“That’s when I had this epiphany,” Ruiz said, “and realized that I was obsessed with it.” Pretty quickly, photography became another way for him to communicate, and he decided that he needed to “speak” the language of photography moving forward.

To this day, internationally acclaimed beauty, fashion, and celebrity photographer Mike Ruiz is still a Canon photographer. He has photographed celebrities like Taraji P. Henson, Alan Cumming, Queen Latifa, and Prince.

The recent pandemic gave him the time for introspection, and for exploring something he’s always been drawn to- the black leather community. With that came the idea of photographing leathermen, and the start of The Leathermen Mike Ruiz Project.

He placed a post on social media, and by the fall of last year, he was already doing the first photo shoots. From there, the project grew exponentially. Through it, he’s captured a unique, complex, and lesser-known portrait of the black leather community- its history, culture, and people.

For some, “leather is a manifestation of an inner truth, a second skin.” It’s not about the leather, but the mindset that comes with it.

To an outsider, “leather” might bring to mind images of military uniforms or bikers’ attire, which, in turn, symbolize authority and strength. Many individuals in the leather community do appear as authoritative figures. They want to live and love freely and are open to exploration and experimentation. And that resonates with some people.

In general, the desire for exploration and experimentation is not something new. It often happens in response to the boundaries imposed on individuals and communities by culture, society, and religion. Because people are conditioned to believe that everything outside these boundaries is wrong (which is absurd) this desire for exploration and experimentation comes with a powerful internal conflict- sometimes expressed as shame and guilt- attached to it.

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

Working on the Leathermen project has provided Ruiz with a liberating creative experience. The more he researched the leather community and the more stories he heard, the more engaged with the community and passionate about the project he became, just like the time he first got his camera and started photographing. In the process, photographing the leather community has creatively influenced other facets of his photography work, and also changed his mind set about life in general.

Perhaps what touched him are the many emails from individuals who responded to his post. “I’ve gotten a lot of emails, and it’s heartwarming,” Ruiz said. They are emails from those living in places where the leather community does not have a big presence, and who, now, through the Leathermen project, can truly see themselves for the first time.

“It’s pretty powerful how things unfold,” Ruiz said. “I didn’t set out to create this project to be a cultural movement, but I’m fascinated by these stories and want to document these men who have contributed so much to LGBTQ+ culture and community, and who, at the height of the AIDS crisis, were [caring for] people, in hospitals, before anybody else was. My intention is to shine a light, to give insight into a really beautiful community that I feel has not gotten the positive attention that it deserves.”

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

In only a few short months, Mike Ruiz has photographed some 60 individuals and captured more than 300 portraits. He started in New Jersey and then moved on to California.

One of the L.A. photo shoots took place in an abandoned garage. “I had set it up just like a regular studio and was going to replicate images that I did in New Jersey,” Ruiz said, “but then I looked around the corner and noticed the sun beaming through. I [used] a fog machine and came up with a few images that look cinematic. By the end of that shoot, I realized that I had [several] different [looks] that I really wanted to showcase creatively in this project and then I’ve been sticking with that.”

The resulting portraits are very homogeneous in terms of framing, cropping, and coloring, thus emphasizing the subjects’ distinct personalities. “These are identical portraits, but if you look [closely,] you’ll see people’s personalities coming through,” Ruiz said, “and you’re able to compare people’s personalities, based on this big homogeneous wall of identical portraits.”

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

While communicating and keeping everybody updated about related exhibitions, the photographer has also befriended some of the individuals he’s met through this project. That kind of connection was possible, “because as much as I was afraid of exploring this over the earlier part of my adult life, I find that I have a lot in common with these guys,” he said. “I have a lot more commonality than differences.” He’s very familiar with the ‘toxic shame’ too often associated with being gay, and found it really nice to be around individuals, in a community where there’s no such guilt or judgment. “It’s liberating for me to be around them and I like that freedom.”

In his Leathermen photo project, Ruiz captures a softer, more gentle, intimate yet real portrait of the black leather community. “There’s a lot of smirking and smiling and giggling in some of the images. These guys are burly, but they also have a little cocky smile on their faces, [like] dominant alpha males who don’t take themselves too seriously. That combination is intoxicating.”

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

The diversity and humanity of the community also shine through in his body of work. “I wanted to do it with the utmost care and respect,” Ruiz said, “and I think that’s always been apparent with the guys that I’ve been [photographing], so I feel a lot of them have taken me under their wing and were happy to talk to me. Project aside, as much as I’m seeing their humanity I think they’re seeing mine, too,” Ruiz said. “To them, I’m not just this guy with a camera barging into [their] community; they see that I’m celebrating them, which is what my goal is.”

Images from The Leathermen Mike Ruiz Project will be featured in several exhibitions in June. One exhibition will open at the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. While mostly showing erotic art, the Foundation also wants to present Ruiz’s work, which has some underlying eroticism. This way, the exhibition not only celebrates the leather community, but also attracts people from outside the community.

Another show will open at the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. They’re interested in featuring the project because of the diversity of individuals, members of the leather community, that Ruiz has captured in his body of work. A third exhibition will take place at the Academy Social Club, in San Francisco. The venue showcases different artists every few months.

Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project
Mike Ruiz images are all from the Leather Project

While Ruiz continues to schedule photo shoots in the U.S., he also wants to shoot in Europe in places like Berlin and Madrid, where the leather community is active. “I feel the timing of this is really good because [the leather community] has been on the fringe, but I feel like the understanding of the community is opening up, based on how people are responding to [the project].

“I thought I would do a couple of dozen portraits and move on to the next thing,” he said, “but I feel like I’m a part of something now, I don’t feel like an outsider looking in, [but rather] an insider helping other people [to see the community,] too.”

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