Rinzi Ruiz is a painter of light. As I walked around with him in his stomping grounds in downtown L.A., the 35-year-old street photographer is constantly watching the sun, the shadows, the way lights reflect off of buildings and how those will impact the shot. His use of black and white only serves to accentuate this approach and draws attention to the light on a subject.
I had the chance to sit down with Rinzi a couple of weeks ago at a cafe in downtown L.A., and talked about his work and photography in general.
Question: How and why did you get into photography?
Answer: I always loved taking pictures. Since I was a little kid, my mom would hand me little point-and-shoot cameras, and I’d be off taking whatever pictures I wanted, she’d develop it and you know, it was kind of a fun thing to do.
But recently, as far as within the last few years, the reason why I got really in to photography is because I needed a creative outlet that I wasn’t getting anymore where I worked. Even though it was graphic design-based type of work, I was in management, attending meetings, doing more of the business side of things, so I was doing less of the creative work, although sometimes I still would design something. But it just wasn’t the same anymore, and I needed something different.
A few of the vacations that I had done really got me to shoot more, just with a little point and shoot, but I took it to Guatemala, I took it to New York, and I was getting some really good stuff from that, but going like, “How are these folks getting these really great images that I’ve seen on websites?” So I started reading more about the cameras and the lenses, and the megapixels and all this stuff that comes with the territory in photography. A lot of YouTube videos, a lot of websites, and really a lot of shooting, kind of seeing a shot and going, “How can I do that?”
So I got into the cameras, and then I got tired of shooting in and around the house, just in families, and I’m looking online and I’m like, “How am I ever going to shoot a model? How am I ever going to shoot these kinds of images that people are getting all over the world?” And I found out about street photography, and I was like, “Wait a minute, I kind of do that in a way, but just not in the same way as a lot of people have been doing it for a long time.” But I did wander the streets and find little things to take pictures of.
So that’s what got me into photography — all of a sudden I’m seeing this community of people, these images that I wanted to be able to create. And really the camera, and all the things that come with the camera, is just another tool for me to be able to express myself, sort of in a different way than I would have if I had drawn something or designed it in Photoshop or whatever.
Q: Where and what do you like to photograph?
A: When I first started, it was a lot of inanimate objects, and plants, flowers, roses, you know things like that. But staring at those pictures didn’t really do anything for me, besides you know, oh, “Look at the bokeh; look at the colors.”
And then like at family parties and get-togethers, I’d take pictures of my cousins’ kids, just relatives, catching them in the moment. Those really stood out to me a lot more, so I made a decision to say, “I like photographing people.” There’s more to that than seeing a landscape by itself. Now there’s beauty in that as well, but for me, the human element just adds a completely different level to it. It’s a funny thing because all my pictures before, my mom would be like, “Why aren’t there any people in your photographs?” Like, I’d wait until all the people cleared out, and I’d take the picture!
Whereas now I’m constantly waiting for people and wanting people to be involved in some way or another with the environment or with the camera or with other people. So definitely portraits, catching the moment, a certain glance somebody did, a certain gesture, if it catches my eye and I’m fast enough to take the shot, those are the kind of shots that I really want to get.
That kind of transitioned to also liking how light works and how it can enhance what the person looks like on that photograph and how they’re showcased.
Q: Who are a couple of your inspirations?
A: Current ones — I took a Frank Jackson workshop not too long ago. Before I took the workshop, he always really inspired me because of his use of light, his use of tone. His black and whites are just so well done. I mean the simplest thing — like he takes pictures of little coffee cups, little espresso cups from his travels in Europe. Even with that, just presenting a cup! There’s so much to it that just works, with how it’s lit, the tone, so I learned a lot from what he was saying about getting the exposure right in the camera, and then you can play with it a little more if you want to afterwards, even with film or digital. It’s the same kind of thing, and that really stuck to me as far as what I learned in that workshop with him.
As far as past ones, I started collecting books, and I don’t claim to know every street photographer that’s out there. I’m slowly finding out about them as I go along, but I picked up a book while I was at a bookstore, and I’d never heard of him before, but his name is Ray K. Metzker. And I started flipping through the book, and I got to one image, and literally I got really emotional. I almost started tearing up because the fact that he was in that area of the city, I think it’s Chicago, at the right time, at the right moment, there’s this car and this lady walking and the light’s just hitting perfectly, very simply done. But for me just so perfect in every way — the composition, the light, the lady, the way she’s dressed. It’s from an earlier time, so you know, the car’s an older car, the lady’s dressed in an older way, but that kind of shot is what, when I’m looking around, if I can get something even close to that shot, I would be so happy. Something that brings a tear to somebody else’s eye, like what happened to me when I saw his work.
