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Austin Photographer Spotlight: José Ruiz

Austin Photographer Spotlight: José Ruiz

Posted by Caroline Janes on 7th Sep 2021

With photos dripping with nostalgia for simpler times, local photographer José Ruiz transforms mundane, everyday life into captivating photographs that tell a story. Since Ruiz began shooting on film, each shot is well-thought-out and calculated making for thoughtful and intentional photos. 

I corresponded with Ruiz about the appeal of film photography, blue collar workers and growing up in East Austin via email as follows below. 

How did you get started in photography? Do you strictly shoot in film?

José Ruiz: My brother inherited my grandma’s Minolta X-700 when she died, and I eventually got it from him. That was the first real camera I had, and the one that really taught me the basics. Before that, though, I was also learning about composition because of Instagram and my iPhone.

How does your experience change when shooting film vs digitally, or are you strictly a film photographer?

JR: I just got my first digital camera camera (a Fujifilm X-Pro2!) a few months ago, so it has been fun learning a whole new world. On the other hand, I have been shooting film since 2013, so the biggest difference I notice in the shooting experience has more to do with how comfortable I am with the cameras themselves. I still treat my digital as if I only have a few rolls/exposures and really don’t find myself coming home with a ton of pictures on my memory cards. Perhaps if I had learned photography on digital I would be more open to taking an unlimited amount of photos, but coming from the film world, I really think twice about every frame before pressing the shutter.

What kind of film and camera do you like to shoot with and why?

JR: My workhorse is my Minolta CLE and for color film, I’ll shoot with anything really. There’s so much out there still, especially expired film, and part of the joy of film is never really knowing what you’re going to get until it’s developed. For black and white, I usually shoot T-Max 400 pushed a couple of stops. The Minolta CLE is a rangefinder camera that allows me to zone focus, and with as much sun as we have in Texas, it pretty much turns my camera into a point and shoot when I shoot T-Max at 1600 ISO. Since I like shooting a lot on the streets and in candid situations, having that kind of flexibility is super important to me.

What aesthetics are you trying to achieve with film?

JR: I honestly don’t think I am really trying to achieve a specific aesthetic with film specifically, as much as I am with my photos in general. Since I learned on film, I just stick with it because of how familiar I am with the medium and the way film cameras work. Overall, I want my photos to always look like real life. No over the top editing, or sharpness, posed or staged, just simple everyday life.

Do you prefer 35mm or 120mm? What photos do you think are best for 35mm? 120mm?

JR: I prefer 35mm for street photography, and/or when I am in an environment that requires speed because the moments are quickly fleeting. For 120, I have an Mayima RB67 that I use for portraits, and the negatives are absolutely out of this world. 120 film is beautiful, but it’s more expensive and usually means a larger and heavier camera.

I understand you’re involved with several nonprofits including Workers Defense and I Live Here I Give Here. How did you get involved?

JR: I have worked for Workers Defense for almost 5 years and have truly enjoyed my job there. Every year we participate in Amplify Austin which raises money for nonprofits all over the city. Last year, I made prints of my photos for anyone that donated to my fundraiser and made over 30 prints! It was a great experience being able to tie both of my passions together in such a tangible way.

I understand you’ve photographed and interviewed many blue collar workers, specifically construction site workers. What’s an impactful story you’ve heard?

JR: As part of my day job, I get to interview construction workers all over the city about their working conditions. I have heard countless stories that have made an impact on my life, but in general, I am astounded by how hard construction workers work and the toll it takes on their bodies. Texas is the only state in the U.S. that does not require employers to provide workers compensation coverage, and when you see how much construction workers rely on their bodies in a dangerous industry like construction, you realize how much they risk everyday by going to work, both economically and physically. Because of my job, and from growing up in a family full of construction workers, I love taking photos of construction workers and other blue collar folks.

My photography is far from flashy, it is mundane, full of natural light, and everyday scenes. It is simple, but important to me. Film is super labor intensive too, from manual focusing, to developing and scanning film, and in all of these ways, I think it relates to blue collar work too. Blue collar workers don’t usually stand out, but their work, and the workers themselves, should be noticed and appreciated. I think we would all be in a better place if we placed more value on the mundane, and my hope is that each of my photos flips the narrative on such mundanity, whether work-related or not.

How has your work been influenced by your upbringing?

JR: One thing that makes Southeast Austin so unique these days is that it probably contains some of the last rural parts of Austin. My photography has definitely been influenced by the slower, rural life out here and the use of natural light with a lot of space. I hope my future work contains more scenes directly tied to the life experienced by those of us who call Southeast Austin home.

Tell me more about your @eastsideridesATX Instagram. What draws you into automotive photography?

JR: This kind of happened organically. At the end of last year, I just noticed that I had so many photos of cars I had taken over the years on the Eastside and didn’t really know what to do with them. So I started the account on a whim and have enjoyed keeping up with it so far. I enjoy the idea of giving some of these cars new life and admiration. You can just tell some of these cars haven’t been driven for years, but you can tell they were something to behold in their heyday. I also love the architecture of old East Austin houses, so the account also tends to feature the houses alongside the cars

What are your favorite things to photograph?

JR: I think I have already talked about plenty of my favorite subjects above, but if I had to boil it down to a phrase it would be: “Everyday life in natural light.”

Do you have any rolls of film that need to be developed? What do you expect to be on them!?

JR: Oh, I have a fridge full of undeveloped film! Some of the more recent stuff I have labeled, but I honestly have no idea what is on most of those rolls. I am trying to be better about labeling and classifying things, but at the same time, one of the best feelings as a film shooter is holding up your negatives to the light and thinking “Oh yeah, I remember these now!”

You can find more of Ruiz's work on Instagram