Photographer of the Month Interview: Brian Rueb

Featured Photographer, February 2012:   Brian Rueb

This month, our featured guest is Brian Rueb.

We sincerely thank Brian for taking time from all his many projects and busy teaching schedule to answer our questions and share his thoughts, perspectives and work with us! Although he is an ApCad master instructor, we are still very grateful he could slow down enough to give us this interview. Please visit his site links to see more of his inspiring images, and let him know you appreciate his time, too.

:: What sparked your interest in, and subsequent passion for, photography?

My First exposure (pun intended) was actually from my mother, probably 1980s. She took a dark room and black and white class at our local college. I'm not sure why she took it, but she got addicted, and ended up going all out and bought the ENTIRE dark room set up, camera, lenses, etc. It was hardcore. She turned our kitchen into a darkroom a couple times a month or more. I'd go in to visit, because I didn't have any siblings to hang with, and then I'd get trapped in there for hours watching her print. I think sniffing all those chemicals probably had something to do with it. Seriously, when I graduated from high school I was an art major in college. Around this time I had also gotten a job at a 1-hr processing lab. I wasn't doing any photography but I was around it, and people who did it ALL day. It felt odd being the only one who didn't go out and shoot. I had this wealth of knowledge around me and I was the guy who drew and painted.

A friend of mine was taking a college photo class the following semester, and because it filled a hole in my requirements, and my mom had all the gear, I opted to take the intro to black and white photo class. This was in 1991.

I had a photography teacher, Forest Croce, who was a perfectionist, and for all purposes really hard to please. My goal for the entire class was to a) not get yelled at and b) impress him. I wanted to be the best at it. I worked hard to try and improve, and looking back at the early stuff, it was hit or miss whether it worked...but I tried. Luckily he didn't think I was an idiot and I actually got to help him out on some jobs he did.

I found the more I worked in photography, the more I liked it. It had a kind of immediacy that painting and drawing didn't. I soon added photography as a second major, and that's where the journey began.

:: Do you specialize in any specific genres, and did you plan to pursue them from the start?

I never started out wanting to be a landscape or wildlife guy. I didn't know WHAT I wanted to do, but I figured it would be some kind of personal interest Nat Geo type of stuff. I liked being in big cities, and shooting urban street scenes. I shot a few weddings, I did some work for large events, sports, and I spent about 3 years working in a portrait studio off and on in both the printing side of things as well as in the actual studio. I was the newbie there when it came to the actual shooting part, but because it was my college major and I was good at the printing side of things, they let me shoot, too. I got all THE WORST assignments, the ones the others didn't want to shoot. People who wandered in from the streets, in fact they often MADE people come in off the streets for me to "practice." I had the huge families of 20 that couldn't speak English, screaming angry babies, all the bad ones. There were no hot chicks, or cool sessions for me ever.

The one time I had a decent session, I had a guy and his dog. He wanted photos for his fiancé for Valentine's Day. I was the only one in the studio for that hour, so I HAD to shoot it. I was SO pumped to shoot something that wasn't what I normally shot. I got super creative. I cut out all these red and pink hearts and taped them on the dog, and everywhere. It was going to be SO awesome.

The session ended, we all felt great about it. I went and printed the photos and the stupid dog had his wiener out the ENTIRE shoot and It was RIGHT in EVERY shot. I guess the dog was excited about the shoot as well, but it netted me zero sales, and ultimately no extra favor with the others.

:: Given your involvement with Aperture Academy, have you found teaching to improve your own understanding, or hamper it?

Teaching definitely helps my understanding of how cameras work. It also really helps me to focus not only on the information, but how to explain it to others. Often it's easy to "get" something, but to try and explain it so others "get" it too is where it gets tricky.

I really like teaching, and having people thank me for helping them, or continue to ask more questions well after classes are over, is really great, and helps me hone my skillset even more as I try to find out what people generally struggle with. I then try to modify my teaching style to include it the next time.

