I met today's subject a few months back at a one weekend-only photography show at Low Life Gallery. Usually, I'm not a big fan of photography as an artistic medium. I don't have any well-thought reasoning for this, just an instinctual thing, sort of like how sculpture and ceramics don't do it for me, while painting and certain forms of performance do. Anyway, the image on the show's promo flyer was eye-catching and provocative, and since I figured a bunch of my pals would be at the event, I thought I'd give it a shot.
Consider this another smart move on my part. At that show, Greg Ruffing's works on their own were terrific, but after spending time talking with him about what he was going for with several of the photos, I began to gain an appreciation for the work at almost impossible increments, photo by photo. Since that evening, I've noticed Greg's work in several ways, both artistic and commmercial, and still think the photo he took of Sunia Boneham and Michael De Liberto (who together comprise Arte Povera) for the Wall Street Journal piece concerning the rise of Collinwood as a cultural center is one of the best and memorable I've seen in quite some time. Chances are, you've seen his work in more places than you can count, too, as he's published photos in numerous periodicals, including Time, Newsweek, Mother Jones, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, and Spin.
Recently, Greg took the time to answer my set of Cleveland-related questions. I've been very pleased with the answers every participant has given me so far, but the thoughtfulness and thorough approach Greg took when providing his answers is at a whole different level.
1) How long have you been in Cleveland? And if you didn't grow up in Cleveland, where'd you relocate here from?
I’ve been in the greater Cleveland area for most of my life except for some stints living in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Lorain. My parents are from Portage County and I grew up just outside there. I’ve lived in the city-proper since 2004: first in Tremont, then a very brief time in Birdtown before moving into Ohio City, where I’ve lived now since Fall ’07.
2) What is your favorite Cleveland memory?
Most of my first experiences with Cleveland were wrapped around family trips downtown for sporting events or to check out Tower City when it first opened -- nothing of which were distinguishably memorable.
So really my earliest enjoyable Cleveland memories came in my teenage years after I got my first car (this great hand-me-down from my grandfather: a 1988 Chevy Corsica with a ravenous appetite for devouring cassette tapes). Almost every weekend my friends and I would caravan up to Coventry -- this was before Coventry became the cartoon that it is now. We’d go to Record Revolution and browse the used CDs or the vinyl in the basement, then snoop around in some of the little shops down the street that sold bongs, dildos and weird jewelry. We were flat broke so we never bought shit, mostly we just partook in the usual riff raff that loitered and bummed cigarettes up on the corner outside the Centrum. By this time too I was getting pretty heavy into photography, so we’d kill a lot of time in Coventry just goofing around with the camera, and taking pictures of the punks and bums and transvestites.
Also related to the camera, one of my continually favorite Cleveland experiences is going through the industrial areas in The Flats and further south towards what is now the cesspool known as Steelyard Commons. By the time I was 17 or so, I had fully committed to the fact that I loved photography and wanted to do that for the rest of my days. I had a young fascination with the steel mills and other heavy industry upon which the city and its neighborhoods and generations of families were built (I remember first noticing the belching smokestacks and towers of flame and the dark massive behemoths at a young age out the car window as we came north on 77 into the city for one of the aforementioned family trips). So naturally I started spending a good chunk of my time wandering through the grounds of idled factories and mills along the river, always hoping that one day I’d actually be able to photograph on the inside (which I’ve had the opportunity to do a few times since).
Oh and definitely not to be forgotten was an infamous night out last summer involving a few of my buddies, the Spitfire, Now That’s Class, Sea Level Lounge, billiards, and some inappropriate moves on the dance floor that cut one gentleman’s evening a bit short…but I’m gonna stay vague on the details to protect the victim’s identity and manliness…
3) How does (if at all) Cleveland influence your work as an artist?
Sure, it has had a pretty sizeable influence, specifically in my personal work. Like I said above, Cleveland was the subject of most of my early forays into photography and artistic experimentation. The soot-covered underside of Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities has been a personal fascination for a while, and later it really boomed when I was living and working in Pittsburgh.
It started with being completely awe-struck by the towering steel mills, factories, etc., as a symbol of labor and human innovation. Then it grew into an interest in the people who lived and worked and functioned in these environments, and finally more recently it has become an exploration of larger community-wide or regional notions of identity:
--What does it mean to be working class?
--What does the Rust Belt represent in the bigger American mural?
--What is it like among the various ethnic diaspora that have come here over many decades to take up industry jobs?
--How did these all affect the way we build and transform the places where we live?
--Are there visual cues that show us something of a quintessential Midwest industrial town?
--And how do those signifiers, as architectural representations of daily life here, reflect upon this place in terms of its past, present, and future?
These questions have haunted me for a while because they have personal connections too, and so I’ve tried to use my photography as a conduit for making sense of these ideas, answering some questions, and getting to some level of reconciliation about my time and identity and feelings about this place that has been my home.
