Culling 60,000 images to around 80 was a daunting task, but photographer Ward Russell and co-curator Melanie McWhorter, a photography consultant and owner of Grenade in a Jar Books, were up to it.
The challenge was to narrow the vast collection of Russell’s documentary and fine art photography and still provide an overview of his black-and-white and color work in his 10-year anniversary show, Unscripted: Decade One.
“My interest goes from portraits to architecture to landscapes,” he said. “I just try to see what is there and if I find something interesting in it. Then I go to that. I try to have an emotion or a feeling or a story in each photograph — something people can identify with.”
Russell grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and studied theatrical lighting and design at the University of Kansas in 1961. His first taste of Santa Fe came in 1963, when a college friend who worked in the costume department at the Santa Fe Opera convinced him to apply for a summer job as a property master. After a two-year stint in the Navy, he returned to the opera in the summer of 1967 as one of two master electricians. It would be a long time before Russell and his wife, film production coordinator Mary Cay Hollander, would settle in Santa Fe permanently.
“I fell in love with the opera, and we would drive through here every time I went back to Kansas to visit relatives,” said Russell, who spent most of his career in California — first in San Francisco, where he worked for the American Conservatory Theater.
“I couldn’t make any money in theater and segued down to L.A. and finagled my way into the lighting union, then worked in all the film studios and worked my way up through the system. Most film work is on-the-job training. I didn’t know anything about film. I never took any film classes. I just knew lighting. I spent the last 20 years as a cinematographer.”
He retired from that world in 2006 and took up photography three years later. “I had to figure out what I wanted to do next because the wife said, ‘You better do something. You aren’t going to just sit around the house.’ I started looking at all the new digital still cameras.”
Ward doesn’t shoot for magazines or other publications. All of his exhibitions have been self-curated and mounted in his own space. And Unscripted: Decade One is an affirming, revealing, and often whimsical look at people and places across the globe. Russell, who does all of his own printing in a digital darkroom at his studio and gallery on San Francisco Street, brings a cinematic, narrative eye to his photographs.
“On this one I decided I needed help, because we were going through thousands of images on my computer. A photographer’s problem is he loves every single picture he ever took. I spent all of January getting it down to where I could submit a few hundred to Melanie, and then she went through and put her brilliant eye to work.”
Although he travels extensively, he doesn’t consider himself a travel photographer so much as a street photographer, at least when he’s working outside of the studio. His images are candid, and he captures small moments. A black-and-white image called Decisions (2008), for example, shows two adults and a child, presumably a young family, standing in the sunlight next to a wall. The woman, with her eyes closed, holds the man in a tender embrace. He has a pensive, troubled expression on his face and stands with arms folded. The child, standing in front of them, drinks from a paper cup, looking at something outside the frame. Russell said they didn’t know that he was taking their picture.
“It is not often that one is let into such a private moment in someone’s lives,” he said. “I try to be as respectful as possible in such situations.”
Many of his photographs suggest a story behind the picture. It could be the nattily dressed pedestrian belting out opera above a canal in St. Petersburg, Russia (Canal Maestro, 2007), or the massive elephant head mounted on the wall of a hut in a South African game preserve. “I can’t get away from telling little stories,” he said. “I’m not just going out into the landscape to take a pretty picture of the sunset. I’m going to take a picture with something else in it.”
In his black-and-white photography, the emphasis tends toward the contrast of dark and light and the quality of light, like the way a luminous sky frames the imposing structure of a cathedral in a photograph taken in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
He’s also often drawn to pairings of dissimilar objects. A black-and-white portrait of a wild warthog on the grounds of a fancy, 19th-century hotel in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, provides a more compelling contrast. The warthog, with its menacing tusks and surly demeanor, takes up most of the frame, and stands defiant, the guardian of a pristine, manicured lawn.
“In cinematography, we would light everything, pretty much,” he said. “The whole concept was to emphasize, with the lighting, the things that you wanted people to look at. You could darken certain things and make other things more intense, and your eye would just gravitate to the brighter objects. All of my life I’ve been doing that. I do the same thing in the stills. You bring out the things you want people to concentrate on.”
Although the exhibition is not a haphazard arrangement of images, neither is it chronological or separated into series. Examples of several bodies of work are interspersed in a wide-ranging glimpse of the world. In any place Russell finds himself, at any time, it seems a picture is waiting.
“Basically, I know that I will find it,” he said. “There’s always something there.” ◀
▼ Unscripted: Decade One, ongoing exhibit
▼ Ward Russell Photography, 102 W. San Francisco St., No. 10, 505-231-1035, wardrussellphoto.com