Joplin Tornado

By Janet Alexander– The honesty captured by our Photographer of the Week, Kenneth Ruggiano is a direct reflection of how honest he is about his own photography, admitting, “There are days that I go to bed and wish tomorrow will bring the Zombie Apocalypse because the thought of emailing my portfolio to one more art director will make me crack, and somehow fighting the horde of undead seems easier.” However, the walking dead aside, as his portfolio of work, not to mention the title and glory of becoming Photographer of the Week demonstrates, Kenneth is passionately committed to his labor of love, and follows by saying, “I do it when it’s painful because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

How did you first get into photography?

I was always fascinated with my mother’s Pentax K1000. I loved cranking the advance lever and clicking the shutter. My first camera was a Fisher Price Kodak 110. My favorite part of the camera were the flash bulb sticks; I just loved the smell and sound it made when you fired one off. I’m currently using a Nikon D700 to shoot all my assignments. I love the camera, does everything I could possibly ask for. The summer between my junior and senior year is when I took two big trips with my Boy Scout Troop. First to the Florida Keys for a sailing adventure on a 68 foot schooner and the second was a 10 day hiking expedition over 90 miles of New Mexico wilderness. I took along a point and shoot and about 20 plus rolls of film. I think I just knew that I wasn’t going to get a chance to do anything like this for a long time again. I wanted to remember it. Even though I loved playing photographer before, it was after that trip that I thought about trying to make something of it.

In what way are people providing the most joy in your profession as a photographer?

People are my favorite part about photography, I love making portraits. Everyone has a story and while I’m photographing people it gives me an opportunity to chat them up and learn about them. Most of my editorial portraits are especially interesting because there is a specific reason they’ve ended up in-front of my camera. I love to ask questions and most of the time they are happy to talk about it. I’ve always thought of myself as a people person and I think I have a unique ability to put people at ease when I’m photographing them. I think that comes through in my portraits.

How has your extensive experience in yearbooks influenced or informed the work you do now?

My time on yearbook in high school and college helped me understand the idea of leaving some room in the image. It’s my experience that designers love to see an image that they can really work with. A good horizontal rocking some “rule of thirds” gives the designer more options than a tight vertical. My goal is to fill the frame with relevant information but give the viewer some room to walk into the image.

How were your studies at the University of Oklahoma, and how has your education come to bear on your photography?

I was an awful student, photography or otherwise. I was cocky and thought that my mediocre technical skill with the camera and the darkroom was good enough. I wasn’t pushing myself enough. The class that had the most impact on me as a photographer was my 4×5 view camera course. That class really helped me better understand the whole process of making an image. It forced you to slow down and be methodical about everything.

How did your Circus series come about? What did it entail?

When my wife and I were dating we were out to dinner with one of her friends. We were talking about riding horses when we were kids, and my wife’s friend trumped our horses with elephants. She was from a small rural town in Southern Oklahoma, called Hugo,where circus shows would “winter” during the off season. Her neighbors growing up were elephant trainers and she got to ride the elephants. I was fascinated and I knew I wanted to photograph. I did some research and called the main office for the Kelly Miller Circus I spent 5 days with the show, slowly easing my way into the background. At first there was some concern about me being there, so I made it appoint to sling the camera and talk to the people. Each day I found that I had more and more access to them. I just shot what was there.

Tell me about shooting the aftermath of the Joplin Tornado.

When I was watching the news about Joplin I just knew I had to make the short drive to shoot it. I had never shot anything like that before. I didn’t really have an idea of where to begin once I got there. I finally parked the car and started walking. Living in Oklahoma since I was 11, I had seen a lot of tornado aftermath images. Much of what I saw focused on the grand scale of the destruction. There wasn’t as much focusing on the intimate, personal aspects. The hardest part was walking up to the first person who had just had their home destroyed and asking if I could take some pictures. To my surprise, people were willing to invite me in and tell me their story.

What do you try and express in your photography?

In my photography I’m always trying to capture something real but a little quirky. I always want the subject to be real, but I expect to find something a little quirky from the environment.

How are you making use of social media to promote yourself? And how effective is it proving to be?

I think social media is a great tool to help people remember that I’m out there. I try and connect with people who I’ve worked with, then I forget about them (until Facebook reminds me of their birthday). I just try and keep social media light and upbeat. My twitter bio even says “if you came here for tweets about photography you’re going to be disappointed.” Social media isn’t a place from which I expect to get work. I think keeping a blog is important, and one day I hope to be able to pay someone to do that for me because I hate doing it. The best bang for my buck has been to send someone an email with the specific purpose of having a meeting. Then you have to do three things 1. Follow Up 2. Follow Up 3. Follow Up. I’ve always had the most success when I meet with someone in person.

What advice do you have for portraiture/documentary photographers?

The best advice that I can give another photographer is listen to what everyone has to say, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. Nowadays there are thousands of people willing to give you advice about how to be a successful photographer and it’s all just a Google search away. Some of it’s good and a lot of it’s bad. People often give out personal opinion as gospel; I think the truth is there is no good formula to becoming a working photographer. You have to find your own way.

Thanks to our sponsor of Photographer of the Day last week, The Lucie Awards, Kenneth is the lucky winner of two free tickets to this year’s ceremony gala awards show and dinner October 8th in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. Known as the Oscars of photography, the Lucies are not to be missed! Find out more about the Lucie Foundation and its lecture series, commencing October 7th all day….here.