Celebrity and fashion photographer Mike Ruiz, whose career spans over 30 years, has turned his lens to an ongoing portrait series focusing on the beauty and diversity of the leather community. Through meeting and bonding with leathermen during open call sessions, photographing them and collecting their personal stories, Ruiz has been inspired by their spirit of liberation and empowerment, enabling him to work through some of his own hang-ups about sex. Ruiz hopes the project—which will have multiple gallery showings this summer and eventually culminate in a book—will expand people’s perceptions of what it means to don leather as a form of self-identification and not just as a sexual practice. These stunning images celebrate the continuing history of the leather community in all its glory, aiming to help keep its traditions alive for future generations.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Mike Ruiz about how the series began, how his own perception of leather and BDSM has expanded, his approach to photographing the leather itself, the reaction he’s received so far, and his own leather daddy idols.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: before we get onto this specific project, can you give me an insight into how you first got into photography and what made you want to follow it as a career?
Mike Ruiz: “Well, I didn’t have a backup plan! I was basically a college dropout and was coasting through life. By the time I got to my late twenties, I thought I’d better hunker down and figure something out. Fortunately, I was given a camera as a gift when I turned 28 and then I became completely consumed by photography. I became addicted to it and it’s all a blur from there. I would be holed up in my apartment for days on end experimenting and photographing anything in sight, like little GI Joe action figures that I’d set up on my tabletop to test out lighting. I was really obsessive about it—to the extent that it probably wasn’t very healthy—but luckily it panned out into a career!”
“My leather journey has taught me: To live freely, you must love freely. During my time as Mr NJ Leather, and ever since, leather has enabled me to transcend the physical and get in touch with my spiritual self”Rob
What’s your own history with leather and what’s the draw of it for you?
“Like many gay men, I have pretty much formed my whole identity around the iconography of Tom of Finland. That aesthetic has always been titillating to me, but the kink and fetish aspect of it scared me. I was brought up to think that it was an indication of a damaged psyche, so I was afraid of it but drawn to it at the same time. I really wanted to get into it, but was worried that if I did I would go down this dark abyss that’d I’d never recover from. Which is ridiculous in hindsight, but I really grappled with that for a long time. I’m now in my late fifties, so I came of age in an era when many men still felt a strong need to overcompensate for being gay. I had a lot of toxic shame surrounding being gay that spilled over into my sex life. I struggled with with an internal conflict regarding what I was drawn to sexually, but denied myself.”
“When the pandemic came along, I was basically celibate for 18 months. After that, as things were starting to open up, I was like, ‘OK, I need to light the town on fire!’ I’d had time to come to terms with a lot of my toxic shame. I was meditating and being very introspective about how I wanted to come out of the pandemic. I reconciled a lot of things in my mind. Then the first guy that I met, once I was vaccinated, was in the leather community and he was into fetish and kink, and so it was like Pandora’s box opening for me. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible!’ Then I started doing a lot of research on it and found that BDSM can have a lot of healing qualities to it and can be good for your self-esteem if it’s done in an environment of trust. A lot of positive things and feelings came out of it for me. So then I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna go for it!’ I became really interested in exploring it all its glory and I thought what better way to do that than to talk to as many of these men who’ve been living this way and proud of it for decades?”
“Being a leatherman has changed my life. What was once a shameful secret is now a celebrated badge of honor. Feeling seen, understood and appreciated by a community is a gift I never knew I needed.”Tyler
“My inroad to that exploration was photography. So I started doing a series of portraits. Initially it was more as an excuse to insert myself into the leather world, but as it unfolded and I started talking to the men and learning about how much they’ve all contributed through community service, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis, I discovered a really wonderful, warm group of men. As well as photographing them I decided to get quotes from them too and that’s been really insightful, not only for me, but for people outside of the community.”
