Creativity shouldn't stop when you're out of ideas. Sometimes all you need to do is keep pushing and continue with your work. That's just a few things that we learned from photographer-turned-director of photography Travis Ruse in our short chat with him. While he may have taken an entirely different role, he still brings his camera with him to capture life's fleeting moments.
Hi, Travis! Welcome to the Lomography Online Magazine. We're so happy to have you! First off, we'd like to ask - who is Travis Ruse when not shooting? What do you do on your down time?
I am the photography director at Inc. magazine. Inc. is a business magazine for privately held companies. I strive to make the photographs in Inc. unique and stand apart from other business titles. My inspirations for the photography are NYT Magazine, Wired, New Yorker, Harper’s, Gather Journal. All over the place. I don’t shoot for the magazine but hire freelance photographers from all over the world. On my down time I fish, sail, surf, scuba dive and raise two teenage daughters. We own a boat and spend every moment we can when it’s in the water.
Tell us about how you discovered photography. How did you start your photographic journey?
I’ve surfed for over 35 years and I first started with photography when I borrowed a camera to take photos of my pals in the water. I think I shot one roll and moved on. I then took a night class in college and was hooked. My first teacher loves to tell the story of meeting me and remarking to herself how I was another stoned surfer and wouldn’t last one week. Well it’s been 30 years and I’m still at it. And she and I are still friends!
Music and art were very big in my youth, punk rock, etc, so I was ripe ground to find some sort of creative profession. I was mechanically inclined so photography really appealed to me. Of course that was when it was shooting film, developing it, making prints, spotting, flattening, etc., etc. It felt very mechanical.
What would you be if you weren't a photographer/photography director?
I'd move onto a sailboat and try and start a small charter business in the Caribbean.
How would you define photography?
Wow. Well for me it was recording a moment I wanted others to see. I also felt like it was a challenge of technology. How the camera and lens and film transformed the world around me in a way that was different than just seeing it through your eyes.
What's your favorite subject to shoot? Why?
Interesting light always draws me in. When I was shooting in the subway, sometimes I would find a nice light scene and wait to see if other elements would come together to make a photo.
How does your professional work differ from your personal photography?
I don’t shoot for clients. I am very lucky that I get to work with photographers who I greatly admire and are much better photographers than I ever was. I try to only hire artists that I feel bring something special to their work and I believe I have an assignment they would be excited about shooting.
Was there a time when your personal and professional work overlapped?
Not really. When I was getting assignments it was for portraits in magazines. My personal work was always documentary in nature. Wait, actually there was one job. I traveled to Argentina with J. Peterman, a clothing catalog, my job was to photograph Peterman having real experiences while traveling. It was awesome. We spent two weeks there. We had plans to travel the world after that but they went bankrupt, and that was it for my big commercial client.
Please describe your style/work in five words.
Descriptive, revealing, loose, personal and hibernating.
What is the story behind your day-to-day commute photos?
Practical: I had a long commute and two small children and realized this was my only time to take photos.
Professional: It was also the beginning of photo blogs and I thought how interesting it would be to post a photo every day from my trip.
Emotional: It was shortly after 9/11 and I also wanted to connect with people around the world so they could see that us New Yorkers were just like them.
Are there artists that inspired your series?
At the time there were bloggers that inspired and encouraged me. As far as photographers go some of my favorites that have always inspired me: William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Bruce Davidson, Mitch Epstein, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus
What message would you like to get across with your project?
Just because someone else has shot something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Or can’t bring your own vision to it. Lord, everyone has shot in the subway. But looking at my photos now, I definitely captured a very certain time in the subway. For instance there are almost no smart phones in my photos. You see many people reading newspapers and books. That is gone now.
What would you say are the most challenging roles of a photography director for a magazine?
I am always trying to balance the need to bring fresh visions of photography to the magazine and at the same time support the photographers that have always made great work for me. Quite frankly, editorial photography is a terrible business to get into. There just isn’t enough work to go around with magazines disappearing and stock agencies giving away images. Photographers are not helping either. They’ve let these agencies give their images away for pennies. And too many young photographers undercut their peers with their expenses. They don’t realize they are shooting themselves in the foot.
In your opinion, what can photographers do to stay relevant in this day and age?
