So far, we’ve featured one infrared photographer on our blog and thought it was about time for another. Russell Grace‘s body of work was brought to our attention by our good friend Skip Cohen – and we’re so glad he did. Russell Grace has been a professional photographer for more than 20 years and has been published in local, regional and national publications, including National Geographic. We recently had the great pleasure of interviewing him, and as we did so, it was made clear that his success in the photography industry allows him to speak quite insightfully about the field. His willingness to share about his experiences in such an open and sincere way? Well, that’s basically every interviewer’s dream.
So if you’re a budding photographer, his words are something you need to read. If not, and you’re here for the visually arresting black-and-white images, that’s good too. You will notice and appreciate the passion in his words that is so obvious it jumps off the page.
If you ask us, there are a few things that continually contribute to his success. His years as a devoted advocate for the environment have supported his eye for nature’s beauty, as evidenced by the reverent way he photographs his surroundings. He also has an impressive business partner, Angela Kullman (who also happens to be his wife and has undoubtedly made a world of difference in his life’s work). Whatever’s left is covered by Russell Grace’s pure, extraordinary and endless love for the craft.
When was your introduction to photography and what was it like?
While studying coastal geology and beach erosion in graduate school, I photographed the Emerald Coast, which is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Although I had briefly been a fine arts major, I had no formal training in photography. Despite that, I nailed the exposures and found that my instincts about composition were very solid. Above all, I fell in love with what I saw on the slides when they came back. There is something indescribable about the feeling you get when you capture the beauty and emotion of an incredible scene.
I did go on to work in environmental protection for about 14 years, but photography remained a part of my life. Then in 1997 I took the plunge. I left the public sector and opened a gallery (Images of Tallahassee). I built a successful business and established a niche for myself within the region. I specialized in coastal images and fine art collegiate photography.
How did you get into infrared in particular?
The transition to infrared came about during a time when my life was changing in many ways. After about 15 years of running my own business and building a body of work that made me very proud, I was definitely getting restless. In 2010 I sold my gallery and accepted a teaching position, and I started dating Angela.
Angela had always loved art and had spent some time studying it, but ultimately found her niche in helping to organize one of the best art festivals in Florida. Bringing artists to her community and helping the artists succeed at that show felt like a privilege and made her very happy. That was actually where we met. Angela was the chair of the art show committee and I was one of her artists. And that was also where our infrared collection began.
I had always been intrigued by infrared photography, especially black and white infrared photography, and Angela loves old movies. Jimmy Stewart. Katherine Hepburn. Cary Grant. Vivien Leigh. Ingrid Bergman. The whole nine yards. She can’t resist black and white films and the romance of the past. So on one of our first dates I brought along my old camera and a few rolls of infrared film. I thought she’d be impressed with the romantic notion of a photographer who still used film and shot black and white…and I also thought we might get some interesting images. Well, what started as an afternoon lark ended up changing our lives. We were amazed and entranced by the images we got that day. Soon we were spending days and weeks and nearly every date traveling in search of the perfect infrared shot.
Our shared passion for art, our excitement for this growing collection and the harmony of our voices as we articulated what this body of work could be, shaped our relationship and ultimately brought us to a beach in Hawaii last summer. Angela thinks it’s funny – but is not surprised – that I photographed my own wedding, handing the camera to my son, Kevin, just long enough to say my vows. I guess you could say I got into infrared to impress a girl. I’m pleased to say that it worked – and much better than I could ever have imagined.
What is it that you enjoy so much about infrared images and keeps you working to produce more?
As I mentioned, I’ve always been intrigued by the ethereal quality of infrared photography, especially the luminescent white glow of the trees. There was something about it that reminded me of the glow and light in my grandfather’s paintings. My grandfather, James Taylor Harwood, was an accomplished painter who is best known for his impressionist work. There is something about infrared photography that always reminded me of the way my he handled light within his paintings.