I stared working on a personal project about the Cuyahoga River in the fall of 2007; its still ongoing at this point, far from being complete. I’m not really approaching the river from an environmental perspective (despite the recent anniversary of its catching on fire), instead I’m looking at it as an existential indicator of time and experience (linking the individual and the collective) and its symbiosis with the cities and towns through which it flows. The river has been a constant -- a physical and spatial link between periods of my life and my family’s (again, like I mentioned above, my parents and their families both grew up in small towns in Portage County, coincidentally near the Cuyahoga’s meandering path through that rural area), so a lot of the photos are related to personal journey. And I’m wondering if/how this might parallel more universal human experiences.
In addition, I’m excited to have just been brought onto a new group project with a local gallery where I’ll get to jump headfirst into those themes and questions in other Rust Belt cities too, so we’ll see where this all goes.
4) What would be your ideal Cleveland day? Or, to put it another way, if it was your birthday and your nearest and dearest were all willing to do what you wanted, what would your day be like?
I’d get up around 7am, tea and newspaper on the front porch, soaking up a cool and quiet summer morning. At 9am meet up with my friends and we’d solidify our pact to traverse the city on bike and swear off our cars for the entire day.
First we’d head over to the West Side Market for a quick breakfast, then a good ride through downtown and maybe over to Big Fun in Coventry to gather some props and blow a bunch of cash on hijinks and tomfoolery in the photobooth. Back on the bikes, ride through Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, and a bunch of other neighborhoods and hit up some farmer’s markets to gather items for the huge lunch feast we’re about to cook together.
Head to the house with the biggest kitchen, crazily prepare food (grilled fish and veggies, fresh salad with arugula and pine nuts, fruit bowl of grapes and blueberries), perhaps a minor food fight breaks out, eat long and slow lunch permeated by good conversation and joke-telling, then pass out in shaded backyard for cat nap.
Good thing for the nap too because then we ride to the nearest soccer field and play pick-up for a few hours. By now we’ve worked up a dinner appetite…time for Transylvanian tacos. Totally delicious.
Then bike it back downtown to a sprawling park along the re-developed lakefront atop the old Burke Lakefront Airport (hey, you said “ideal day”) where 10 of my favorite bands are remixing their tracks with Gypsy and Middle Eastern musicians at a concert to celebrate the end of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the craft beers are always cold and only cost $1, and no über-tall people stand between us and the stage. We all dance around like fools until we fall over, then one of the band’s crew fixes us up with some camping gear and we crash right there in a jumbo tent. Nobody snores or wakes up with a hangover. Good day.
5) Say you had a friend coming in for 24 hours and had never been to Cleveland before. What would you make sure they saw and did?
When I travel to another city I always prefer to avoid the cliché tourist areas as much as possible and instead go for the neighborhood joints that give you a feel for what its like to actually live there -- ideally its like I’m a vicarious resident for the brief duration of my stay.
Naturally I’d want my visitors to have as close to the same experience here in Cleveland. So if I’m the tour guide, maybe we’d start our day with a cheap breakfast in Slavic Village at either the Red Chimney or Forty-Niner Diner. From there a little show-and-tell around Slavic Village and Warszawa and down the hill into the industrial river valley to see the mills and factories and a history lesson about Cleveland / conversation about how the city thrived on steel, crumbled with steel, and now is left to pick up the pieces and move on.
Before we get too depressed on the whole lot, we find redemption in Tremont with a mid-morning pastry at Lucky’s or a quick perusing through Visible Voice. Then a whirlwind jaunt down Route 2 past the lakeshore and downtown to the east side for a look-around in Collinwood and Buckeye neighborhoods.
Back to the west side and ditch the car to explore Tremont and Ohio City on bikes, with a stop off at either the West Side Market or some neighborhood farmer’s markets to stock up my friends’ backpacks for when they leave town the next day.
Then ride through the Flats into downtown, point and laugh at the lame-ass Rock Hall from a distance, and kick it around AsiaTown until we work up an appetite for lunch at Superior Pho. Afterwards, stow the bikes and jump on the red line train out to University Circle, CIA and Little Italy, maybe wow them with a cup of Libyan tea from Algebra Tea House. Back on the train to explore the rest of the red line out to Windermere and reverse to West Park, then recover our bikes and ride through Detroit Shoreway down to the lake and chill by the old Coast Guard station for a bit. Dinnertime would be an arm wrestling match to determine a winner between Turkish grub at Anatolia’s versus six varieties of guacamole and taquitos at Momocho.
To finish off the evening we’re crisscrossing the city again to check out a few galleries (maybe Asterisk, Front Room, Low Life, and one or two others), interspersed with a carefully planned pub route chosen from among a few select cheap dives. Do some late-nite record browsing at Music Saves then icing on the cake with a good show at the Beachland Ballroom and nitecap at the Thermadore.
Next morning a quick coffee and bagel at Gypsy Café in Detroit Shoreway, then send them on their way.
6) What is something from another city you wish you could import to Cleveland?
