Ryan Russell: From Birmingham to Bellingham

When the well-known music photographer Ryan Russell made the move from his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama to Bellingham, he likened the change to the way an image is distorted in a camera: light travels through a small hole into a dark box, flipping the image upside down.
“The deep south and the northwest are opposites. It’s like the difference between real life and the image in the dark box, one is turned upside down. It felt like I was traveling through the diaphragm of a camera,” Russell says.
This idea is the driving force behind the photographer’s first non-music related photo book “Continental Obscura: From Birmingham to Bellingham.” According to Russell the book will be split into two parts: the first documenting his 3,000 mile, 8-day road trip from Birmingham to Bellingham and the second section documenting his first month living in the Pacific Northwest.
“The book is 99 percent finished. I still have one more place I want to shoot here in Bellingham. After that I just have to figure out what to write in the book and pick 200 pictures for the book from the 10,000 pictures I took,” Russell explains.
As someone who is best known for his work photographing acts like Against Me!, Paramore, and Death Cab for Cutie, Russell admits that photographing nature is still a relatively new experience for him.
“I’ve been taking band photos for 13 years and there’s only so many ways you can take a picture of a guy with a guitar. The photo book was a way for me to explore nature a little more. If all goes well, there will be more “Continental Obscura” books in the future, but with different themes and places. I want to do a desert themed photo book, so maybe that will be next.”
Continental Obscura is set to be released through No Sleep Records on Jan. 14, 2014 and each copy of the book will come with a limited edition 7” single. Going with the theme of the photo book, one side of the single will feature a band from the deep south and the other side will feature a band from the Pacific Northwest.
“The most I can officially tell you is that the bands on the seven inch are both bands I’ve worked with over the years,” Russell states with a grin, knowing this doesn’t even come close to narrowing down a guess at who the bands are, adding, “Both songs are also either rare or unreleased.”
Along with the release of the photo book, Russell is working on getting his online video series up and running in Bellingham. The series, dubbed the Nervous Energies Sessions, was born in November 2010 when Russell’s longtime friend Katie Crutchfield (of P.S. Elliot fame) started her side project Waxahatchee and wanted to film a few of the songs in a simple intimate setting.
“After I did the Waxahatchee session with Katie, Nervous Energies kind of just took off. Her session got a bunch of hits on youtube within a day or two of me posting the video and Fake Problems were in town the same weekend so I decided to ask them to do one too. A few weeks later Rode donated better microphones and the sound quality of the sessions improved dramatically.”
Since then Russell has recorded live sessions and acoustic sessions by bands from Coheed and Cambria to Lucero to Northwest acts like Minus the Bear, Fences, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and anyone and everyone in between. Russell also hopes to set up a permanent space in Bellingham that he can shoot the sessions, stressing that while he will still be filming and shooting big name acts, he wants to do as many sessions as he can with local Bellingham bands.
“I grew up going to punk shows so I grew up with the mindset that people and bands shouldn’t be treated differently, no matter how big or small they might be. I don’t care if you’re Against Me! or just some kid playing guitar in his room. If they wanna do a session, I’ll do it. I got a huge push in my career when I was asked to shoot Paramore and Against Me! and if doing a Nervous Energies Session is what it takes for a band to get that same sort of push in their own career, then I couldn’t be happier.” Later adding, “I live here now, I wanna be a part of the community and build the trust here that I had in Alabama.”
While he is unsure of the date Continental Obscura will go up for preorder, he did emphasize his desire for the photo book to be sold locally in Bellingham and across the Northwest, even suggesting that, space and time allowing, there could be a release show of some kind in Bellingham. He also would like bands to know that in addition to contacting him about the Nervous Energies Sessions, they can also contact him about creating album art.

-Sarah Bryant