The Genteel
February 27, 2021


The Blood Bath (Photograph courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).
(Photo courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).

Inside a bisque-coloured château erected on the corner of a busy street in Beirut, Bruno Ruffini adjusts his camera lens. Dressed in a white linen suit jacket, his Bono-styled orange shades neatly placed on top of his head, he grabs his tripod and races to the bathroom carrying a bottle of red paint.

The Parisian fashion photographer, at 33, carries himself seriously. With his camera equipment neatly placed in a duffle bag, his timing is promising and work ethic exhausting. His glasses fog up when he is hard at work but today they start to fog as he heads to the bathroom, where two female tango dancers - one French, the other Argentinian - await him in the bathtub. As the Argentinian undresses, posing for her canonical master, Ruffini pours hot water he previously heated in a tea kettle and playfully orders the now naked blonde, blue-eyed dame to splash in. She begins spooning her friend, whom I call "Lady Red" as she is encased in a skin-tight red dress. Rivulets of water run down her face, smearing her makeup that soon run like black rivers of sweat down her chest. The water is now cold, but the two don't mind, and neither did the dancer from Spain whom Ruffini photographed earlier, in another bathtub smeared with red paint.

(Photo courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).

These are the erotic, dramatic, and often theatrical scenes from Bruno Ruffini's photo shoot at the Zico House - a Bohemian playpen for transient artists seeking to explore the Lebanese capital and its culture. Inside this Middle Eastern jewel, photographers play, artists paint, and musicians perform. They warm up to its owner and former communist, Zico, who provides them with low-cost accommodation. Ruffini had arrived from Paris in June to escape the city's mundane conversations and repetitive fashion set routines, in hopes of delving into his personal erotic photography project; a series titled, "Woman in a Bath." He moved into a small room across the hall from me, disappeared for a couple of hours and returned with a proposal: "do you mind if I paint you red and take your picture in a bathtub?" I had declined his bizarre invitation. He immediately recruited the Spaniard for the blood bath and later, the two tango dancers.

 His normative creative process begins with a two-hour morning routine of writing down ideas from his dreams. At noon sharp he cracks his door ajar and in the afternoon, he fully opens it to gesture anyone inside. He sits at his round table with his fingers folded around the camera, his Kombolói worry beads next to his Mac laptop. Ruffini devotes much of his time perfecting images in Photoshop and summarizing them in the following fashion: "The two tango dancers were great: one was feminine, strong, and dominant; the other masculine and…great." The scenes are slightly pornographic, but Ruffini often disagrees with this assumption saying: "We don't use that word in French, it's called erotique."  That's Ruffini - an artist of a narcissistic voyeurism; one way or another, a man obsessed with casting women in his photos as outlets for his emotions. He gets what he asks for, if not more.

Each image leaves an indelible impression of museful women captured in their natural element. They become vulnerable and desperate, but dexterous and ambitious, much like Ruffini himself.

For the past two-years, Ruffini has taken black and white photographs of everyday young and middle-aged women, unclad in bathtubs. These women - shot in natural light, exposing full-frontal nudity with soft graphic displays of their genitalia - have become his personal trademark. So far, his portfolio includes dozens of images of close to thirty women he has encountered abroad. From Europe to the Middle East and Asia, they include: a smiling "lady-boy" sipping a can of cola, inside an empty hotel bathtub in Bangkok; a middle-aged scuba diver entangled in gear, in a cold stone tub in Thailand's Koh Tao Island; a young black actress drowning in her apartment tub in Paris, her tears blackening the water. She has become his favourite subject: strong, multi-racial, exotic. 

Unlike the giraffe-legged and swan-necked models he photographs inside French stuffy studios, his bathtub women are average: supple, strong and silly. They are exotic beauties with soft and hard features, captured in desperate, passive-aggressive or playful acts of expression. In all of his photo shoots, he first establishes his very collaborative creative process, one that almost always involves inventing a narrative persona for his subjects whether they want to play the part or not. Personal preferences belong to him and as a result, he masters the art of friendly provocation. Each image leaves an indelible impression of museful women captured in their natural element. They become vulnerable and desperate, but dexterous and ambitious, much like Ruffini himself. Neither stomping on their emotions nor crossing comfort boundaries, he pushes emotional and physical boundaries to create erotic art that isn't pornographic.

Scuba Bath
(Photo courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).

His obsession with bathing tubs draws upon his intimate experiences in bathrooms, "where you can do whatever you want or be whomever you want to be…behind closed doors," he remarks, confessing to have taken over one hundred self-portrait shots in mirrors; his first, in Norway at the age of 19. Recently, he took a bathtub shot of himself in a castle garden, near his rented house outside of Paris. He wore nothing but a cowboy hat. Bathrooms serve as his personal sanctuary and, professionally, his creative laboratory, wherein femmes discover their sexuality and desires. In his bathtubs, models often test their flexibility and defy gravity by interlocking limbs with other women. Most models are shot individually however, in their natural habitat or while role-playing, recreating his fantasies and memories.

Prior to Beirut, his nearly fifteen-year career as a fashion photographer was distinguished by two things: his unusually collaborative relationships with women and an almost perverse addiction to constant change, which, come think of it, is a good description of fashion itself. In his work for fashion and beauty-ad campaigns from Escada to Givenchy, he has mastered so many different styles - from stripped-down studio shots of models in action to mere-concept social satires, from lush couture shots to high-glam camp.

Bubble bath 
(Photo courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).

Driven by a playful mind and spirit, Ruffini has always been a provocateur. On his Facebook profile page, a friend painted his face to resemble "The Joker" from the Batman franchise. In a way, his deviant character, often equipped with a smirk (he has never menaced society), has been forged by youthful traumas. As a young child he dabbled in stand-up comedy. He studied theater at Paris's Drama Conservatory until his mother's death. Shortly thereafter, he joined the French army "changing his perspective on life and the world around him," he says, happily recalling family summer holidays on the French Riviera. After his service, he worked briefly for advertising companies, as Director's Assistant for French Television and Cinema, and later, as a freelance photographer.

It was the daring, bold and sexually-charged photographs of British David Hamilton and German Helmut Newton that inspired his career. The Hamilton-esque pictorial imagery of young innocent girls paired with the Newton-esque illustration of passive-aggressive lassies, Ruffini's creations are a hybrid of the two. "Ultimately, I would like to be somewhere in the middle between Newton and Hamilton," he says, once meeting Newton on a casual beach stroll in Monte Carlo.

(Photo courtesy of Bruno Ruffini).

In the evolution of his non-commercial images that have shied away from high-end fashion, one can see that Ruffini tempers with contrast in his other works - from background and lighting (e.g. a Korean girl veiled in black silk coloured gold inside a white tub) to skin tones and temperaments (e.g. a bulky tattooed Asian bathing his half-sized delicate young girlfriend, whose face was smudged with cocaine). In all the photography, his technique is tactfully simple; it amplifies the model's character, or goes against it. Whatever he chooses, he's heedful of their needs and in return, he unwraps their most intimate moments of self-exploration, with their approval bringing forth artistic narrative outside the world of fashion photography.

For Ruffini, the experience evoked an indirect reflection of his boyhood physical sensations and dreams. "I like when people play my character through my camera," he remarks with every intention of reliving his bathroom memories - and leaving a mess in bathtubs.




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