I’m often not the best at understanding emotional experiences, especially when discussing artistic work. It’s an abstract place that often seems indescribable, but it’s a place I hope to be able to understand one day. Photographer Wayne Rutledge, however, has gotten me closer to that point of understanding during our conversation Monday afternoon. Wayne has been a working photographer since ‘81, but even though he currently works and lives in Seattle, that is not where his photography career began.
For most of his life, Wayne was much more of a musician than a photographer. He was the drummer in several different bands, (I tried getting the names out of him - no luck, unfortunately), but that allowed him to travel around the country and see new things, meet new people, and ultimately broaden his scope of the world. He began taking pictures of “interesting people and things,” or how he put it, “the things you never think to look at, the things that are missed.” I asked him how he ended up in L.A. since that’s where I originally associated him; “I bought a 35mm camera, met a girl, and moved.” It’s a frustratingly easy story of how he landed his first photography job; it seems like in 2017, artistic careers are so slim that you're truly lucky to land one, (I’m not bitter at all). Essentially, someone simply liked his work and offered him a photography position at a modeling school. He never had a formal photography background, so it was this position that taught him the tools he would need to further succeed in the photography world. Afterwards, he moved back to Seattle where he now works independently, playing around with several styles of photos and continuing to evolve his work. “In L.A.” he tells me, “there are so many opportunities, anything you want to do. But it’s always, ‘you’re good, but it’s not what we want’. L.A. is all about how many people you can bring up with you.” Seattle in contrast, is more insular, and there are far less opportunities. He describes Seattle as being, “stuck in a box; there’s not much room to stretch.” Location, however, doesn’t seem to affect him personally. He talked a lot about being “you” wherever you go. You’re still going to be doing the same stuff in a different place if you don’t allow yourself to grow, which seems to be a good motto for this artist.
In the past, his work seemed to be primarily professional-style portraits. Over time, he began photographing people more artistically, playing with lighting, wardrobe, and layering. Most of his work, however, is portraits, and I wanted to know about that process from both ends. From his end, I imagined it hard to direct people, or to simply capture something “real” from a person that is just standing in front of you. But if you look at Wayne’s images, you can easily see the personalities of the people he captures radiating something real for the viewer. And that’s essentially what he wants to do with his work, capture something real or true about the people he shoots. “As a director,” he explains, “you have to put them before yourself. You have to make them feel comfortable enough to expose themselves in the manner you're trying to capture. I like to do that mostly through humor, just talking to them. But also, it’s important not to ask more of them than what you would do. Be straight with them. And let them do the things they want to do.” There’s a place the photographer needs to meet the model in order to create something honest, and that’s the aspect I had the hardest time comprehending. How do you (the photographer) know when something is “real” about a model you may have just met? How do you even begin to get to that place? Wayne tells me, “you need to surrender yourself, as they do also. When you do that, energies can meet in the middle, and that’s when creativity happens.” Still lost, he explains to me, “it’s easy to feel when it’s not right, when it’s a half-assed smile. It needs to be real.” To me, it seems like Wayne wants to allow models the space to feel comfortable being themselves, even in a posed situation. When you allow people that space, something real about that person can be captured. “It’s either they’re allowing you to capture something about them, or they want to be captured,” he explains. Letting go, and allowing the process to take place from both ends seems to be that magical middle ground he aims for.
In addition to that, not everyone he shoots connects to the image of themselves he captures. Some people see themselves differently than what is captured, and that can be challenging as well. “People don't always react well to the things you see in them,” he said. “One girl, when she saw her photo, ran right out of the room sobbing. She hated it. Everything is so controlled now.” We talked about that control, and how we as the models are allowed to capture ourselves daily, manipulating the image, taking 20 different versions in the exact pose and light we want, and then share it with the public on social media. We are normally in the position of creating our own image, but to let someone else do that, and give up that control, can be a scary and sometimes emotional process. From shooting people, Wayne has learned more about this process and the strength of that control. “When you shoot someone naturally,” he explains to me, “there’s a still place. You won’t always know it as it’s happening, but you’ll know it’s a moment there. Control can fog that moment.” That still place seems honest and real, but frankly hard to understand as a typically very controlled person. During this conversation, he asked that I let him shoot me, which after much debate and refusals, I eventually agreed to, and will then write a follow-up article about the experience.
Lastly, I asked him for some advice, not only for beginning artists but also for appreciators of art. “When you view a piece,” he started, “ask yourself ‘where is this person trying to take me? What are they saying?’ instead of putting yourself into their work. Get rid of the “I’s”. Stop approaching work from a position of whether “I” like it, or whether “I” could do it. Ask a question and listen.” I thought that was incredibly smart and practical for anyone trying to understand a new piece. As far as beginning artists, he suggests never giving up. To grow and to enjoy growing. Change your work, try new things, and don’t settle down in a comfortable space. “But ultimately,” he adds, “it’s going to come down to what your works mean to you. That’s the important part.” Wayne’s work can be found at rutledgephoto.com where his out-of-date content is currently being updated, as he claims. It was a true joy sitting down with him, and I’m grateful for his time and discussion as my first interview here in Seattle.
Written by: Megan Gray
Edited by: Bethany Price