Ruby Alice Berry, AKA Ruby Falls - Narrative is essential and inescapable
Ruby Falls is a thinking and intensely feeling fine art film photographer based in Appalachia, East Tennessee. This thought provoking interview is filled with insightful words of wisdom and incredible ideas as they relate to her practice of film. She shares with us her concept of failure and Eureka moments, the importance of narrative, getting into the zone, her experience of synesthesia and the idea of balance.
When did your connection with film photography start and what was it that drew you in?
About three years ago, I was digging through the attic looking for a box of crinolines when I found my husband's Pentax K1000. And all the planets tilted wildly then clicked into place. Until that moment, I had been saving up for a dSLR somewhat unenthusiastically. But now, suddenly, there were options. Most importantly, the option to fail. So I said feck it, and trotted out to buy some film. And that was it. I was hooked. Instantly, irrevocably. And just a year after dusting off the Pentax, and after countless rolls, read-but-not-really-understood stacks of books, some dabbling in toy cameras, hours on APUG, and frame after failed frame, I was tearing apart our teeny, horror-movie-esque, ceiling-leaky utility closet to build a darkroom. Finally, my fiddly, fidgety brain had found its home.
I love the process of film and the quiet of the darkroom. Part routine and planning; part jumping off a cliff. But always very visceral, tactile, and sensual. To me, the only thing better than the moment when you get The Shot is the moment when the lights are out and the door is jammed and I break the seal on the roll and can feel the film slide between my fingers as I load the reels.
Film, to me, is the perfect intersection of craft and art; skill and dream. I love that there are always problems to fix, things to take apart and put back together. There is always something else to learn. I love that there are rules and I love that the rules can be broken. Everyone has an answer or an opinion but at the end of the day, it is just me and a camera and some film and pile of fantasies and a never-ending pool of curiosity.
Why was the option to fail so appealing?
I think, primarily, the allure lies in the ability to make something my own by screwing it up until I get it right. Or less wrong, as the case may be. Part of this has to do with the relatively low population of film photography as compared to that of digital photography. It, to me, seems much harder to objectively identify a ‘failure’ in the digital realm as it does in film. It is also much easier to obtain a ’successful’ shot without actually succeeding. You can be a professional digital photographer and not know anything about depth of field or exposure or studio lighting. In other words, you can do a Thing without actually knowing that Thing. And that isn’t necessarily a bad way to do it, it just isn’t how I like to operate.
I like to know WHY. And HOW. I like to screw something up so profoundly that it will take me years to figure out what I did wrong. Because it is that figuring out process — the reverse engineering, if you will — that makes ME better. I will have an idea in my head of how I want a shot to look. I think about it (for weeks, sometimes, if it is a studio lighting situation; for minutes if I am out in natural light), try to imagine how to get from nothing to The Shot, and then shoot.
When I was starting out, the possibilities for failure were damn near infinite. I could screw up exposure or focus or posing or development or just about anything, really. But the beauty of photography is that, while it is art, it is also science and craft. So if you take the time to learn the latter aspects — the static concepts — you can rely on those elements to work and work consistently and without surprise. Because really, why fail at something when a little time and learning can make it a constant, thereby freeing you up to fail at the more ephemeral things? And, more importantly, those eureka moments where you *finally* Get It? Totally mindblowing.
For me, the most wonderful such moment was the day I finally got the Zone System. I had taken a few kicks at it before, but nothing really stuck. Then one night while trying to shoot live music, my meter crapped out on me. So the next day I set about to fixing it. And decided that while I was doing that, I might as well figure out how to actually spot meter, so I pulled out a book on the Zone System that I knew talked simply about spot metering. And as I was tinkering with the meter and reading, I realized two things immediately: (1) the meter was precisely two stops off and (2) that very likely was because the previous owner was metering to zone 3. And just like that, I *got* it. And I wouldn’t have gotten there without failing. And now, the Zone System is my gravity. It keeps me safely tethered while I float about trying out the next shot my imagination kicks out.
But the most concrete thing about failure is that it requires humility. Which, in turn, requires honesty about one’s work. And while this can — and truly does — often result in long periods of self-doubt and loathing every shot I have ever taken, when I face the failure head-on, think critically about it, and finally defeat it? Not only have I learned incredibly valuable things about my work and how things work, confidence happens. Actual substantive confidence — not just the feeling that my work is good, but also the knowledge that is good.
