Watch the Street, Shoot from the Heart

Field Notes  /  Inspiration
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Los Angeles-based photographer Russ Quackenbush creates visual images of humanity that reflect the qualities we cherish most in each other. In his portraiture, he gently documents the relics of a subject’s life experiences as they unfold and present themselves in the emotions of their face, the language of their body, and the energy of their being.  Russ’ photography gives us license to laugh, play, rejoice, or to mourn. It is through his images that we are led respectfully and thoughtfully into the life of another.

Upon starting his business in 1996, he has received a myriad of awards from the Photography and Advertising Annuals of Communication Arts, The Ad Club, and The One Show.  Creativity Magazine, Archive, and Photo District News have all featured Russ and his work. It was 2001, that Photo District News distinguished Russ in their “30 Under 30”, presenting him as a young talent worth keeping an eye on. He has certainly lived up to that prediction.

How did the 5 for 5 project come about?

I had a storefront workspace in Santa Monica at the time, across the street from a bar called the Cock n’ Bull. They say nobody walks in L.A., but people were walking by the studio all the time, and it’s one of those things where I wanted to do a series of portraits, then I thought that if I’m going to ask people for a few minutes of their time, then I wanted to compensate them for it.

From the 5 for 5 Project by Russ Quackenbush

I kept it quick, and really simple: about a minute to answer questions, four for the portrait. I’d fire away, taking 25-40 images while having conversations. I’ll be doing more 5 for 5 portraits; I’m in Long Beach now, and have more wall space that’s allowed me to hang stuff up. It’s important for me to be able to do that.

How do such personal projects fit into your overall work?

When I’m not shooting for a client — well, if you don’t do personal projects, you’ll lose your mind. If I’m not shooting, my head goes into some dark spaces. Even if the work sucks, there’s something to be learned, and you can take that thing you’ve learned someplace else. If I’m not doing storytelling with photo projects, I do some more conceptual stuff – like the Getty series where I got people to mimic the art, or the portraits of people with Type 1 Albinism dressed all in white. I documented motocross people because that’s what I grew up with. In general, you take yourself out of a controlled environment and try and tell your story that way, try and keep yourself awake. Otherwise you get dormant and bored.

From the Getty Series by Russ Quackenbush

I don’t spend enough time on projects to keep them going. Part of the problem is that advertising clients – when they’re looking at your portfolio, they only want to see a couple images of a concept, not 20. So projects tend to not get developed. I shot Bunnyman in just two days.

The portraits of Albinism are really powerful – how did you find your subjects?

I grew up with learning disabilities (I’m dyslexic) though I was good at math and creative things. So for me, photography is a great tool to approach things that I wouldn’t otherwise understand. Where I grew up there was a gentleman who was an Albino – Type 1 Albinism is how it would be described now – and as a kid, I didn’t know that’s why he was different. So as an adult I wanted to photograph these people. I wanted to make huge, 40” x 60” prints so that people would be overwhelmed by the power of the images.

From the Albinism project by Russ Quackenbush

I put the subjects in white so that the beauty of the person came through; if you put a colored shirt on them, then the focus of the picture, that contrast – all you’d concentrate on was that they’re Albino.

Anyway, to find the subjects I had to go through NOAH [National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation]. I learned there are different types of Albinism, an endless list of possibilities for portraits. At first when I reached out, people were skeptical – and rightly so: in the media, they’ve been portrayed in certain ways. Like the movie Powder. Logistically, it was hard. This one girl came in, and her parents had to drive her because of her eyes; that’s a common trait for certain types of Albinism, that you can only see so far. Then the guy with the big beard came in, and it turned out he had these friends — three siblings – all with Type 1 Albinism, who were interested in the project. Now, the odds that you’ll be born with these traits are 1 in 17,000, and here was this family with three kids – and the parents are both fully pigmented. You’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than that happening!

From the Albinism project by Russ Quackenbush

There aren’t more portraits for this project because the costs were pretty high to produce them – for instance, because of the issues with the eyes, I had to hire drivers to get the people to the studio. I’d like to continue with the project at some point. I’d love to go to Tanzania, where the odds of Albinism are 1 in 1,100. People there think Albinos have magical properties, so if you can imagine, they’ll, say, cut off an arm to help in voodoo ceremonies.

How did you learn photography?

I went to college for it – I have a BFA from the Art Institute of Boston (it’s now called The Lesley College of Art and Design). My first professor was a gentleman called David Ulrich, who was a disciple of Minor White. David taught us a lot about printing, how that process was extremely crucial for photographers, along with an ability to communicate, and talk about your art.

Then came Christopher James, an alternative processing guru. He was the polar opposite of David, emphasizing the element of play, and losing the rigid, technical part. You know: play with toy cameras, take risks, make mistakes in order to take things to the next level.

What advice would you give budding photographers who want to take things to the next level?

If you want to work (as opposed to being a teacher), find a good two-year program, then intern the third year with a photographer while starting to assist — that way by your fourth year, you’re ahead of the game, and by your the fifth or sixth year you’re in a better financial spot than your peers who went into debt. I think too many students graduate with these ridiculous student loans. I mean, how do you get out from under $160,000 in loans?

[As we’re talking, Russ asks to hold on a minute. He hails someone walking by his studio, and talks to him for a moment.]  

Sorry – I just saw that guy and had to thank him. The other day a man was standing on the front of the train — on the outside — yelling stuff, obviously in distress. Most people would have just walked on by, but out of nowhere this guy goes over, pulls him off the train and brings him over the curb where he sits with him and engages with him in conversation, calming him down. It really struck me; when you see stuff like that, compassion like that, it spreads. We as human beings forget that. My Mom was never religious, but she was spiritual, and always taught me you treat people how you want to be treated. I wanted to thank him at the time, but the police had come and he was talking to them…I’m just glad I saw him walking by now so I could. I told him we need more people like him in the world.

What haven’t we talked about that you’d like people to know?

I want to show goodness with my work, the kindness in people, not the darkness. Everybody has their darkness, but the kindness is there – sometimes it’s just a matter of patience. I like to show the humanity of an individual in my work.

I was a product still life shooter when I first started as a photographer. After three years, though, I had a realization that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I loved the creativity, and working with other people, but something spiritually, something in my gut didn’t feel right. So I started photographing people. And I had people asking me why, I mean there are plenty of great portraitists out there. But you just have to listen to your heart. Whatever it is, follow your heart and continue with it. Like anyone else, I have my creative moments, I have my moments when I’m at the bottom of the barrel, and then I’m on top of the world. But it’s like surfing: you just wait. You may have nothing, but you wait. And something comes. So I’m always thinking of the next project, because if you don’t have one, you can easily fall into a space of negativity. And that’s the worst place to be.