:: It seems like you spend a great deal of time in the field, what does your typical year look like?

My year is nuts. I'm gone on workshops probably 20-25 weekends a year. Those are teaching times, so there's usually very little time for me to get out for my own shooting. It requires an additional two-three weeks of my time to get out and explore and try to add new images to the portfolio.

I'm lucky that I live in a really beautiful part of California. I'm close to a lot of nice areas so I can get out a lot locally and try to shoot. I spend about 150-200 days a year out doing photography. Each year I travel about 20-30K miles in the car, and then who knows how many more in the air and on foot.

:: The last two years you've spent extensive time in Iceland -- can you shed some insight on what inspired you?

Bjork. That's only partially a joke. I used to listen to a lot of Sugarcubes and Bjork when I was younger (7th and 8th grade and on up). When I was younger, I remember them talking about how she was from Iceland, and I hadn't heard of that country much in school. It was this mysterious part of Europe that was isolated from the rest. They believed in elves and seemed bizarre. Granted, that was in 8th grade, so I was easily interested.

When I got into photography more, it always seemed the images that captivated me or amazed me were from Iceland. There was this bizarre world over there with volcanoes, and icebergs, and huge just looked like a playground for landscape photographers.

When I began to really get fully into photography and writing a few years ago, people always asked when I was going to do some kind of book. My answer was usually, "When I find a project worthy of writing a book." The more I thought about it, the more I decided to try and figure out a place I could go for a few months, and photograph. Everything I wanted was in Iceland. I had wanted to go from as far back as Jr. High School. I just became more in tune with things happening in that country. My experiences there were helpful in allowing me to go back in 2011 for another 2 weeks.

:: What did you take away from your visits to Iceland, both photographically, as well as maybe personal growth?

Photographically it was the first time for me to really see what I was capable of, when having nothing else to do BUT photograph. I lived photography for the entire time. It ultimately felt like I was in some surreal "zone." I didn't always get shots I liked, but it seemed that I was constantly finding things to shoot, and it really helped sharpen my skills in composition. I had so much time to scout, and shoot, and the light was tremendous (at times) for hours upon hours and I could really set up and fine-tune my images.

I was so very pleased with the images I came back with. I had set some goals of how many decent shots I wanted to come back with and I surpassed that. I learned a lot about photographing in difficult conditions and about photographing in some areas where things I thought I knew wouldn't work. Photographing icebergs and glaciers is a lot tougher than it looks....

Personally, I think anytime you expand your comfort zone like that, it changes you. I had a lot of friends who expected me to fail...not maliciously, but just knowing my personality, and what I was trying to do, and for the length of time I was trying to do it. They all had bets on how long I would make it before coming home. They all lost.

I was amazed at how much my level of fitness and conditioning improved over that time. I was able, in the end, to hike almost 50 miles in about 13 hours with a 45-pound pack. I also was impressed at how truly disgusting and stinky I could get. I've never smelled anything as bad as me after an extended period with no shower or change of clothes. My family wouldn't even touch me when they picked me up at the airport.

In the end, I knew I was capable of really great things, and my body and mind were fully able to endure more than I felt they would be able to. It's a different kind of high, for sure.

:: You taught photography to high school students before Aperture Academy. What value did you personally gain from that, and was there any part of that you've brought to your ApCad students?

Ugh. That's a part of my life that I always have such mixed feelings about. I'll put it this way. There's a huge benefit to private education. With private education, I'm in control. I know my students have the right equipment, and I can put them in the best places at the best time to make sure the concepts I want to teach are taught. It's the best way to educate. I know after every class that learning has taken place.

I've heard it said a few times, "Teaching is one of the most creative professions." That statement makes me want to barf. When teachers have to get creative, the learning is suffering. When I have to get "creative" it means I am lacking something I need to do my job better. I'm creating something that is not there.

