The Aperture Foundation publishes beautiful photography monographs that are designed to look more like a portfolio than a book; such is their emphasis on image plates over explanatory text. The Factory of Dreams: Inside Televisa Studios, one of Aperture’s recent publications featuring the Brooklyn-based photographer Stefan Ruiz, is a monograph that presents a single body of work. The Factory of Dreams is a collection of photographs Ruiz began working on eight years ago, depicting one of Mexico’s largest exports: televised fantasies of “love, wealth, and betrayal.”
In the same way that Hollywood seems to spill over into the architecture and lifestyle of Los Angeles, adding a whiff of aspirational thinking to La-La Land’s sun-drenched culture, everything about this monograph seems to reflect the enticing escapist fictions of the Televisa studios. The glossy dust jacket of the book features a shirtless young actor sprawled across a bed, wearing suggestively tight blue jeans, and out of his bedroom window we can dreamily gaze at the expensive, modern high-rises of Mexico City.
The Factory of Dreams, written in gold, loopy cursive on the front of the book is Televisa’s nickname for a place where more than 50,000 hours of telenovelas are exported each year. Even the introductory essay is printed on a pastel colored paper that looks like a shade of foundation or blush. Everything about the book’s exterior prepares us for the carefully staged setting of Ruiz’s photographs. Like the handsome, half-naked actor on the cover, Ruiz warns us that what we will see inside are carefully constructed lies. His monograph, full of seductive color photographs, is a thoughtful critique of the dreams the Televisa studios purport to endorse.
Born in San Francisco, Stefan Ruiz studied drawing and painting in art school, and began an accidental career in photography while traveling in Africa with a professor. A photographer heavily influenced by his background as a painter, Ruiz is a slow working, 4×5 portraitist. He was drawn to the Televisa project in part because half of his family came to California from Mexico, illegally crossing the border in search of those elusive dreams Ruiz feels are often perpetuated by the soap opera genre. In the monograph he explains, “although the aesthetics of telenovelas were not really the same as my own, and I didn’t watch them, the more I thought about it, the more telenovelas seemed like a great vehicle through which to explore many of my interests, and also some of my own history.”
Ruiz’s portraits are like paintings in that his subjects are always consenting parties. In much of his work he takes people out of their environments and uses a blank backdrop to accentuate something specific about their personhood. For the Televisa project he adopted the opposite approach, photographing the actors on set but letting them drop character while still in costume. The vague and almost listless expressions he catches between takes are what make his photographs so compelling. Each portrait is a snapshot of the frustrations, hopes, and desires of the disenfranchised in Mexican society, and looking carefully, we can see the peeling paint, scuffed sets, creased costumes, and dirty clutter that lurks just offstage.
The Factory of Dreams contains portraits of characters on set as well as the actors and actresses from Televisa’s acting school, Centro de Educación Artística. The male protagonists in Ruiz’s images play lovers and villains, and they embody archetypes of masculinity with their mustaches, impeccable suits, leather jackets, slicked back hair, and cigarettes. The female characters, by contrast, are sexualized on a spectrum from virginity to promiscuity, and cleavage and clingy dresses are ubiquitous. The CEA students are young and over-sexualized, posing for the camera like they are doing an erotic shoot. Their portraits are almost comical, like Adrián Martiñón, a young man in a polo shirt and jeans seductively stretched out on the countertop of a kitchen set, or Mariana Morones, a young woman, midriff exposed, kneeling upon a bed, gazing with awkward beckoning into the camera.
While all the characters represent obvious stereotypes, their appeal still unmistakably seeps into the photographs. Leaning on a banister, climbing a staircase or reclining in an armchair, the actors are as natural and comfortable as they might be in a real domestic setting. We as viewers, however, can see the strings behind their purposed reality. In many images Ruiz pulls his framing back far enough to expose the rafters, lights, sets where they start and stop, the camera, crew and director. Ruiz carefully shows us both what we are meant to see and what is necessarily hidden. He offers the perspective of neither actor nor director, and instead lets us snoop through the Televisa studios as an outsider. Looking in, it’s hard not to impose our own beloved and familiar sitcoms or dramas onto the sets, and we feel our own culpability in an industry that markets fantasies we often willingly believe.
Arguably the most powerful photographs in the book are the ones that contain no people at all and are portraits of the sets without actors or lights to bring them to life. Televisa’s soap operas take place in domestic interiors, and many of the sets Ruiz documents are the “views” we see from various houses, offices, and apartment buildings. Taken out of context, these sets of sun-dappled trees, walls overgrown with ivy or Mission-style rooftops, feel like manipulations rather than realities. The studio’s three-dimensional sets, left in a state of momentary disuse, begin to deteriorate before our eyes: office windows look like cheap plastic not glass, an elegant living room is covered in plastic, mini blinds in a bedroom are crooked, a false wall is unevenly painted. The imperfections in these lonely photographs seem to metaphorically ripple throughout the entire industry, and reveal, as artist and writer Pablo Helguera poetically explains in the book’s opening essay, “the fragility of this universe of shadows transmitted on the air.”
Throughout the monograph, alongside the photographs, Ruiz intersperses character summaries and telenovela storylines, sending our imaginations reeling from their convoluted plotlines. The stories are magical realist, and the twists and turns of each episode are taken more on faith than as reflection of our reality. The Televisa narratives outlined in this book collectively lead us into a sappily romantic world where the series titles tell you all you need to know: The Rich Also Cry; Loving You is my Sin; Rich and Famous; Tomorrow is Forever; Love Spell; Wounds of Love; A Blow to the Heart; and Double Life. A kind of lowest common denominator television, telenovelas also seem to tell the same story over and over. As producer Valentin Pimstein put it, “if we didn’t do it this way, my maid wouldn’t understand.” We as viewers are again reminded of American sitcoms where one premise is adapted for successive generations: Seinfeld leads to Friends, Friends then becomes How I Met Your Mother and New Girl. Recycled content, knowing how effective a particular story can be, is one of the most appealing aspects of mainstream television.
The Factory of Dreams is a provocative and unusual look into a world we don’t often see, and like going backstage at a concert or walking the employee roads of a theme park, it’s a view we can’t resist. Ruiz’s photographs subtly probe the aspirational nature of telenovelas, while offering a look at the gritty reality that lies just outside the camera frame. Ruiz strips away the layers of fantasy and magic that often blind us to the less appealing details of a particular industry. “Behind this universe is only the blackness of the studio, which might also be the existential darkness awaiting the country that should choose to reject escapism,” Pablo Helguera speculates. We ought to be wary, however, of believing in a prefabricated fantasy of love and happiness, struggle and desire.
Stefan Ruiz’s The Factory of Dreams (Aperture, 2012) is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.