Get to Know Vanguard Professional Ryan Russell
Ryan Russell is a music and travel photographer renowned for his work with Paramore, Death Cab for Cutie, Manchester Orchestra, Against Me!, My Chemical Romance, Patton Oswalt, among others. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Russell moved from his home of 30+ years in the south to the Pacific Northwest town of Bellingham, Washington. The eight-day cross country journey is captured in his photo book, “Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham.” Read about his start, his dream shoots, and his gear.
When did you first get into photography?
My journey into photography began in 2000. I bought my first camera for an "Intro to Photography" elective class with no real intention of it going any further than that.
That same year I got hired to create a website for a local band called HASTE in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. The band was signed to a record label and had been gaining fame around the country from their first album. The time came for them to begin their second album, and a new website would be released as promotional hype while the band was in the studio. After the site was completed, we all discussed how it would be great to have a lot more photo content, and I told that band I had just gotten a camera for this class and would be willing to hang around photographing the album process and any live shows they had coming up in town. For the first two years, I only photographed HASTE, learning not only how to use my camera, but also exploring what looks great in band photography from an artistic viewpoint and a marketing one as well. In 2002, I got my first "photo pass" for an incredible band called FUGAZI and that was pretty much my jumping off point for photographing other touring bands coming through the South.
What kind of shots of performers do you like to go for? Any tips for capturing the high energy and atmosphere of performances?
My go-to favorites are when a band is very active onstage and puts on a great show. Some bands are experts in being all over the place. The tons of energy they give off will always make photographing their shows easier and iconic. It's also important to know how to photograph a very low energetic band, though. While a more active band might make for these grand epic live shots that can be easily appreciated, the more somber artists rely on a photographer's innovation with angles and exposure to make a more iconic shot. Knowing what a band's "vibe" is and researching ahead of time what kind of show they put on will help a photographer immensely. Do not be afraid to take a stroll over to YouTube to check out those iPhone videos fans post from shows—they can be your best asset in terms of gauging your expectations.
Of the musicians and people you haven’t yet photographed, who would you LOVE to be able to photograph in the future?
I've been lucky enough to photograph some of my favorites from growing up, like Foo Fighters and Green Day. There are two others on the bucket list I have to do: Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine. Pearl Jam puts on one of the best shows I've seen, and the music videos for Alive and Even Flow shot at live performances were super influential in developing my own aesthetic. I’ve never been able to see Rage, but have always heard they put on an incredible show as well. The inside photo of the band in their "Evil Empire" album art was the first time I felt something click in my head where I thought, "Man, how cool would it be to photograph bands." Some others include The Hives, Interpol, Superchunk, U2, Future Islands, and Ra Ra Riot.
Your book – Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham – is full of landscape and nature photography. What first drew you to this genre?
It was definitely a more recent interest getting into landscape and nature photography. I wasn't much of an outdoors person growing up, but the past couple years I've felt the urge to go out and explore and appreciate the world around me. I visited a couple interesting places while working with bands and just felt drawn to see where I could go with something other than band photography. As far as the book goes, having spent the first 32 years of my life in Birmingham, Alabama, I knew I’d want to document my move thousands of miles away to my new home in Bellingham, Washington. With a new love for nature and national parks I thought it’d be a great opportunity to do my first non-music related photo book.
How would you describe your style? Can you describe your process – from conceptualization to post-processing?
I try to have a very hands-off candid photography style. I am much more inspired to document things as they happen in real life and do my best to capture them authentically. I have a limited post-processing style as well, letting the camera do as much of the work as possible. From my 10 years of shooting the only film, I think that "getting it right the first time" is etched in my brain, and I try to strive to do as little post work as possible with my DSLR work. With that said, the progression of mobile photography in the past couple of years is something that has astounded me. I have definitely found a new level of freedom with my mobile photography and feel that everything I have photographed with a mobile device is in many ways completely the opposite of my DSLR work. Apps like VSCO, Afterlight and others have really given everyone the ability to be a photographer in the best possible way. Everyone deserves to document their lives with images they can be proud of.
What kind of travel photography do you have in store for the future?
When I was working on Continental Obscura, some of the Oregon locations became my favorite of the whole cross country trip. I want to revisit them and have more time to spend exploring those spots along with a couple of new ones I've learned about in the state. In addition to that, just planning out the next two Continental Obscura volumes when I'm not on tour.
What gear is essential to your work?
I try to keep the gear as stripped down as possible. A single DSLR, wide angle lens, portrait lens, and the Vanguard Alta Pro 254CT tripod. For mobile photographs just an iPhone 5 and a Mophie battery pack.
What do you think is your greatest triumph so far in capturing something in a photograph?
Not sure if it's my greatest triumph, but my favorite work has been everything I've done with Paramore and Against Me!. Whether it be live or press photos, or album artwork, getting to work with both bands for the past 7+ years couldn’t be more rewarding. It also has felt like I have given their artistic legacy a huge chunk of content that people will always identify with when they think of either band.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with aspiring photographers?
DO NOT RUSH. A lot of beginner photographers have this urgency to get their work out there to the greatest number of people and that's great. You need to take your time, though, to develop your aesthetic and just enjoy what you are doing. If you're getting into photography just to have a cool career you're doing it for the wrong reasons. In my opinion, at least, the love of artistic creation should always take precedence. Take the time to love your art and make it something that you can be proud of even if no one was ever to see it. There will always be time to "get yourself out there" and try to build a fan base. As far as music photographers, most have asked "How do I get to photograph "X" big band?" and I know it seems like that's the bigger goal, but by focusing solely on that you can miss out on so much. You can't discount the chance to document YOUR music scene and have a lasting legacy there. Tons of great bands are in local scenes, and most of those "big bands" you want to shoot started in the same place the kids down the street are in. Once you start documenting local bands, some will open for bigger and bigger bands and that will give you more opportunity to work your way up to those others you want to shoot.
And finally, having been named one of the top 30 most influential photographers on the internet, how do you plan to use your power? For good or for evil
Haha, well I hope good. I'm sure a little bit of both. I have felt the pull to start thinking of how can I use my photography to better others and hope to one day start some charity projects or something to give back to the community. I am a huge nerd though so I have no shame in wanting to use my power to make my toy and board game collection larger.