Public education forces teachers to be creative. "Let's pretend we're at a beautiful lake." "If you DID have a wide angle lens...we could..." "If we weren't stuck in a classroom looking at a white board...imagine if we were..." It's ridiculous. I love to teach. A lot. I do not love when things get in my way.

There are some great kids in the schools I've worked with...and I've always tried to do my best to help those who have interest or need to get the most out of life, with whatever interests them. As far as teaching photography in high school, it's a lot like herding cats without a rope. You do the best you can. There are good days and bad days.

What that does teach me is to appreciate what I have in my private teaching. I really try to make the most of every class. We have the materials, we have the locations, and I have EVERYTHING I need to teach with....I don't have to get "creative."

:: I've read that you enjoy taking your children, and dogs, out with you on personal shoots. What does it mean to you to share your talent and skills with your family, and do they love photography as much as you do?

I've gotta great family. They've been very patient with me. I'm not an easy human to be around for long periods of time. I'm competitive and driven to a fault. When I'm not out shooting, I'm thinking about it, or writing about it, or researching it. I'm lucky that it has become pretty successful for me, and my family is able to see some of the payoff for the efforts.

I'm gone a lot. I do enjoy my family a lot, and to try and strike a balance, I've had to figure out ways to include them as much as possible. I'm not going to ever force my kids to photograph. They have to want to. If they just like being with me while I'm out there, and promise not to throw rocks in my foreground, we're good.

They've both begun to be interested in what I do with the camera, and they want to start to I'm going slow with them and letting them practice with me and we'll see where it goes.

My wife is supportive. She has no desire to do photography. She helps with promoting me, and helps out with our ApCad functions. She's also game to go on any adventures that require tropical beaches and relaxing on a beach with a drink and umbrella in it.

:: Who is your mentor, and what is the best advice you've been given, and love to pass on to your students?

As I mentioned earlier, the first real "mentor" I had was Forest Croce. I think he was strict, and wasn't going to patronize me for having subpar images. The best piece of advice I got, and STILL use and pass on to others, was something he told us the first day of class:

  1. Do you really want a picture of this?
  2. Are you close enough?
  3. DO you have film in the camera?

That was it. That seems so simple, but I ask myself #1 and #2 every time I snap the shutter. I've modified #3 to include memory cards, set on RAW, and ISO set properly...but the others I use all the time.

Other than that, he was the first person to really give me any kind of responsibility with photography. I always appreciated that. I've had other teachers and people along the way that have given great advice, but really now, I'm my own worst critic and nobody is going to push me as hard as I will. I'm never really satisfied and always want to learn more, see more, do more, and be more. I don't lose well. I have to be better every time.

What I try to pass on to my students is this. (This is the abbreviated version.)

  1. Know your gear,
  2. Put yourself in the best spot,
  3. Hope for the amazing conditions,
  4. Know what to do with the images when you get home.

Those four things will create amazing images when they're all together. You can control of them ALL the time.

:: What is your "dream image," the ultimate photo you want to take? Is it a place or a particular subject?

I have a bucket list. I don't look for images, per say, but locations. I have a list of a lot of places I want to go and shoot. I research locations and spots a lot before going, but then I find the image once I arrive at the area.

I really want my own images from places. Granted, there are a few places where originality is kind of hard (like Mesa Arch, Horseshoe Bend), but for the most part, I'm going to always be pushing for new compositions, stuff others don't have. If the places can be new as well, then that's even better. Iceland was great for finding new places and compositions.

:: If you could spend an hour talking to anyone, past or present, about photography, who would it be and why?

I enjoy talking to anyone about photography, whether they're professionals or just picking up a camera for the first time. Some of the best conversations I've had about photography have been on workshops with students.

Not to sound like an ass, but I know all the manual photography stuff, I'm confident in my abilities, I'm always pushing myself to learn, so I'm not going to get anything from someone. Even If I were to sit down with Ansel Adams, I think I'd just ask him about his scary bear stories more than other stuff.