“The leather community is still relatively marginalized, even within the gay community itself, because they don’t understand it, much like I didn’t for a long time. I was afraid of it and judgmental about it, but hearing these guys talk, I discovered that of course they’re just regular people, who have their flaws like everybody does, they have insecurities and vulnerabilities. But the one thing that they all share is the support of each other and pride in embracing who they are, which was something that I had aspired to for a long time and I still aspire to, that’s why I’m continuing this project.”
“I felt like leather had transformed me into this big, confident persona. The first time I wore leather, it was empowering, it was life changing, it was forceful. From then, it became a lifestyle for me”Julian
“It’s been an epiphany for me in so many ways and I’ve learned so much about myself through learning about this community that I’d previously misunderstood. I hope that the project offers an insight into the leather community and gives it some humanity that it may have been lacking, because a lot of the photography surrounding the leather community is related to fetish and is dark and impersonal. It’s beautiful stuff and I’m a huge fan of any erotic art, but when it’s presented to the general public, they look at it and see dark and sinister. So I wanted to take a different approach, and to have it be less overtly sexualized and more about the people and their journeys and experiences than their proclivities.”
“I’ve always sought to empower and elevate people through what I shoot, presenting them in a light that I would want to see myself in and I feel that they would want to see themselves in. And I was right when it comes to the leathermen, because pretty much everybody that I’ve photographed so far has been thrilled with the outcome. They don’t see their proclivities or their lifestyle, they see themselves, and that makes me really happy. Leathermen from all over the world, in places where there isn’t a big community, have sent me emails saying things like, ‘It’s amazing to see myself in these images. I see my humanity in this project’.”
“The places where I have been welcomed with open arms, seen a great sense of community, and felt seen has always been the Eagles of the world. Although you would think a bunch of guys in leather would be the tough guys, they are the ones with the biggest hearts”Jared
Some of the older guys that you’ve photographed have talked about the abundance of leather bars and clubs to go to in New York in the 70s and 80s, which is not the case now. With far fewer places to go out in leather, how conscious were you of helping to bring community members together with this project?
“Now that the gay community has become more integrated into mainstream society, we don’t have our neighborhoods and our meeting places anymore, to the extent that we did when we really needed them. You can be an out gay person and go to a straight bar, but as a leatherman you really need to have a specific environment to go to in order to feel safe and to express yourself. So that’s something that weighs on on the community and if anyone says that the community is dwindling, I think it’s only dwindling in terms of open visibility because of the closure of clubs and bars. But there are always going to be men who are drawn to it, that’s just a fact. I am. I might not wear leather head to toe, but I consider myself to share that mindset and I’m drawn to that lifestyle.”
“Leather is an outer manifestation of an inner truth. We aren’t leathermen because we wear leather; we wear leather because we are already leathermen. We just want others to see it so they can know too”Edge
One of your subjects talked about taking on a kind of alter ego when they put on their leathers. There’s a sense that it allows people the freedom of expression to tap into different aspects of themselves that they ordinarily don’t. Is that something that you’ve observed in others and yourself?
“Yeah, that’s a big thing with leather because it’s rooted in uniforms and biker groups and the military and environments where authority and hypermasculinity reign supreme. When you put on that leather something happens. Doing this project, I’ve seen guys show up in their jeans or straight from the office, and they’re meek and mild and polite, and then they put on their leather—and I can’t say it’s a complete personality transformation—but it’s apparent that something washes over them and that they feel empowered. I did a shoot with 18 guys recently and I realized that I didn’t have a portrait of myself to put into this series, so the guys all banded together and dressed me, which was really cool. It was amazing to see this band of brothers come together to dress Mike up. I got all decked out and a couple of the guys said, ‘Oh my God, you looked so hot’, and that they’d seen me one way out of leather and then completely differently in leather. I felt it myself too, I felt something empowering wash over me.”
