DC: For anyone living under a rock, who are you and what brings you to this space?
MR: First off, thank you so much for having me, I’m happy to be here. You actually brought me into this digital space. You introduced me to the concept and the idea of NFTs and I'm very excited about exploring that with you. I just want to find out as much as possible about them and inject some of my art into this space.
DC: What is it that made you fall in love with photography?
MR: Well it's actually pretty simple, it was a pretty immediate epiphany that I had when I was about 28 years old. As you mentioned, I was working in front of the camera, I was a model / a waiter / whatever I could do to make a living. My heart wasn't really in any of it until a friend gifted me a camera for Christmas.
As a model, I was travelling a lot and wasn't documenting any of it. He said you're going to all these amazing places and you're not really documenting any of this incredible journey that you're having. So, he got me this camera. It’s funny because I was working with photographers all the time and I couldn't have been less interested. Usually, when people are interested in photography, for example, when I'm working with a model, and they're interested in pursuing photography, they're very inquisitive and I couldn't have been further from that when I was modelling. I worked for some pretty great photographers and I could have gotten some really incredible knowledge had I had the foresight to ask questions, but fortunately it panned out anyway.
So, I was given this camera when I was 28 and I became consumed. In highlight, I realize it became a mode of communication for me and it was a way for me to communicate things I couldn’t articulate verbally or in any other way. I was shooting seven days a week and I would shoot anything in sight. I was pretty obsessive, people were worried about me. I was literally held up in my apartment with these tabletop scenarios with barbies, lighting and I did it around the clock. Then I started exploring shooting with people and that kinda stuck. It was just my obsession and need to communicate certain things that led me. It wasn't even a conscious decision, like okay I think I'm going to be a photographer, you know? It just took me over.
Image Courtesy of Mike Ruiz
DC: How was your shift from the commercial photography world into the fine art photography world?
MR: I mean, it wasn’t really a shift. I've always either tried to integrate it into my commercial work, like sort of a fine art approach to commercial work. Whenever they would let me, which was very rare. When I look back, it was more sort of an organic unveiling of what I wanted to do and what I needed to say. I kind of always did everything. I always did side projects and personal projects that were completely self-indulgent and were satisfying my creative fantasies. Fortunately, a lot of that stuff really resonated with my commercial clients. They saw some ability in me that I could do pretty much anything and I did such a wide range of things. You know, some people either focus on fashion or entertainment or beauty but I did everything. I mean, everything. So, to answer your question I kind of always did everything simultaneously. I never made a conscious shift from one to the other. It all sort of blends into each other. Obviously, sometimes I just have to put on my commercial hat and say, okay I'm just shooting straight up on a white background just a really beautiful, simple cosmetic advertising kind of thing. I mean, I don't know if that answers your question, but it's funny, I don’t really do anything consciously. I'm led by my subconscious for my creative decision-making.
DC: I love it and I mean that that's also why I kind of consider you more of an artist than just I mean I don't want to say just a photographer but I feel that's the main thing you've labelled yourself and maybe people definitely take too much time trying to consider what to label themself and I think the freest I’ve been is when I don't really consider what I’m calling myself both in terms of gender and in terms of my career.
MR: I had a conversation yesterday about gender and art and how they converge and being put in a box and being labelled. I don't like being pigeonholed in any way so something like that, of course, applies to photography and anything creative really.
DC: What are your initial thoughts on NTFS and how they might be able to serve you and your work?
MR: That's a really good question, you've been really great at explaining to me the concept, the context and how NFTs are positioned and I'm not afraid to learn and let go of old ways. For example, a lot of photographers didn’t embrace the digital age and they're like-
DC: A lot are still shooting film.
MR: Well yeah, film is actually making a comeback. There’s a lot of young people who are shooting film but I've always been one to embrace new things and new technology and ways to showcase art specifically in various forms technologically. That's kind of what's appealing to me is a brand new world of exhibiting. I get the sense that it's going to simplify the whole process of art exchanging hands. That's something else that's appealing to me because a lot of the hassle that’s involved in providing certain certification for art I think will simplify. I’m excited at the prospect of embracing a new way to exhibit art and to bring it to a different generation because right now NFTs are on fire and I'm sure they're gonna become sort of mainstream relatively soon. I just want to be a part of that. I don't want to be left behind in the dust like I was with bitcoin.
DC: No, absolutely - I always say: even if you're talking about it now you're still an early adopter. It hasn't been adopted on a complete mass scale yet and it's almost, I don't want to say responsibility, but it's almost like why would we not take advantage of being at this point in time. At least try it out since the upstart cost is still fairly low and it will continue to go down as well which is the good news. With that in mind, I know that I was probably one of your first starting points but just out of curiosity and also maybe for people reading, I would love to hear what was your first entry point hearing about NFTs?. Do you remember the first time you heard about it? Was it SNL? Was it an article? Was it a conversation? Do you remember the first time you maybe heard that come up and were like, “wait what is that?”