Or can be, if I just embrace my failures.
Can you show us a few photographs you have made using the Zone System? And can you tell us the technique you engaged in to make these photographs?
With this first shot, I wanted it to be fairly light but keep texture. It is light with bright sunlight coming from the window only. And it didn't have a lot of contrast naturally, which I wanted to keep. I tend to pretty high contrast in my studio lighting, and with this shoot was working on a softer feel. So picked the back of her hair as my Zone 3, metered and adjusted.
The second shot (Mother and Child), I was again working on a softer look with only natural lighting. But I had to work to get it lit correctly, so they are surrounded by these huge cream coloured panels I made, with a medium gold reflector to my left and a smaller gold reflector on the floor. I metered to the softly-lit portion of Mother's hair near her forehead as my Zone 3 because I didn't want the baby's skin to lose any detail.
The last shot, my MMA Fighter, was my first focused attempt on Zone System metering. It was an incredibly high contrast studio shot. She is very fair with dark red hair. I had a soft box aimed straight at her face as close as she could take it, and a 500 watt blue bulb in a simple burnish metal hood right up on her back. I metered her ponytail as my Zone 3, checked it against a reading off of her forehead, adjusted, and shot. This is easily one of my favorites shots ever, both because the subject is so amazing and my lasting happiness with the results. Typically, I like something for about a day before I begin to pick it apart until I drive myself nuts.
Do you prefer to work in more natural environments or the studio? And do you find there’s a different dynamic that occurs between you and the subject(s) in the different contexts?
I guess I'm a bit of a control freak. It mainly depends on what I am shooting and whether it is "requested" work or personal work. I prefer the studio for portraits, especially single-person portraits. But I also like planning shots off-site. I like finding odd little unregarded, forgotten spaces. I am telling a story when I take a photograph. The setting is how I try to guide perception.
How much significance does narrative play in your practise of photography?
I would say narrative is, for me, a skeleton that gives every shot its shape and movement. And the narrative is going on so many different levels. First, this human I have in front of me -- who are they? What do they want to tell people (other people, themselves)? How do I tell that story? So each shot is a little tale, with the subject and myself as co-storyteller.
Then there is the larger story -- what am I doing with this subject over the course of the entire shoot? Wardrobe changes, props, make-up, lighting changes -- all of these help me to tell a broader tale, but still the story is primarily about the subject.
And then there is always a personal arc, although it was a few years before I realized this. I was sifting through a folder of my favorite shots from the last year, trying to begin to put a show together. And I realized that every shot in that folder had an element of loneliness and a fear of obsolescence. Of things wanting to be seen. I had not done this intentionally, though that story is quite clearly there, weaving its tale through the shots to which I felt a strong connection.
So, for me, at least, narrative is essential and inescapable.
Ansel Adams said “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” You identify that these personal favourites contain elements of “loneliness and a fear of obsolescence” - “of things wanting to be seen” - why do you think these types of photos resonate with you strongly? And are the things wanting to be seen coming from your minds eye or the subjects - or both? Can you provide us with an example?
Perhaps I am projecting my own issues onto the world, but I believe that everyone, on some level, wants to be seen. Not necessarily looked at, certainly not stared at, but noticed. Acknowledged by the world or life as existing, unique, human, alive. Validation on the simplest and most fundamental level. Again, it could just be me, but my experience is that this is a common need. Regardless, in portrait work, both subject and photographer want to be seen. Certainly there have been people that I have had to coax in front of the camera, but even they wanted to be seen. They just didn't want to be seen unfavorably or incorrectly. Which leads back to the idea of narrative. Ideally, when I shoot someone, I go into it knowing how they want to be seen, how they see themselves, how others see them, and how I want to see them.
As for loneliness and a fear of obsolescence, again, I think these are fundamental aspects of human existence. The flip side of it -- the wonderful side -- is beauty and potential. And it is the dichotomy of those things that draws me in, whether it is a stunningly gorgeous woman who doesn't know how lovely she is, or abandoned machinery. These are things, simple and elegant, important and *there*, and I see them. And want others to see them.
Do you prefer to see through a specific film camera using a certain type of film? And how meaningful are these tools to you?