“The Brotherhood of men that I have found, I have the highest respect for and I have my closest friendships within the leather community. I haven’t found these types of friendships and relationships anywhere else. For the first time in my life I truly can be me”Bill
The leather itself looks beautiful in your images. What was your approach to capturing it, conveying that sheen and texture and making it look tactile?
“That comes from my years of experience and knowing how to photograph different surfaces and textures and fabrics. I know how things are going to translate before I shoot them. Leather definitely has a reflective quality to it and I knew that was going to read, so I lit it in a way that gave it a bit of dimension, so it wasn’t flat lighting. I knew the texture and the sheen of the leather was very important because these guys take such good care of their leather, it’s like their baby. I think it’s important for them to see that in a photograph and a big part of why these images are being well received by the leather community is because I know how to make leather look its best.”
“My brother Mike has taken some amazing pictures over the course of his career but this particular project really speaks to me. I understand the leather community. They are the most accepting men and women in the gay community. It’s where I fit in. I never feel self-conscious about the way I look”Thom
You mentioned Tom of Finland’s work having had a big impact on you. Did you go back and study it before embarking on this project, or any other artists or photographers who’ve captured leathermen such as Robert Mapplethorpe?
“All of those references are manifesting in this project, but I didn’t want to replicate anything. Mapplethorpe had a very specific point of view and my understanding of it is that he was fetishizing and sexualizing the leather community. His images are spectacular, and powerful, and legendary, but I think his approach was more about his proclivities and what he needed to get out of it sexually than it was about showcasing the men or their humanity. I may have started out that way too, and that may have been my intention initially, but it has morphed into something else now. I feel like I’m providing a public service by introducing all these men and the culture to people outside of the leather community.”
“I did not start out with a thing for uniforms or motorcycle leathers, but after years of learning and experimenting, I knew that what I needed and loved made me part of their world. Put on your tight, squeaky leathers and boots, which for me are now the ultimate spiritual armor, then get out there and show yourself”Gerard
What is the essence of what you want to capture about the leather community?
“The humanity of these men, because a lot of people perceive them as these sexual robots that just fuck without any conscience. That was my initial perception too. A couple of the leathermen that I’ve shot have expressed to me that the project is presenting their humanity. These guys are human beings. Leather and kink are a lot less marginalized than they used to be, but our society is still repressed and we all take in the things that we’re told when we’re growing up about sexuality, which are mostly false.”
This slave has known its role in the community for as long as it can remember. But the worst thing for a slave is not having a Master to serve. Four years after losing its partner of 16 years, it found the Man it now permanently serves. To have a Master that makes it feel both loved and owned and of service completes it.Slave Matthew
As you mentioned, there’s even some prejudice and misunderstanding from within the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to leather. When it was the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots the pride organizers didn’t want leather or drag in the parade, and even ahead of last year’s pride season in the US there was a lot of talk about excluding leather and kink from the marches and parades.
“It stems from a lack of understanding about the psychology behind it, because a lot of people who have suffered trauma perceive it as retraumatizing, but it’s not at all. I have suffered trauma in my life, and fetish and kink can be so healing in the right environment, one where there’s trust and love and support, which is what blankets all of it. From what I’ve seen, the men in the leather community really have each other’s backs. They’re not trying to undermine each other and they don’t criticize each other for doing things a little differently.”
“Leather has been a part of my life for 40 years. My husband and I both enjoy it. I used to go to the original Eagle and Spike”Sir Cisco
Given some people’s prejudice about the leather community, did you have any reservations about sharing these images alongside your other work on Instagram for instance?
“No, not at all. When I embark on a project, I’ve already embraced everything surrounding it. It took me nearly 30 years of my career to embrace it and I’m more proud of this project than 99% of anything I’ve ever done, aside from my animal advocacy work. I feel like they’re really powerful, beautiful images, mostly because of the subject matter and I don’t see why other people wouldn’t see that too. So I didn’t have any reservations at all and I think when you embrace something it translates. The funny thing is, the leather community has responded really well to it, but so have a lot of straight women. I’m getting some really enthusiastic support from places that I wouldn’t have expected.”
