On the Daily: 24 Hours in the life of Ruben Natal-San Miguel
On the Daily
24 Hours in the life of Ruben Natal-San Miguel
Ruben Natal-San Miguel was in the North Tower when American Airlines Flight 11 came careening into the side of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Natal-San Miguel survived—but his former lifestyle didn’t. He left his finance job and summers-in-the-Hamptons routine. He ditched the high-rise and moved to Harlem. Then the former photography collector picked up the camera himself, drawn to the people he saw as the city morphed in the wake of the tragedy.
“I’ve walked every street in all five boroughs,” Natal-San Miguel says.
A native of Puerto Rico, Natal-San Miguel came to the U.S. to study architecture in college and graduate school—studies that inform his eye for photography. Now 51, Natal-San Miguel is the artist behind the Mint’s first online exhibition, Expanding the Pantheon: Women R Beautiful. His portrait Mama (Beautiful Skin) in the contemporary galleries of Mint Museum Uptown shows a confident woman in front of a red van. She wears a white T-shirt, with cornrows and skin marked by vitiligo. The image—one of 26 included in Women R Beautiful—speaks to the photographer’s overarching goal: introducing a new range of beauty for our consideration. Here, Natal-San Miguel walked us through his typical day.
I’m diabetic, so the first thing I do is test my blood and feed my cat, Dante. I check my email. If it’s press, I need to respond. If something got published, I immediately go on social media. The base of my collectors is older and on Facebook. So I go do a more personal approach there before reposting on Instagram. Then I go and eat and take my meds.
For breakfast, the first thing is coffee. It’s part of my family and culture. I was born in Puerto Rico, where my grandfather had a coffee and tobacco plantation. I recently made whole wheat cinnamon pancakes with sliced mandarin oranges cooked in slow fire. I’m daydreaming about it.
I’m not exactly a morning person. I hate midday shadows and I love people in natural light. I photograph people exactly how I find them: the hair, the necklace, the shoes. I’m a storyteller. I have a simple, strong connection between me and the subject.
I make a sandwich or buy it at a corner bodega. My go-to sandwich—well, I’m not supposed to have it all the time—it’s chicken parmesan. In New York, I love it.
I take a nap. My cat is next to me. He’s black with green eyes, and sweet. I found him in Harlem on a cold December day and he followed me home. I take time to think. It’s part of my process. Right now, my head is all about a book for Women R Beautiful.
With my photographs, I celebrate a life—a lot of these women may not have a voice. My grandfather wouldn’t allow my mother to look at him when she was talking to him. She had to talk to him with her head down. Even though she was highly educated, she was in the shadow of machismo culture. I was a little kid when I saw that, and I had a visceral, strong reaction. I couldn’t believe a father could treat a daughter like that. It’s what motivated me to do a show like what’s at the Mint.
I live in a brownstone, have a yard. But I’m a creature of the street. It’s good to travel around this time because kids aren’t coming out of school and the subways aren’t crowded. I want to be in place by 3 or 3:30 PM. My encounters with subjects are no longer than five minutes, usually just a few seconds.
Sometimes I have three cameras on me. The lens caps are off. If I have to wait to take a cap off, my subject may be gone. My work is like a subway ride—very strong, very fast.
You’re passing thousands of people and that person catches your eye and you go after them. Most New Yorkers are always in a hurry and they don’t want to talk. I feel like I’m selling Tupperware when I’m trying to get their photo. But I’m lucky. I’ll get nine out of 10. These people in the most marginalized areas of the city—they have such wisdom and can tell if you’re a bullshitter. I love and respect that. They can tell I’m not a bullshitter.
I get their email address, get their Instagram feed, and I send the file later. Sometimes I give them a signed print. I stay in touch and invite them to my shows. I want them to see themselves in museums, in galleries.
By this time, I have my second cup of coffee. Coffee twice a day, that’s part of my culture. Then that moment before it goes dark—I call it the magic moment. It’s only a few seconds, so you better be somewhere that’s important.
In the winter, I’m home by this time. In summer, I’ll be out until 8:30 or 9 PM. Dinner is usually salad and soup. Sometimes I’ll buy a rotisserie chicken and share it with my cat. He’s a Harlem cat and loves his fried chicken and rotisserie chicken. After dinner, I look at pictures I’ve taken.
I do what I call my “YouTube videos and Google research.” I Google neighborhoods and notice the demographics, crime statistics, landmarks. I look at an area’s retail. It’s important for me to understand the culture of an area to reflect it in the photos. I took the photo of the three Muslim girls in Women R Beautiful because I’d seen the subway coming through in a commercial for a local newscaster. I saw it, googled the gym name on the side of a building, and went there. I sat like a fool for 90 minutes on those steps, waiting. I said, “I’m going to sit here until someone comes down who’s amazing.” And the three little Muslim girls came down. That was it.
I do The New York Times crossword. It takes me only a few minutes because I’ve been doing it for years. I like to motivate my brain to think. Then I give myself time to think.
—As told to Caroline Portillo, Senior Director of Marketing & Communications at The Mint Museum
This story was originally published in the January, 2021 issue of Inspired, the Mint’s biannual member magazine.