Ahhh...tools. I will preface this by saying that I have a pretty large arsenal of equipment -- toy cameras, folders, TLRs, land cameras, etc. Though I will occasionally use something else for a particular project, I primarily shoot with a Mamiya 645 Pro TL and a Hasselblad C/M. Typically, I decide what "feel" I am going for, which will guide my film choice, and the circumstances will decide camera and lens choice. So, both practical and artistic elements.
Film choice (and eventually, developer) is interesting. I have synesthesia. I didn't know it was A Thing until well into my adulthood. I thought -- and still think, actually -- that it is obvious and don't really understand how other people don't get that numbers, months, etc. have colours and personalities. It was about a year into processing my own work when I realized that my synesthesia had attached to film. In other words, film stocks have genders and personalities to me. Which I know sounds totally insane, but it also seems so obvious to me. For example, Delta 100 is a gentle, elegant, sort of Victorian-fancy older lady; Tri-X is an adventurous, worldly man. Crazy, right? But doesn't it also make sense?
That said, I almost always use Tri-X for B&W and the Portra line for colour. My comfort level with these films is high because I've shot hundreds of rolls with each of these films and I know exactly what to expect. I will vary my choices based on circumstances and lighting. I used to shoot a lot of Delta 3200, but the cupping (and subsequent Newton's rings) is such an irritant that I only use it when I have the time and patience to let it flatten for a week or so. (NB: I'm very impatient -- perhaps an odd characteristic for a film shooter. But unless something major is going on, I will usually stay up all night processing after a shoot.). But overall, Tri-X and Portra are my trusted choices.
As for meaning, I know there is a lot of disagreement over whether such choices matter. To me, of course they matter. A portrait with Portra 160 is going to be completely different in tone (both physical and ephemeral) than the same portrait shot with Portra 800. Yes, I can tinker in Lightroom, but why do that, when I can easily get the feeling I want via simple film stock choice?
As for a personal attachment, I will admit to that as well. The Mamiya is a solid choice for when I am moving quickly and lighting/set is going to change quite a bit. The 80mm f:/1.9 lens is my favorite but it is also a finicky, fussy beast; by comparison, the 110mm/f/2.8 is an infallible workhorse. On the flip side, my Hasselblad is my more artistic choice. It requires me to think carefully before each shot and when I do my job properly, it gives me exactly what I want. Both cameras are very real things to me, meaning I have a connection to them. I've taken both apart. I've done numerous, breath-holding repairs. I've spent hours and hours trawling the internet looking for answers and solutions. Basically, I have very real relationships with these Things. I know them. I need them. I care for them. And like any Good Tool, when properly used and cared for, they will provide perfect, reliable results.
And when you don't care for them, you might find yourself taking apart an Acute-Matte focus screen because you forgot to close-up the WLF and someone dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange dripped hummus into it. It happens.
Would you say that your synesthesia inherently provides increased character to the way you engage with film photography?
I honestly do not know if it does or not.
Synesthesia is always on, so to speak, unlike a migraine (which definitely DOES impact how I see and shoot - especially with color film). That said, there are times when the synesthesia goes haywire (during migraines) and everything is super intense. Perhaps it does drive me to create photographs that capture my sense of the moment - the music that I hear, feelings that I associate with lines and curves, and tastes that color gives me. I will have to think about this; it would be interesting to discuss this with other photographers.
Can you identify one (or two) film photographs that resonate with you strongly, but are not your own? And why these photographs?
Yes - Two somewhat obvious choices, perhaps, given my interest in both the female as art and the female as artist and my desire for narrative. Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' and Sally Mann's 'Candy Cigarette.'
The former draws me in and inspires me to be more documentarian in my work, while the latter appeals to my style of a more composed documentary feel. One of my future goals is to do documentary birth photography; of course that will have to wait until all of my children are a little bit older.
It is always about balance, isn't it?
Do you have any film photography goals for 2015?
YES. Hell yes. So many goals. Too many goals. My over-arching goal is to venture out of my comfort zone and actively seek out opportunities to show my work and to interact in person with other photographers and artists. The other big challenge is balancing business with personal projects -- I am excited to be out there as a professional photographer for hire, but also need to save time to work on my own projects. As to specifics? I want to shoot more live music, learn how to take a decent self-portrait with the cable release, and figure out how to fold up my giant reflector without looking like I am fighting a losing battle with a pterodactyl.
But mainly? I just want to keep shooting.