Ryan Russell - ‘Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham’ interview

April 8, 2014 by Mamie Silver

Ryan Russell - ‘Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham’ interview

That’s a pretty crazy experience, though. Did you have to talk to anyone from the Westboro Baptist Church?
No, they basically just came and stood around me. They didn’t say a word; they were just talking to themselves. You could tell that they were just like, “We want to be in this guy’s photos,” but at the same time I knew that if I put it into the book, anyone that saw it that was writing an article about it, that would be the one story they would always ask me. And I didn’t want the situation of that to eclipse the rest of the book.

Is it different when you’re taking band photos rather than when you’re taking nature photos to when you’re taking photos of your family? Do you come in with a plan, or does inspiration just come to you?
With landscapes specifically—even with nature I feel like I have a more candid, dirty style, and then I have the more natural, nice-looking stuff. When you’re doing the more natural, like mountains and snow… you’re shooting something that’s thousands of feet away, so you have to figure out which other mountain can I get on to get a photo of that mountain, and at what time of day am I going to have to do that? There’s a lot of planning involved with that kind of stuff. With band [photography], there are so many facets of it, because live photos are so fast-motion, so you start to learn how to freeze the physical world that’s moving. With press photos, you learn how to do the stark, flat photo that makes everybody look good, or you do the kind that are more candid, where you can have a bunch of people doing different things. It’s all tied in together, and I feel like my band stuff definitely trained me to make it easier to do other stuff. As far as inspiration, I feel like I’m a little weird, compared to other photographers. For me, I don’t really like knowing who shot what, whether it be a band, nature, whatever. I like looking at ambiguous work, because you know somebody shoot something, and you may think, “That’s the greatest live photo I’ve ever seen,” and you see a name attached to it and you’re like, “Well, that person always takes great photos, that’s why.” But then you look at something that’s just as good and you think, “Now, that’s the greatest photo I’ve ever seen,” and you see the name, and you’ve never heard of it. I feel like the [ambiguity] of it makes it so that everybody’s on a level playing field. I don’t want to go in looking at someone’s photo and be like, “Well, he always shoots good photos, so that’s whatever.” I look at work online and on Tumblr and Instagram, and that’s where I find a lot of locations. I really don’t follow anybody’s particular work. I like looking at larger image archives or just Googling or hashtag a location and see what people have been posting.

Ryan Russell - Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham

How did you get into photography in the first place?
I never got into any kind of photography until I was 20. I had never owned a camera in my entire life until my second year of college. I was going for computer programming and my thing back then was websites. I knew how to do websites in ’99 and 2000, so I did a website for a Birmingham band Haste who were signed to a label. Once the website was done, they were touring, and we didn’t really have a lot of content to put up photowise, so I was like, “Well, I have to get a camera for this elective class anyway, so I’ll just come and shoot some of the shows, and that’ll give me something for the website.” So for my first two years, I didn’t shoot anybody else except that band. My first experience not shooting them, a friend of the guy who actually signed them to Century Media is friends with all the Fugazi guys, and so Fugazi were playing Birmingham in, like, I think March ’02, so my first photo pass was for Fugazi. That’s something that at the time I was really excited and really stoked for. Over time, I have realized how big that was to have that, and I definitely appreciate it more now. Shooting that and people seeing those photos, other bands saw them and then [would come to Birmingham] to play and would be like, “Do you want to come out? I’ll give you a [photo] pass.” I just started shooting bands coming through, and it just spiraled from there. I never interned anywhere; I never worked anywhere. I just shot local shows and started shooting national shows. The only reason I got into AP was because I won a photo contest in ’04.

I imagine that’s a better way to get to know the people that you’re shooting, too, instead of in a studio. What message would you want someone to take away when they’re like looking at the photographs?
You know, I don’t really know if I have one. The book was basically about me documenting my experience living in a place for 32 years in Alabama and basically moving to the exact polar opposite of Washington. I guess the main thing is, anybody who looks at it—and this is going to sound stupid—but I guess what I would want someone to take away from it is they don’t have to go shoot Paramore or Death Cab or Green Day to have photographs that look good. You don’t have to strive to be Ansel Adams, or some National Geographic photographer to put out good stuff. Anybody can decide, “I’m going to go do this,” go take the photos, and you can figure out a way to put them out there for people to see you stuff. So the one thing I guess I would say is that anybody can do it.

Ryan Russell - Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham

Is there anything else you want to add?
This whole process—the book and everything—was kind of [because of] AP. AP had a big part with the initial process of this starting. In December 2012 I decided, “I’m tired of taking band photos; I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to work the music business.” Whether I do band photography for a living or not, I’m always going to be able to shoot Paramore photos, because if I want to do that, I go call Hayley [Williams, frontwoman] and say, “Hey, I’m going to come take photos,” and she’s like, “Hell yeah, come out.”

The bands that I really like and work with, I don’t have to work in the music industry to be able to see them and do work with them. I know that I’m going to be able to do that, regardless. I had gotten to a point where I was just so frustrated with how the music industry works, that I was like, “I’m done with it,” and so I quit. I had not had a job in 13 years, because I had been doing websites for a living, and then I switched to photography when I graduated. I had a bunch of friends who worked this part-time job in Birmingham, and I decided I was going to go work three days a week with them, I could actually hang out with them more now, instead of having to fly out and go on tour. I still had enough local work that money was not really an issue, but I wanted to go out and try the corporate world and see how that works. The Friday before I was supposed to start the job, [AP creative director] Chris Benton calls and says, “Hey, we want you to shoot the cover,” and the one thing I had never done in the 10 years working for AP was shoot a cover. It was something I had always wanted to do, but for whatever reason, it just never synced up for us to do it. So I had wanted to do a Paramore cover, Paramore wanted me to do it, AP wanted me to do it, so I was like, “Cool, I can do it in two weeks.” So for two weeks I was planning all the stuff involving that shoot and then working this part-time job… So after the two weeks, I fly out to LA, we do the cover shoot, I come back for, like, a day and then go on the To Write Love On Her Arms tour for, like, three days and then came back to Birmingham and went back to the job. After being there for, like, five hours I was like, “I’m not going to lie, I can’t do this.”

Birmingham is a smaller town, and if you do what I had been doing for long enough, people know about you, so they were like, “We know that you do that band thing, and we totally understand.” So I quit, and then over the next month or two, there were so many album shoots that I had to do that I would have made probably five times less if I had stayed at the job. Plus I got to see all my friends. I realized that the music business would not let me go.

The coincidence of that, of waiting 10 years to do a cover, and you get the call the call right when you decide you’re not doing it anymore, I definitely took it as a sign. A month or two later is when the conversation about “well, one of us has to move” happened, so I feel like the events involving that and getting the cover helped me realize that not only am I moving for this person who I love, but I also have a lot more to offer photography wise. For me, that was a big milestone that I credit AP for starting. I remember telling Mike [Shea, AP founder/CEO] the story, I think a week or two after doing the shoot, and he thought that was fucking hilarious. Alt

For more information on Ryan Russell and to order Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham, visit Russell's official website.

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