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Interview: Kevin Russ

Books Interview: Kevin Russ Christopher J Johnson, photo-eye Bookstore manager, interviewed Kevin Russ about his most recent zine, Summer Trails with Kevin Russ, the hiking life and his inspirations.

Summer Trails with Kevin Russ By  Kevin Russ. Self-published, 2017.

Kevin Russ is a photographer unlike most of the ones we look at and consider here at photo-eye. One might say that he is a trails photographer, hiking being the principle mode for his inspiration and the place from which a great deal of his photography issues from. Christopher J Johnson, photo-eye Bookstore manager, interviewed Kevin about his most recent zine, Summer Trails with Kevin Russ, the hiking life and his inspirations.

The Western States By  Kevin Russ. VSCO Artist Initiative, 2016.

Christopher J Johnson: Where are you today Kevin?

Kevin Russ: I'm in central California, Rio Grande.

CJJ: You obviously are outdoors a lot, hiking along the way taking these pictures; so as a photographer and given this context, how would you describe yourself?

KR: That's a good question... I would say that I am a traveler and photographer, though I guess I don't try to… well, I guess that any artist wouldn't want to be put into a box like that... though that's how I make most of my living – off of photos – though I'm trying other things, like my book [Summer Trails with Kevin Russ], I mean it is all my photos, but I learned a lot of things in the process. I did it pretty much all myself. I'm just always trying to expand my art and my skills

CJJ: Given the nature of your work there's a lot of nature photography and a lot of it, as I said, you've taken along your hikes and journeys and such... I guess my question would be, how did you come to saying, this is how I want to create my photographic work as opposed to, you know, photographing something like a march or doing portraiture photography; what is it about being outdoors, taking photographs in that environment that really appeals to you and keeps you going.

KR: First of all, the reason I'm doing nature and not – well, other things – is that I get the most inspiration out of nature versus portraits, cityscapes – any of that. I just feel the most when I'm in nature. I enjoy creating a work that can have a timeless look to it and, well with nature it's just possible to do that.

Summer Trails with Kevin Russ By  Kevin Russ. Self-published, 2017.

CJJ: Certainly true... and you do have that look, in fact, Summer Trails reminded me a little bit of, your know, some National Geographic volumes you might pick up from the late sixties and through the seventies...

KR: Cool!

CJJ: Yeah, well then the postcards have a little bit of an antique feeling to them; it's interesting that you say that it's a kind of timelessness that nature provides whether its a David Caspar Friedrich painting or one of your photographs. Now that being said, I imagine that you admire some nature photographers, though maybe not... Who are some of those photographers or artists that are influences for you or, failing that, what brought you to want to view nature and capture it in your art?

KR: One of the main guys is Ray Atkeson, he was Pacific Northwest based and made a lot of photobooks that I've found in thrift stores. I don't know, I get so much out of his work or nature photo work in general that is not current. I'm not sure what it is about current landscape photographers, but I just don't get the same feeling that I do when I'm looking at something from the eighties or earlier... Ray Atkinson is the main one, but actually – you know what – more that any photographers it would be landscape painters. Specifically the ones from the Hudson River School over in New York, guys like Thomas Cole and Albert [Bresont?], he did Sierra paintings...

CJJ: Frederick Edwin Church?

KR: Yeah! That type of work, I actually get more inspiration from that than photographs.

Summer Trails with Kevin Russ By  Kevin Russ. Self-published, 2017.
CJJ: You know it's interesting that you say that because, you know, John Ruskin has a famous – I believe it was a lecture – but essay on landscape, it's mostly about J.W. Turner, but he says that landscape painting puts nature and what is human into scale so that – in a Turner painting for example – you might have a tiny little figure running from a volcano and this is, you know, to heighten the power of nature over people, so to speak – or humankind or whatever – and I wonder if that is something that appeals to you that I feel, and I often, myself, think about this, that current photography, landscape photographers, don't seem concerned about at all. It seems that is [current landscape photography] tends to be about framing or minimalism, whereas, in a lot of the Ray Atkinson photographs for example – especially the black-and-white work – he features people or, even more so, people at sport – skiing and etc – while in his color work, when you get figures in there, they are at a much smaller scale and it impresses upon you the majesty, the size, the grandeur – whatever thesaurus word you want to throw in there and I wonder if this is something that appeals to you... That's a lot of words I just said...

KR: Possibly, but I see that a lot on Instagram or in other photographic works, there's a figure in there for scale because I think it makes the viewer feel more connected – it seems like a trend. To me ially want to capture; animals in nature?

The Western States By  Kevin Russ. VSCO Artist Initiative, 2016.
CJJ: Fair enough. Let me ask you too, a lot of my favorite pictures of yours have animals in them and I wonder, first of all, how do you get so close to these animals and maybe, I don't now, it is you zooming in on them and, furthermore, given that your books – the one's I've seen – don't have people, but do have animals in them – what is your connection to nature when we move outside of the landscape and into other pieces of it, like animals and such... Do you include them for variety or are they something you especially want to capture; animals in nature?

