Photographer Ben Ruggiero shares a studio with fellow photographer Barry Stone in the Okay Mountain complex on East Cesar Chavez. This studio visit isn't really about Ruggiero's studio, however, but rather the portrait studio of an undisclosed department store. Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, and JC Penney all have studio divisions, which hire portrait photographers and subsequently train them in repeatable and reliable techniques. Ruggiero's own practice is expansive and experimental, engaging at once with alternative processes and the history of art and photography. For example, he's been deepening a loosely autobiographical series regarding American Romantic painter Frederic Church. For his new series, though, Ruggiero went to a commercial portrait studio because he "wanted to work in a different space, one in which I could question the standards behind making portraiture." Over a period of months and multiple studio visits, Ruggiero formed a creative partnership with a department store photographer, Rosie Cardenas.
Austin Chronicle: Were you ever taught how to make "correct" or "standard" portraits?
Ben Ruggiero: I worked for a variety of photographers and artists who [made] portraits of people, and I've been around a lot of schools, so yes. Studio portraiture is something where there seems to be a basic way to make a "decent" portrait. Most of the time it's about restraint – don't get too fancy. A single light source, aimed from above to mimic the sun.
AC: So when you're taking a photograph with Rosie Cardenas at this commercial studio, who's really the artist?
BR: For me, this has always been a question. There's a Frederic Church portrait by American photographer Mathew Brady, which was probably by Brady's studio. This means that someone other than Mathew Brady probably took the picture. A lot of times there's this question of authorship in the studio, as quite often studio portraits are produced with a team of people.
AC: What specific issues came up through working with a commercial studio?
BR: Well, I decided to go there because it was free and close by! But also there was an infrastructure – a setup – for me to work with. I knew that at 10:30, Rosie would be there to make something with me.
AC: That you would walk away with something?
BR: Yes. And we had 20 minutes to make it! I liked the idea of an artist "agility test." Can we come up with something in 20 minutes?
AC: I assume you take longer than 20 minutes to create photographs.
BR: I'm highly process-based, so for me to get to something that I like might take two weeks. But I enjoyed it; we had to be resilient. To make something worth looking at – that's a responsibility. Ultimately, there was a negotiation around the images. Rosie was pulling toward making work that was standardized.
AC: Did she have an alternative way of seeing things that wasn't necessarily dictated by a corporate training manual?
BR: I sensed that she had her own way of looking at things, and I appreciated that. Although it was a long process, I wanted to work with her toward gradually having less and less in the photographs. The project only existed because of her curiosity – it wouldn't have gone past the first photograph if she wasn't inquisitive enough.
AC: So where did this collaboration end up?
BR: I think the final image resolves the series. It's a photograph of the back wall of the studio, which is a vague description of a kind of space behind a potential sitter. And this photograph represents the engagement of both of us in the process of making images. She had already seen this formal element of this standard photo drop background and liked it.
AC: What would you call that a picture of?
BR: It's a picture of almost nothing. A picture of a setting, tableaux, a context for creating portraiture, and that's what really flipped the project back in on itself. It was an epiphany moment! We were allowed to let ourselves like this image, exactly for what it was.
Ben Ruggiero is a photographer and senior lecturer at Texas State University.
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