A bit of culture shock is to be expected whenever undertaking a considerable change in location, but professional photographer and Birmingham native Ryan Russell didn’t quite expect one of the more oddly profound differences he would come to experience when he decided to relocate to Bellingham, Washington, a seaside city only 90 miles north of Seattle. “It’s really awkward,” Russell says, “to go to Walmart and not see Alabama and Auburn merchandise.”
But a different leaning of college team spirit is a fairly mundane difference when considering the vast differences in geography between the two cities. If one feels so inclined, a day’s trip from Bellingham can be made to the top of an iceberg — an altogether alien experience for a Southerner. It’s a moment in nature such as this that Russell focuses his lens on in his soon-to-be-released table-top book of photography, Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham.
The idea to document his eight-day, cross-continental move to Washington for a book was planned in advance, and his route was plotted accordingly so that he could visit certain areas he had always wanted to see, as well as schedule meetings with his friends who lived along the way. The second half of Continental Obscura is dedicated to Russell’s explorations of the landscapes around his new home.
Those who know Russell know the decision to make a book of nature photography seems odd considering that, at 32 years old, he has already had an impressive career as a musical photographer. “I pretty much wanted to do the exact opposite,” Russell admits.
Twelve years ago, while still attending UAB for his degree in graphic design, Russell bought his first camera so that he could take pictures of performances by Birmingham-based band Haste. At the time, Russell was also designing their website along with Faith Skate Supply, whose website he would design for seven years.
“[Haste] would play shows, and if they were headlining, I’d get photos of them,” Russell says. “But if they were opening for other bands, I would get them to get the photo passes from the band so I could shoot them as well. And that’s how the whole thing started.”
It’s a beginning that is not as humble as it sounds, considering the first band he would receive a photo pass for in 2002 was none other than Washington DC’s renowned post-punk band, Fugazi. By 2006, Russell had graduated with his degree and had amassed an impressive portfolio featuring bands like Killswitch Engage and As I Lay Dying. More names would be added to the list in the years to follow, popular acts such as Death Cab for Cutie, Taking Back Sunday and My Chemical Romance.
“A lot of these connections were made just going to [a band’s] show and shooting photos. And they see the photos and say, ‘Come out to our next show.’” This straightforward process of networking would organically lead Russell through years of work with a diverse array of bands. Russell maintains that the important factors of his success lie in having a good portfolio and a good reputation with bands. “You want to shoot a band, so you contact a band you’ve shot before and say, ‘Hey, can you help me?'”
The nature of this relationship is readily on display with Continental Obscura, which comes with a 7″ split vinyl, featuring unreleased material contributed on request by Seattle’s own Minus the Bear and Manchester Orchestra from Atlanta. The regional distinction between the two is very much intentional, as Russell wants the music to conjure both the place he was leaving and the place where he was arriving. Even when working on a collection of nature landscapes, Russell’s mind is never far off from music.
“I do a lot of album artwork,” Russell explains, “so I know I lean towards — whether I mean to or not — work with the mindset of using it for album artwork later on. … I feel like the way I approach it is the same. Obviously, it’s going to be a different setting if you’re outside. But just setting up a shot was similar in a lot of ways.”
Russell is currently discussing the publication of future volumes of photography, each one focusing on a different aspect of his life, such as, naturally, collecting his many photographs of bands. But other topics include photographs of his father’s home in Iowa — an aspect of his father’s history Russell is unfamiliar with — and a book dedicated to the urban and industrial environs found within Birmingham.
“I grew up shooting Birmingham,” Russell reflects, “the way the cityscape has been for the last 13 years. One area will be really thriving and then go completely dead while another area pops up. When those areas go dead, it leaves a lot of dormant spaces. These spaces were what I used a lot in my photos of bands.”
But for the moment, Russell is just happy to see Continental Obscura officially released on April 8. Russell will be visiting Birmingham for the week and will attend a release party for the book at Bottletree Cafe on Saturday, April 12, from 3 to 5 p.m. Seasick Records will be selling copies of Russell’s book as well as managing DJ duties for the event.
And even now, the connections and relationships Russell has fashioned through his years of work still hold strong. Local musician (The Urns) and Seasick Records co-owner Chayse Porter, who is also featured within the book, has this to say about his friend: “His unique approach and attention to detail set him apart from most photographers, locally and globally. Russell’s ambition to master several realms of photography is truly inspiring for any artist stuck in his or her comfort zone.”
Continental Obscura will be published by Nylon and will be sold locally at Seasick Records. For more information visit ryanrussell.net.