Studio- Ryan Russell


by Brett Levine, Photo by Andrew Seward

Ryan Russell

My first photo pass was to shoot Fugazi at Sloss Furnaces,” explains Ryan Russell, obviously still surprised by the significance of that experience.  Russell is, for lack of a better descriptor, a music photographer.  This is his focus, yet not necessarily where he had expected to find himself.  “I started taking photographs as part of the process of designing websites,” he says, “and later as part of my work photographing the band Haste, a local band that was signed nationally and popular in the early 2000s.”

Russell, who didn’t really begin his photographic education until taking a beginning photography class in college, is now widely respected as a music photographer, working for national magazines but still finding time to share his talents with regional and local bands as well.

“Since I was interested in graphic design, I found that photography was simply a part of my process,” Russell says. His desire to meld photography and graphic design led to an early break. Three of his photographs were selected to appear on Jones Soda bottles after he won a quarterly company contest. “I had just gotten a new camera,” he laughs, “and I sent some shots to Jones. I couldn’t believe it when they used them. I literally drove around Birmingham buying Jones Sodas because I wasn’t sure if they would send any to me!”

Russell photographed Haste and the bands they opened for between 2002 and 2004. Through his connection with Haste, he got a chance to shoot Killswitch Engage in Atlanta. “That was my first out of town shoot,” Russell says quietly, “and by then I also was photographing out-of-town bands touring through Birmingham whether or not it was for a magazine.”

By late 2004, his career was really beginning to take off.  “I had taken an image of Converge, and it sort of became an iconic photo for the band. Then, Alternative Press called and asked me to shoot Underoath, which was the first time I’d been asked to work for a national publication.”

“So,” Russell laughs, “I took a chance and emailed Death Cab for Cutie’s management and asked if I could have a photo pass for their show at WorkPlay. In fact,” he notes, “I ended up shooting them in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.” This connection would have its own personal reward several years later when Russell was invited to the west coast to shoot press photographs for their Narrow Stairs release. He also had the chance to tour with the band for short periods in 2007 and 2009.

“I’ve really had some amazing breaks,” Russell muses. “Decibel magazine hired me to shoot my first cover, which was Queens of the Stone Age, who were playing in Atlanta.  Then I got to work comedians including Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifianakis, and as my work became more recognizable it was picked up by a number of more mainstream publications.” He mentions The New York Times, Spin, Rolling Stone, Vice, and The Chicago Tribune, among others.

Despite the success, Russell remains committed to fostering local talent and local bands.  This past holiday season, he offered to shoot bands willing to make a contribution to those in need through the Angel Tree Giving Network. “I feel like if you believe in what you do, you should be able to do it for the pleasure of doing it and not always expect a reward,” he says. “I don’t want people to be afraid to ask me to photograph their band because they assume I’ll be out of their price range.  I try to work with anyone at any range because I believe every band should have the chance to have quality photographs.”

This commitment to local musicians led to the establishment of Nervous Energies, a series of sessions and releases Russell recently began producing. “I decided I wanted to film bands I was photographing anyway, and I wanted to do this while having them play their sets acoustically.” Nervous Energies showcases both national and local bands, in many instances highlighting groups that might not have access to recording and distribution otherwise. Every time there is a new release, it bundles a release by a bigger band with one by a local band. “I wanted to have a small record label, releasing cassettes and vinyl, that was just putting out music that I really liked,” Russell says.

For now, music photography will continue to be the ground on which the recording and publishing projects are built. “Actually,” he says, “I’m working on two photo books of non-band imagery right now.” One can only imagine he’ll have plenty of time during the day to edit the images, iconic or not, music or not, that he captures every night, both on and off the stage.•

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