Although it has changed a little over the years, mainstream gay culture still tends to be youth orientated, whereas the leather community has always celebrated the daddy figure, without diminishing the younger ones, and all kinds of body types and all ethnicities and races are welcomed without being fetishized. How conscious were you of wanting to convey that diversity and the sense that, however else you might identify, you’re a leatherman first and foremost?
“That’s another another empowering thing for leathermen. Out of leather, they might not feel accepted or they might feel the brunt of ageism or racism, but the minute they get decked out in leather they’re hot as fuck and that’s all there is to it. Every guy that I’ve photographed—regardless of race, age, or body type—whenever I’ve posted the image, all of the comments have been like, ‘Oh, daddy’s hot as fuck’. It’s all super positive and I like that aspect. That’s kind of a surface part of it, but it’s still important. There’s nothing wrong with people feeling good about themselves and if I can have a hand in that then I feel really humbled and glad that I can do it.”
As well as individual portraits, you’ve shot some guys as couples. We see them embracing each other and touching their hands together gently; they’re really sweet and sexy photographs. What did you want to bring out in those images?
“To see some intimacy that’s sweet in the context of fetish and kink. I’ve had some really tender moments myself in that context when I’ve welled up with tears; such beautiful, powerful moments. So that’s important to see. There is already a lot of other more overtly sexual material on the leather community out there if people want to see it, so they don’t need any more of that from me.”
I noticed that after you’d started sharing some of the images from this project there was a lot of leather showing up in your celebrity portraits too, like shots of Wilson Cruz and Neil Patrick Harris. Was that just a coincidence or is this project seeping into other areas of your work?
“It occupies so much of my consciousness and subconsciousness these days, so it manifests in everything that I do. Even the women that I shoot. I have a couple of shoots coming out with celebrities in full dominatrix gear. People will look back at this period of my life and be like, ‘OK, so that was his leather phase’, because it’s pretty much everywhere. So it’s definitely not a coincidence. It’s the way that I need to express myself these days.”
Finally, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Someone who has impacted pretty much everything we’ve talked about, and all of my career outside of leather too, is Thierry Mugler who we lost recently. He’s been on my mind a lot. He influenced my fashion aesthetic in the way he celebrated women and made them empowered, stoic figures. I always admired that. He never objectified women, they were always the powerful ones. I love that he did that. And he was a leatherman too, so he had that whole side of his life. What he contributed to culture and fashion and leather really influenced me.”
“Also, the work of Tom of Finland. I’ve tried to model my whole life after a Tom of Finland character, down to my own personal aesthetic and my work. So I’m really happy that I’ll be having a solo show of my work at the Tom of Finland Foundation’s TOM House in LA in June. We’ve come together because they love this project. They feel like it’s shining a much-needed light on the leather community and so much of their support comes from perpetuating that culture. It’s a really good project for us to come together on.”
“I’m also doing another show the week prior to that at the Leather Archives Museum in Chicago, and a third exhibition at the Academy Social Club in San Francisco. I’m working on a show in Europe and one in New York too. All of these are happening because people are really interested in this project. I’d definitely like to do a book once the dust settles. So far I’ve shot in New Jersey and Los Angeles and I have a big shoot coming up in Fort Lauderdale, where there’s a big leather community. I also want to shoot in Europe as well because the leather community is still pretty active there, a lot more so than in the US, in cities like London, Berlin, and Antwerp. I want to continue doing this project because I’m loving it.”
By James Kleinmann
Mike Ruiz’s solo leathermen exhibition opens at The Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago on June 12th 2022, with a sneak peak at International Mr. Leather (IML) over Memorial Day weekend.
TOM’S FOUNDATION + MIKE RUIZ’S EYE: TEAMS UP + GEARS UP Exhibition at TOM House June 18th – July 2nd 2022.