MR: Actually I have assistants all over the place and I shoot a lot. I live in central New Jersey and I have an assistant down here who helps me out, she's a young girl, she's 17, she's super smart and savvy and knowledgeable about everything and she was showing me these NFTs and I was nodding and smiling and it actually didn't really register which was telling me until I spoke to you and then I went back to her and I’m and then she knows all about it so I’m tapping her for more of her understanding because the kids pick up on it quicker than us old folks so she is very savvy.
DC: They're making TikToks about it. It's amazing. I'll even learn things sometimes that I'll just see online. I'll be like, “oh wow that's like a really good simplification of a very complex idea that's impressive.”
MR: So thank goodness for the younger generation and for people like you and her who sort of helped walk me through stuff like that. I mean I have a pretty good understanding of it but yes she basically introduced it to my subconscious I didn't really register again until I spoke to you and then of course once I spoke to you NFTs were ubiquitous everyone was doing them or everyone's talking about them and Jay-z's pumping tens of millions of dollars into this. So, I think my awareness has certainly opened up since we had our initial conversation.
Image Courtesy of Mike Ruiz
DC: That's awesome, no I'm really excited to hear that and with that in mind maybe there are two kinds of worlds that I would love to hear your thoughts about in regards to NFTs and maybe the relationship between. The first being, obviously given your experience, the world of photography. I know we've also talked about this a little bit but maybe just a little bit more on the record. How do you see photography changing or being transformed with NFTs? Do you think it'll help maybe make it be another layer of legitimacy integrating photography into the art world? Do you think that it'll help photographers sell their work?
MR: Well I mean the way I'm trying to wrap my head around why this would be a viable thing for photographers by equating it too early social media where a few people were savvy enough to sort of get things going before they changed all the algorithms, and then they spun it into massive careers. I think there are a few people who are young photographers who may not have had the opportunity otherwise who are savvy technologically who are able to spin NFTs into their own thing. I don't wanna oversimplify by saying I'm equating it to influencers, but I feel it's going to create a whole other community of photographers who may or may not have had the opportunity to showcase their work or certainly make money or certainly make millions of dollars. To me, it's just kind of another entry point for people. When I started photography there was a simple formula that was in place for a hundred years. You did a, b, and c and the outcome was d, always there was no string-
DC: If you can work with this magazine you can get in front of this editor or whatever.
MR: Exactly, you start here, you start there, it's political, you start shooting for Conde Nast and then you start shooting a big campaign and then you're Stephen Mizell. That's how it played out, always. But, with NFTs I just think it's another opportunity for people. Because, that's not the process anymore, right? Even for me, once social media sort of took over I literally had to start over. I had a good thing going and then social media kicked in and it was all wiped clean. Literally, my whole career was wiped clean, because there was a whole new entry point. I know for sure there was a whole entry point for photography and people were just coming in fast and furious and leaving all of us old-schoolers in the dust. So I was quick to embrace social media too, so fortunately I wasn't lagging too far behind in that area. This is why I want to do NFTs because I kind of want to get in with the cool kids who are technologically savvy who are going to be able to spin very luxurious careers out of NFTs. Where again as they probably may not have had the opportunity. Maybe they live somewhere remote and they don't have access to the editors and to the talent that they need to work with in order to follow the traditional trajectory of a professional photographer. People could literally be creating art in their basement in North Dakota and become major competitive artists.
DC: Beeple, the number one artist in the space, lives in South Carolina in a very modest home with his wife and kids. He’s a very understated guy and then just all of a sudden sells pieces for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, it's really crazy. It's amazing, I think you touched on a really strong point with this new era of cool kids on social media. And that's actually a perfect segue into the next part of the conversation that I wanted to bring up. Given your background, both in terms of the world of the arts and also the queer community and living near New York City.
What are your thoughts on how NTFs might serve the queer community specifically?
MR: I'm clearly queer and present and visible in the community, but I've kind of been in a different headspace right now it's sort of a non-issue. To me, just moving forward as an artist will, by virtue of doing that, will elevate the queer community. I just don't feel it's the same conversation we were having when we were kids. We were fighting for our lives basically. Today if the conversation is, “how can we incorporate NFTs into the queer culture”, then our generation's done our job. I think by virtue of just proceeding as an artist will sort of elevate the queer experience. Personally, I don't feel I need to focus my energy on the queer community. I'm queer, everyone knows it. I'm visible as a gay man, just doing my thing. I almost feel like making it a non-issue. I don't know, I'm sort of kind of all over the place on this. I mean my hope is that it does give opportunities to people who may not have had opportunities otherwise and if that means the queer community then by all means more power to all of us.