I’m kinda torn on this idea. On the one hand, a big part of me believes that Cleveland would be better off if it stopped trying to be other cities. Let’s face it: Cleveland will never be Chicago or New York, but that’s okay. There’s a lot of endearing, unique, and cool shit about Cleveland and if we could just embrace this city for what it is, instead of trying to impose some outside criteria for what it should be, that would go a long way towards solving what I think is a kind of self-image complex that plagues the psyche of this city.
Last month I had some friends from New York pass through Cleveland for a nite. They had read about W. 6th St. / Warehouse District (an area where I almost never go and don’t know much about) and were curious, so I met them down there for a drink. We didn’t last very long there, and I suggested we head elsewhere, eventually ending up at the Parkview. Had a few cheap drinks, hung out on the tiny patio, fucked around with the bowling machine, and had our palms read by a drunk old lady. On our way out my friends commented “this bar is the kind of shit that some parts of New York try to replicate”.
Except that here in Cleveland, it’s the real deal. We need to run with that: stop looking to New York for ideas, let’s make New York look to us for ideas.
To somewhat contradict myself now though, it pains me when I travel to other cities and realize what we’re missing here -- and I’m talking about very self-evident things like waterfront development, which Minneapolis and Milwaukee (cities of comparable size to Cleveland) do quite well. We’ve got a beautiful lake and a river in recovery, but the lack of vibrant, desirable public access to their shores is pathetic. You can’t tell me Edgewater Park is gonna cut it, what with the sewage runoff pipe 100 yards over from where kids are swimming. I do think Whiskey Island has some potential for good things if A) we don’t fuck up the old Coast Guard station and B) we prevent Wendy Park from turning into a caricature of Put-in-Bay or Margaritaville.
I’m sure Clevelanders will hate me for saying this but I think our city could actually learn something from a place like Pittsburgh. Petty rivalries aside, you can’t deny that Pittsburgh is a great Rust Belt city. Like Cleveland, it’s a hardscrabble industrial town with a shared past and a similar present. But Pittsburgh has actually in some ways weathered the economic storm better than many in this region (one example being that the number of foreclosures there has steadily been leveling off). The city also has a vibrant underground art scene. But most important of all, going back to the idea of a place’s psyche, I get the feeling that Pittsburgh has come to embrace its unglamorous reputation: its official tourism agency is marketing Pittsburgh as “a glamorless destination for the post-luxury age.” I love that idea (partly because the notion of its converse, a “glamour destination”, sounds like complete bullshit to me) because it implies that Pittsburgh is trying to make the best it can with the hand its been dealt, and I think that can be a great source of civic pride worth identifying with, so no one should feel ashamed of saying they’re from that city.
7) If you had the undivided attention of the mayor, city council, and county commissioners, what would be the one thing you'd ask for or tell them?
You mean besides getting rid of Dimora? Ha, well I guess it’d be hard to boil it down to ONLY one thing I’d request of them…
But if you force my hand, I’d suggest that they do a better job of engaging the city’s youth and give greater weight to our needs and perspectives. A friend of mine very recently started a monthly forum for young city-dwellers who care about seeing Cleveland thrive and want to become more civically involved -- it has some intriguing potential, and even after only one meeting I felt there was great understanding and energy for what we could do.
I really believe that a lot of people in our generation want a return to vibrant urban life. Many of us grew up in boring, sterile suburbs and we don’t want to live that way in our future, partially because the car-centric suburban sprawl models of our parents’ generation are rapidly becoming irrelevant and unsustainable.
And unfortunately I think that a lot of Cleveland’s old-school leadership has proven to have come to this realization too late -- one example being the Port Authority’s recent decision to help subsidize, with taxpayer money, the Eaton Corporation moving its headquarters out of the city for the putrid pastures of Chagrin Highlands. We can’t continue to marginalize the central city with backwards-minded decisions like that.
If those patterns continue and we inch further down this path of urban abandonment, then maybe we need to start asking how we can convert all the vacant land in the city (and there’s a plethora of it already) into agricultural use. This would be of particular importance in the underserved, impoverished parts of the city, where proximity to fresh produce is almost non-existent and the next closest alternatives on the block are fast food joints or packaged food at the corner store, and the grocery chains won’t build stores in East Cleveland. Its no coincidence that income level is a predictor of overall health, and dietary choices are obviously a big player on both sides of that equation too. But how can we expect people to make healthy dietary choices when they’re denied access to healthy options? I think the issue of food access is a growing matter of social justice that needs to be addressed.
To check Greg's work out, visit his website here, or check out his interesting photo-centric blog (which also showcases a good deal of really interesting photo work being done by other artists) here. Better yet, impress your friends and make your coffee table happy by getting a hold of the American Youth book - it is truly awesome. You can get it at Amazon , or give a call to your local bookseller (CB endorses Visible Voice on the west side and Mac's Backs on the east side) and ask them to order you a copy.