7 minute read
Finding a Voice
Brandon Ruffin learned to find photographic inspiration in his own backyard and now FUJIFILM GFX100S is helping to continue the story
“At one time,” remembers Brandon Ruffin, “I thought I needed to go to all these wonderful places to create beautiful work, and to photograph people from those places, too – places that I had no way of reaching as a kid. These were people and places that somehow seemed better than the ones I knew. But eventually I learned something – all I needed was right here in the city around me. That’s why I hate the term ‘self-taught’,” he laughs. “It just gives the impression that I didn’t go to school for photography! Yes, I took a different path, but each path requires you learn, even if it’s one you’re navigating alone.”
In fact, like many photographers, traditionally or self-educated, Brandon – who now specializes in portraiture and street photography in Oakland, California, and contributes to publications, such as Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle – had to find what mattered most alone: his creative voice. And that is just as important as the technical aspect of the art.
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/640 sec at F2, ISO 640
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F2, ISO 125
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/640 sec at F2, ISO 160
Practicing graffiti and ink drawing from an early age, he also documented the world around him with a simple point-and-shoot camera. “I soon moved on to a bridge camera and learned about manual exposure. I started making what I would call ‘artistic’ photos, where I was thinking more seriously about lighting and composition,” Brandon recalls.
“I very seldom made pictures of people at the time, because I hadn’t developed those muscles as a photographer yet,” he continues. “And after graduating, the economy was in the dumps, so I ended up working at electronics retailer Circuit City. I hated it at the time, but I look back at it fondly now, because it was like an extension of college – and it helped me get a discount on a DSLR, which my parents bought me as a graduation present.”
As well as picking up more capable equipment, Brandon was discovering the influences that would shape his outlook – these weren’t inaccessible people and places, they were personal experiences. “I don’t know what it was about graffiti that called to me growing up, but I was really into hip hop, and that same interest led me to Jamel Shabazz, the Brooklyn photographer who documented the rise of that culture. His work was really interesting, because it was about the community that was experiencing hip hop, not necessarily the artists themselves. Seeing New York displayed in that way was incredibly moving for me, because I came from a neighborhood just like it, but on the West Coast.”
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F4, ISO 640
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/160 sec at F2, ISO 400
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/200 sec at F2.5, ISO 160
That idea of community would form the center of Brandon’s own work, but it still took some realization to get there. “Growing up, I had major insecurities about where I was from,” he explains. “As a black kid – and ultimately as I became a black man – I was very self-conscious about the way people perceived me. There are a lot of negative connotations, and that can manifest as a desire to prove to people you’re different. You know: ‘I’m not ghetto, I’m not a thief, I’m smart, I speak well’, so you want to make sure that everyone else knows this and they don’t treat you badly.”
It’s something that Brandon doesn’t think he’s alone in experiencing. “I think it’s something that affects most black people, as they’re trying to figure themselves out,” he continues. “We sometimes want to set ourselves apart because we’re very self-conscious about the way people look at us, especially when we’re in spaces that aren’t just our own. You’re always very aware of your skin. And sadly, these are the conversations that a lot of black children have inside their heads as they grow up.
“I had to get over the idea that there was no value in photographing and documenting the environment I was from,” he adds. “Seeing the documentary work from guys like Jamel, Chi Modu, and Radcliffe ‘Ruddy’ Roye was huge for me. Their work shaped my mind to move in a certain direction, before I discovered more traditional documentary icons, like Gordon Parks, Saul Leiter, and Eli Reed.”
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/160 sec at F2, ISO 250
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/400 sec at F2, ISO 160
Beginning to connect with the community through making urban landscape and street images, Brandon was encouraged by a photographer friend. “They challenged me to get closer with my street photography. That wasn’t something I understood at first, because I was using a 135mm lens and taking close-ups. But the thing was, most of the time, people still didn’t know I was photographing them. I wasn’t getting physical or connecting with people. She urged me to move outside that comfort zone and engage, explain why I was photographing them, and have a conversation.”
‘Closer’ soon became a mantra for Brandon, with his intimate street portraits not only created from nearer to his subjects, but also spelling out the intention of his work. “For me, there was a push to create intimate pictures of black people,” he explains. “I enjoy making pictures of all people from a human standpoint, but I began wanting to display my own community in a way that shows how diverse black people are, without implicit biases.”
According to Brandon, filling the frame of his pictures and stripping away a lot of the environment means that the viewer is obliged to read these images in a different way.
“Of course, I do also frame more widely, but I find that when you strip away the environment, you focus more intently on the person,” he says. “When you’re that close, it breaks a barrier, and you’re forced to recognize somebody’s humanity, unfettered by preconceptions of their race, where they come from, or what their story is. When we look at a picture so intimately, it’s like looking in a mirror.”
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/160 sec at F2, ISO 2000
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/250 sec at F2, ISO 200
Normally using FUJIFILM X-T4 or FUJIFILM GFX 50R for his portraiture, Brandon was keen to see what FUJIFILM GFX100S could add to his work. So, what immediately stood out for him? “I think it was having that much power in such a versatile form factor,” he explains.
“By power, I mean the sheer resolution and the amount of detail you can achieve, all of which helps build that desired human connection. And of course, when that sensor is twinned with lenses such as FUJINON GF110mmF2 R LM WR, you can achieve that very shallow depth-of-field, which helps me draw the eyes to the heart of the picture.”
GFX100S’s design also makes it a very capable street camera, according to Brandon. “Like
GFX 50R, despite being a large format camera, you definitely feel comfortable moving around with it. But it’s not just about the weight. Camera size also affects my interactions with people. You almost want a camera large enough that people know you’re a photographer, and not some creep trying to like snap them on your phone! At the same time, you also don’t want them to think that this picture is going to appear in some large arena.”
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/200 sec at F2.5, ISO 400
Photo © Brandon Ruffin | FUJIFILM GFX100S camera and GF110mmF2 R LM WR, 1/2000 sec at F3.6, ISO 125
Brandon also found GFX100S’s handling and adaptability meant he could work with his usual freedom on location, something that’s not normally associated with larger format, high-resolution cameras. “In terms of using it effectively on the street,” he explains, “it’s a perfect camera, and features, such as in-body image stabilization (IBIS) and ISO range, mean working in the available light is no problem. For instance, I made everything for this project in natural light without any issues. It’s the space I enjoy working in most of the time. On top of that, Eye Detection autofocus makes the camera do a little bit of decision-making, too. That allows you to concentrate on your own interactions. I never found it lacking!”
Moving on, and still learning, Brandon hopes for another evolution in his work. “In my depictions of blackness, through these portraits, I think it’s definitely become more celebratory now,” he enthuses. “And through that – and through my own success as a photographer – it’s become something I hope can inspire some other kid to pick up a camera one day. I’d like them to look at my work the way I looked at Jamel’s and Chi’s and Ruddy’s, and say: ‘I could do this, I’m worthy of this space, I have every right to make these photographs, and I will’.”