I support feverishly underdogs all over. But I found that just living my life is the best representation. Personally, I don't feel the need to be aggressively advocating because I'm just a big out-and-about homo and everybody knows! I wouldn't want anyone to dilute their experience by always having that nagging thing in the back of their head like, “oh it's got to be queer, it's got to be queer!”, just do your art, love your art and love what you have to say and if that is queer-centric then there you go. That's two birds with one stone. Everyone just needs to live their life and that's the best representation and the best way to move things forward.
DC: I think that's a very strong statement. A lot of communities have tried to make NFTs for their communities specifically, but I think at the same time it's really just the same conversation, “okay how can we harness this technology to do the same things we've been doing for charities, for our own work, so I think just no different than that right?
MR: Exactly it correlates to social media. First social media was just a way to connect with people, but it became all of those things. It became a way to communicate politically, communicate ideas, and help people. I use social media to help save animals who are in peril of being euthanized in shelters and it's become a very effective tool for a number of philanthropic things as well as creative things and I just feel that NFTs will continue carrying the torch of that.
DC: Being somebody who is such a voice in philanthropy as well with Bullies and Biceps and all the different things you do across different parallels. How do you see NFTs being meant to promote charitable work being a decentralized source of finance and a way for people to fundraise internationally?
MR: You just gave me a really good idea, actually. I just had a little bit of an epiphany. I have an online retailer where we sell mass-market things, t-shirts, coffee cups and stuff with images of mine on it. We could potentially sell a mass-market type of NFTs that proceeds would go to charity. I Just stuff that everyone can have, 30 bucks, 100 bucks. So everyone can feel they are playing their own part in the future and they're helping so that might be an additional thing to add to my little online retailer type thing. The online retailer that I have the proceeds go to the Ali Forney Center and stand up for pits. With the pandemic, sales have been kind of not great, but we're gearing up to do another big push and maybe NFTs is a way to sort of bringing it into the future.
DC: That's actually really admirable. I know you've been in the industry forever so you know how people are, but most people who have their merch line do not donate their merch sales to charities so that's just admirable in itself.
MR: I was almost going to start an Onlyfans page and donate it all to charity, but maybe NFTs is the way to go.
DC: They're gonna release an adult NFT platform eventually, I'm just waiting for it. Whenever it does, it's gonna be worth so much money. I don't know, it's just inevitable actually
MR: That's another really good idea, I mean it's so prevalent but-
DC: Let's find a coder. We can start it tomorrow.
MR: Okay, I'll get it on that.
DC: All jokes aside, I always love when questions turn into ideas, so I'm very happy to spark that.
Second last question - What do you see happening next in this space? What form of new technology have you come across that you really want to integrate into your future works?
MR: From a creative standpoint, I'm really interested -and it's funny somebody just reached out to me who does post-production on huge sci-fi projects. They've done work on star wars and so, creatively I kind of want to integrate photography and 3D, but really sophisticated. I have really good digital artists that I work with who can do a variety of things. And I collaborate with a lot of different artists where they put literal art on images, painterly things and then people who drop very realistic backgrounds. What I'm wanting to explore is sort of more two-dimensional images but in a 3D space created in complete environments and I'm talking to this guy who does very sophisticated work like that. He's created complete environments for huge adult films so we're gonna explore how we can create together. I have a couple of celebrity shoots that I was just gonna shoot on location and I thought maybe we can create this whole other world that doesn't exist and have this be the next level of imagery for me. I wouldn't want to do it exclusively, but it's just something that I would like to explore.
DC: Totally and I mean why not right and I mean you're somebody who's to play across different mediums and try new things so I mean it's funny that you mention that I’m literally working on something very similar right now with a 3D artist and it's one of my first times doing that with photography. I've done it with video before but it's super cool that I can be like, “okay I just want to shoot this still life”, and then you can take that and just put it in anything almost completely photo-realistically. It's really cool. From a creative direction standpoint, it gives you endless possibilities, which is really fun.
MR: A lot of my work is not escapism, I’m not looking to escape-
I'm always interested in creating better versions of reality. From a personal standpoint, I love the idea of uploading your consciousness into the cloud. I'm also interested in integrating technology into the human body where you can control things just by thought and you can call somebody on your hand. I don't know if I love stuff like that or anything robotic or bionic integrating technology into biology.
DC: If they said you could be a cyborg tomorrow you'd be down.
MR: I'd totally build an exoskeleton.