I like good stories, and just BSing. If the people are into photography, I don't care who they are or how much or how little experience they have.

:: What caused your first "ah ha" photography moment?

The tripod and graduated filters. Learning how to use those for me took so much of the mystery out of creating images. I would see a lot of images that intimidated me, then when I started using the filters and a tripod, I was able to figure out how they'd done some of the "magic"... and it was all downhill from there.

:: Would you share your favorite personal photo adventure story?

I have a particularly scary one.

The story is from a trip to Africa in 2003. I was photographing a project at an orphanage. I've always been a fan of the Nat Geo photographers. They always seemed to be these regal adventurers who were in remote areas, and riding through the bush on Jeeps. I always wanted to be "that guy" with the camera rumbling through Africa atop a Jeep, snapping from the roof.

A time came for us to run to the nearest town, some 30 miles away, for some supplies. They had this old, rugged, Jeep-style vehicle with a small railing on the top. I asked if I could ride up on top and photograph. In this part of Africa there are no rules. They said sure, so I climbed atop this old Land Rover, put my lower back against the spare tire, and grabbed on to the 8" high rail that lined the roof.

The plan was that he would drive, and when I wanted him to stop for me to photograph, I'd kick the roof. Then when I was done, I'd kick it again and we'd take off.

We slowly drove off the compound on a rickety old dirt road. I kicked the roof. He stopped, I photographed some cool looking trees. I kicked the roof again, and he slowly took off. It was a really good system. A mile from the orphanage, the rickety road turned into the main dirt road, which by dirt road standards still wasn't great. These dirt roads make up over 70% of the roads in the area.

Once we hit that road, they TOOK OFF. We were flying down this dirt road at speeds nearing 50mph. It was absolutely the scariest thing ever. Bugs were drilling me in the face. I was skidding around the top of the vehicle, holding on, white-knuckled, for dear life. I'd kick the roof...not to take photos, but to get the driver to stop so I could get OFF! No amount of my kicking or screaming (there was a lot of that, too) could be heard over the loud rumble of the Rover on the rippled dirt road.

We went up and down hills, over narrow one-lane bridges with sheer canyons below. One wrong turn and I was going to be chucked off into some very rough terrain.

I have to wonder what all the local Africans were thinking as this white dude was screaming by. Probably don't see that every day in those parts.

Eventually we hit some pavement and drove even was easily the most frightened I'd been, ever. I was SO glad when we finally stopped. This local came up to me and said, "What you are doing is VERY stupid."

I tend to agree.

:: A little birdie told us you're writing a book about your adventures in Iceland. What book projects are you working on, or have planned in the future?

Yeah, I'm still working on the Iceland book. Writing a BOOK is much harder than an article. It took me three months to get started; I couldn't figure out how to start it.

Most people decide within the first chapter or two whether they'll keep reading a book. To just get started I had to skip the first part and find a spot that I felt I could start writing and make it funny and interesting. I still have to go back and finish that first chapter. The book is almost 210-pages long so far, and it's actually getting really close to having the first draft done. Then I'll do a re-write of some parts I think suck, and ship it to some editor friends I have to read and spruce up the grammar, and then I'll figure out how to sell it or promote it from there.

When I'm finished with the book, it'll be time for the next grand adventure...I'm not sure where that'll be yet.

I'm also loosely working on some photography type books about Northern California. One on Lassen National Park, and another about the North-State in general...both probably are years from completion, as I'm still amassing images for both.

:: What is your ultimate goal in your photography career path?

My goals are simple. Work hard. Continue to learn. Be better each time I go out. Treat people well, and be a good steward of the places I visit. Never accept a bear's invitation to dinner.

I'm absolutely hooked into photography for life. Never once has it felt like work. I came home from Iceland after three months and was out shooting a couple days later. I don't tire of this. I want to get to a point where all I do is travel, photograph, write about it, and then teach others how to be better photographers.

Brian Rueb

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