You have to be constancy evolving. I would point to one my favorite photographers, Mark Peterson as the perfect example. I've worked with Mark for 20 years and he has never stopped exploring and trying new things. He is constantly curious about the world around him and looking for new ways to present what he sees. He is a super nice person and when I call him I know ever detail will be taken care of. He's the entire package. And he's been doing editorial for many, many years. There are just not that many people that can say that anymore.
How do you stay creative in your line of work?
I am always looking at other magazines and online for new artists. The usual spots, Instagram, Tumblr. Hate Facebook.
What would you say are the characteristics of a good photograph? Like how do you know that a certain shot would make it in the pages of the magazine you work for?
For Inc. magazine I look for an image that captures a genuine moment. It can be an emotional image or an image describing what that story is talking about. Our subjects have almost zero time in front of a camera. So I need photographers that can not only bring their vision to the shoot but also can look for those moments that feel real. I will not run a photo where it feels like the subject is using our shoot as a PR moment. I have to create work that will make a reader stop and read the story. Hopefully the images will bring something extra to the story that is not in the telling? from the reporting. It’s a balance.
What would be your advice to photographers who are looking to publish their work?
Look at the magazines they want to be in and study the photography. I don’t mean to copy the work, but to read the story and try to understand why they used that photo for it. And why they hired that photographer. Go to the artist’s website and look at the work he’s making. There is no formula but I want to hire photographers with a vision. I want to know that when I send them out I’m going to get their photo of my subject. I won’t hire you if I don’t have a strong sense of what your vision is. Don’t be generic. Be genuine. Don’t just make cool photos of your rocking friends. Shoot some people like you get assignments for. Be nice. I won’t work with jerks. And it’s a small industry and word gets around. Mostly we actively pass around photographers we’ve had awesome experiences with. Keep updating with emails. Remark on work in the publication, we love that.
How do you think people should handle success and failure?
Don’t act like you know everything. Always be honest and humble. Doesn’t really answer your question, sorry.
What do you think matters more -- talent or skill?
Depends on what you want. There are plenty of photographers who are very techincal and can make any photo you want them to make, once you tell them. They make a fine living. I don’t hire them. For me, I want someone with a vision. I want to feel like I’m collaborating on an important story with an opinion. We are all spending time we’ll never have again. I want something special out of that if I can. Some photographers I use have a very, very basic skill set, and their photos are amazing!
If there was one artist/photographer you could work with, who would it be?
Oh jeez. Today, I’d take Christopher Anderson. Probably be someone different tomorrow.
What's next for Travis Ruse?
The magazine business is disappearing before my eyes. Not sure what is next. I’m not shooting much these days, just a little on Instagram. I feel the world is awash in images and I don’t feel inspired to add to the reams of images. Maybe one day I’ll get my darkroom going again. I used to do that professionally and thinking back to the feeling of magic that happened in there was fantastic. Working on a photo editor portfolio right now.
Please do update us when your plan takes flight! We're excited to see what you come up with once you get back to the darkroom. Back to the magazine as a business, do you think that there will ever come a time that all printed publications will become obsolete?
No. Some titles will always be profitable. More and more are slipping into the red and will probably never come out. but those titles will exist as loss leaders for the brand. Inc. couldn't really exists without the magazine. It gives us prestige where just a website does not. But I think magazines are going to really thin out in the next 10 years. I would not want to work at publicly held publishing company. Or starting a career thinking I'm going to be in print.
Any message for budding photographers/editors/artists out there?
Always be working. It’s easier now than ever before to be sketching all the time. It’s harder than ever though to know when you’re on to something good. I don’t envy artists these days. I bet the hardest thing is to tune out the noise, the comments, the feedback and just do what you want to do. Everyone has an opinion now, and sometimes you just don’t need to hear it. For photographers, I recommend reaching out to other photographers you like. Tell them you like their work in an email and see where it goes. I am a big fan of assisting established photographers to gain experience. It’s better than any school you go to if you want to make a living.
Speaking of this, how do you think should people handle negative remarks about their work and other criticisms?
Do not engage with online comments. I tried to avoid that. It just doesn't pay. If someone has constructive comments then I'd take it offline, or direct email. Try to get face time with people that you want their honest opinion of. I thin people are not as helpful when they can hide behind electronic communication.
We would like to thank Travis for letting us feature his work on the website. Travis Ruse shoots scenes from his everyday commute -- the people, scenery, the environment. You can find more of his work on his website.