Definitely, Gary Stochl, really good stuff black and white, a lot of the great black and white artists, that is really a lot of the stuff that I look at. It really influenced how I see tone, how I see the light, and the shadows and the contrast between that. A lot of what I’ve looked at has been black and white work from pretty much everybody. I’ll see what works for me and how I process my work. Or if I don’t quite like something, I’ll study and see what did work on that, when can I use that kind of style versus this style.
I only do color for my gigs, the gigs that I get and get paid for, but most of my work is black and white. But as far as color, there’s a lot of really great — Saul Leiter, his stuff, wow. Amazing color at work. Somebody actually mentioned and compared my work to his recently, and I was like, “No freaking way.” That guy is way up there. It’s probably just the color palate, more so than my skill of getting the shot.
That’s the thing that catches me with a lot of these folks, they just happen to be intuitive enough to be in the right place at the right time, first of all, see the picture in their eye, and be ready for the shot before whatever happens happens.
Q: How would you describe your personal style?
A: I’ve been getting a lot of comments about the style that I have now; it’s definitely a “light and shadow” kind of style, and it’s definitely developed over time with my understanding of photography and how the camera works and all that. But also looking at the works of Ray [Metzker], and a lot of the photographers that I’m seeing, their use of light and shadow and contrast, those are the things I’m studying and really trying to get better at. So I’m trying to head in that direction. Definitely seeing the light changed everything for me.
Ibarionex Perello wrote a book called “Chasing the Light.” He’s one of the guys I met in Eric [Kim]’s workshop, the first one. So I read his book, and a lot of what he talks about is what I started to apply and really focus on — where the light’s coming from and the property of the light and how it handles, even with some colors it changes depending on the type of light that’s involved. But really even just walking around the streets, just seeing where the light’s coming from and seeing something out of that. I don’t know, it’s just the way I see things now. It’s an evolution — before it was about bokeh, and then it became the whole light and shadow thing, which I really like. It kind of gives me the ability to take the graphic sense I have doing graphic design and photography and mixing it together — using the buildings and the shadows to create those graphic lines and shapes that sort of make my photographs now.
Q: What are some of your favorite images?
A: I was speaking about the Metzker one, again — it’s just how perfect everything can be together. The composition, the light, it’s so simple — there’s nothing more than the lady, the light and the car. But to me, the way it all came together is just so perfect.
For me, the one I use on my business card right now is probably my all time, just because it really got me to the point where I said, “OK, I can do this.” I call it “Leaving” and it’s the man with a hat walking out of a building in the financial district of Los Angeles. It really taught me patience and waiting for the shot, and composing it, and framing it correctly. All these things as I was sitting there trying to get the right person to walk along, just the act of changing it up this way, and waiting, and getting different people in the shot, and finally getting that one, I was like, “OK, this is such a revelation; I’ve got to do this more often. Why aren’t I sitting in a place for a long period of time waiting for the shot? Why am I walking around all the time? Now my feet are tired, and I’m sweaty if it’s a hot day — you might as well find a good backdrop, work with it and wait for the right person to walk along.” And that’s what that taught me. A certain image teaches me something along the way, and that was the one that taught me to be patient, to wait for the shot, to really take the time to think about what I’m doing and what kind of image I want before taking it.
Q: The name of your blog is “Street Zen,” and you talked a little bit about finding zen in the streets.
A: I was a pretty stressed out guy for a long time. Work stuff, coming from a toxic environment, you leave work, and even if you had a good day, there’s something that’s just weighing on your shoulders, just not a good vibe. I’m a big energy type of person — really good energy can spread and make things very positive, versus how negative energy can make things negative. A lot of what was going on at work was kind of negative. So I really wanted to find something positive, and taking the camera out for long walks really helped for that, because it was either that or sitting on my couch watching TV, vegging for the rest of the night, which didn’t really help anything.
So getting out, walking, kinda made me a little healthier, at least I’m doing something physical, plus just the simple act of walking, and breathing, and thinking about stuff and life. That is kind of a meditation for me. A lot of people do that — it’s a walking meditation sort of thing. That’s what I try to practice. I just walk around, try to stay in a positive zone in my head with what I’m thinking, I’m breathing, and doing something I really like to do.
So over time I was slowly becoming happier, more relaxed, finding that zone again of being creative. That was something missing from work was that creative aspect of me — that’s a huge part of me that I wasn’t utilizing anymore. Getting in that zone again, in that bubble in my head, was huge. It was a tremendous thing for me to have finally found something that I can do, that’s outdoors, interacting with people. Because if I’d gone back to drawing, to graphic design, I’d be sitting on a computer at home, not interacting with people, not walking around, so that’s why I call it Street Zen. I did find that zen, that peace of mind, that enlightenment, so to speak, with my walks.