KR: In those photographs, to answer the first part, I am as close as it seems. Most of my work with animals is from 2012-13 or maybe 14, when I was exclusively shooting with an iPhone, so there was no zoom really. In certain situations, for certain animals, I would spend hours at a distance letting them go about their normal business and not, you know, trying to change any of their behavior – although they knew I was there – until I was able to get close enough to take a photo with my phone. Then there's a handful of animals, because I did so much driving back then, that I found near the roadside that would get fairly close... As far as my relationship with animals and nature, they are kind of where I felt the most inspiration because, you know, I hadn't seen a lot of wildlife at that close of a range that I just felt inspired by that because it was new and fresh. That's why I shared so much of that stuff. That's actually behind the reason that I share anything, because it is what inspires me most at the time. With the current little zine, Summer Trails, I didn't see animals, but I didn't feel what I felt a few years ago, I was more into the plain landscapes, so that's what I tried to capture. That's what I shared.

The Western States By  Kevin Russ. VSCO Artist Initiative, 2016.

CJJ: Well it sounds like your answer is that you are evolving. Speaking of evolution, you mentioned the use of the iPhone and it's my belief that you used the iPhone exclusively for Western States [KR: Yeah...], but in the newer work there's a photograph of you on the back of the book taken by “a passing hiker” and you have a regular camera with you, so my question is are you moving away from the use of the iPhone, are you using both? What's your preference today?

KR: I am not moving away from the iPhone, but I've had a proper camera – in 2014 I started shooting film, um, and that is, film cameras, what I've added. I had a digital SLR in 2010 or 11 and then I went I Phone only and then I added film after that. I'm shooting everything now, basically, on both cameras just because the phone I can share instantly on Instagram – that kind of stuff – unfortunately I have to kinda keep up with it as it helps my business and things, so I shoot click and share what I'm doing, but the film work – a lot of that doesn't get shared, but when it does... well, it was really cool – so with Summer Trails, none of the photos had been shared. So the first time I shared them was through printed work, which is something I haven't done before. It's such a contrast to how my work had been shared in the past.

Summer Trails with Kevin Russ By  Kevin Russ. Self-published, 2017.

CJJ: So in 2016 two of the books that ended up being selected for the short list for the Paris-Aperture Prize for first book, and one of them did win, were Libyan Sugar and Astres Noirs – the thing about them both is that their content was entirely shot on phone and something that I hear every now and then is that it is a totally different process using your phone than using your camera and even questioning whether or not, and this might not be the place for the discussion of why, an iPhone photo would count as a photographic print-type photo, as a fine art photo. I that something we should all be getting used to, as I feel that maybe it is, or is it something that lends itself to everyone just taking photographs and blurring the line between fine art photography and amateur photography in general.

KR: I have no issues with people using an iPhone, you know art isn't for everyone – for me an iPhone image can bring back – let me roll back a little bit, basically when I'm shooting what I'm trying to do is bring back the feelings that I had when I was in that situation [the moment of taking the picture], so an iPhone can work and a film camera can work, but I get different feelings from both of them. The tool behind the work is not what equals fine art. I'm not a big art guy as far as knowing what people call fine art, how do things become fine art – does it just happen from people calling it that? Let's say a fine art curator is looking at a photograph and can tell if it's shot from a phone or not, I guess it would be up to them whether or not that was fine art in their opinion.

CJJ: I think that that's a fine answer; you told me that you're approaching from an authentic place and using the tool that's best for the moment and you're not distinguishing if this is an iPhone moment or a film moment.

KR: A lot of people have discovered their own thing with photography because of, you know, cell phone cameras and I think that that is good!

CJJ: I want to ask just two more questions: The first one, I think, is pretty simple – which is, tell us just a little bit about the VSCO app that you used for Western States.

KR: That is one of my favorite apps, still the only one I use. Way back in 2012 when they launched the app I had been using an App called PhotoForge, it is kinda like a mini Photoshop, but anyways I would use this thing and try and edit my photos in a similar way, but then they came out with this app [VSCO] which had a preset that was very similar to what I was already doing by hand so it just sped things up so much! Then they released their second app. It looks really good to me.

Summer Trails with Kevin Russ By  Kevin Russ. Self-published, 2017.

CJJ: Great! So my final question, the one I ask anyone I'm interviewing, is what in 2017 is coming up for you that is furthering your photographic career?

KR: I'll be doing more international travel. Last year I did a little, but I'm heading down to New Zealand for about 6 weeks to do a lot of hiking. That zine, Summer Trails, is still with me – I'm trying to get more of that summer hiking, so I got a bunch of backpacking trips lined up for down there. Still more of that nature, the only thing that is partly different is that I have transitioned with this zine, I've learned a lot from the zine, and that has inspired me to do more things like it. So I get a lot of inspiration from old photographic products like you might find in thrift or antique stores, so I'm taking inspiration from those. I just want to make more things that I want to see my work in and hopefully, people will like them. I'm most inspired not by fine art, but I get more of my day-to-day motivation by seeing my own work in that form [antique-style postcards, photobooks etc] and I'm just going to continue that. So forms of old film work that I see, I'm just going to try and take that inspiration for my own work.