My interest increased as trends changed and many photographers moved toward saturated, surreal use of color. For us, there was something serene and inspiring about the radiance of infrared and the subtlety of the monochromatic palette. Yet what has kept us excited about infrared is not just the romantic, dreamlike images. It’s the way that infrared scenes affect people. It gives people an entirely new experience with things they’ve seen before and it makes things they haven’t seen seem otherworldly and magical. The conversations we have with people about this collection are powerful. From the subject matter to the technique, we are awed by the emotions this work evokes.
For those who aren’t familiar, would you explain how the process works?
Photography is all about light, and this is especially true of infrared photography. Infrared photography focuses on a section of the light spectrum that the human eye cannot normally access because people can only see wavelengths between about 390 to 550 nanometers (nm).
The infrared portion of the light spectrum begins at approximately 700 nm. In order to create photographs in this part of the spectrum, we use medium format black-and-white infrared film and infrared passing filters.
What camera and equipment do you use?
I prefer to use my Pentax 6×7. It was built in the 1950s and is actually the first camera I used when I decided to move up in film format size from 35mm in the 1980s. My go-to lens is a wide angle 35mm (equivalent to about a 17mm in 35mm film size) and the filters are an opaque 87A and a red 27A. These filters allow infrared light to pass through to the camera but block virtually all of the visible light. Our specific technique blocks all light below approximately 870 nm.
The film I use is Rollei/Agfa 120 Black and White Infrared film. Right now we’re using standard T-Max developer solutions but we’re looking for alternative ways to process.
What about post editing?
There is some post editing to minimize film grain and to get the most tonal range possible out of the negative. Tonal range is very important to me. We strive to get everything from pure white to pure black while holding on to the highlight details. It’s basically using a variation of the zone system.
We take pride in the fact that our process incorporates the use of traditional equipment and techniques while also utilizing cutting edge materials and technologies. This allows us to honor the past and the wisdom of the photographers who came before us even as we strive to advance our medium and create an unparalleled collection of infrared photographs.
Any advice for photographers who would like to try infrared photography?
For recreational photographers/enthusiasts who want to try infrared, I can comfortably recommend converting a digital camera. It definitely gives you a feel for the capabilities of infrared and you can create some very cool images. However, it is our experience that converted cameras cannot yield the same richness that you get from film.
Having said that, working with infrared film is hard. There’s a long learning curve and it requires a lot of trial and error. It is very challenging but it also worth every bit of frustration. The unbelievable results you can get make you forget all the film it took to get to that one amazing shot.
A great partner is so vital for a business like photography. Can you tell us more about how that has worked for you?
The fact that the two of us are building this together makes all the difference, but it’s about more than just a doubling of skill sets and labor. It certainly helps Angela has a great background in marketing and as an art show organizer. Her show experience, especially, is helpful with everything from compiling our applications to planning our schedule. When you add that to my experience running a business for fifteen years, we definitely have the advantage of two heads being better than one.
Likewise, while my experience as a photographer and knowledge of the medium is certainly more extensive than Angela’s, she has good instincts. Her fresh perspective definitely proves helpful when we’re selecting subjects, working a shot or culling through images. Having a great partner makes both of us better. We can discuss ideas, look at them from different angles, troubleshoot challenges and generally play off one another’s strengths and minimize each other’s weaknesses. Nothing is too ridiculous or far fetched when we’re brainstorming.
During hours on the road we debate ideas, concoct crazy schemes and dreams and sometimes even hit on a spark or idea that blows us away. The best part, though, is building the infrared collection and sharing this incredible adventure with someone who is as passionate and energized by this journey as I am. We believe that this is our life’s work and there is absolutely no greater feeling than to share that with the person you love. As to how important that is to our business – it’s absolutely the key to our success.
On that note, what else have you found notably vital in maintaining a career in photography?
I think one of the most important things and greatest challenges that a photographer faces is staying creatively engaged. When you start out professionally, it’s a thrill. But over time, no matter how grateful you are to be working as a professional photographer, routine sets in, the creative glow dims and a sense of fatigue or restlessness can take over.
Finding ways to reset yourself creatively and challenge yourself is important. It might mean doing something entirely different, like we did when we started the infrared collection, or it might be a smaller change. If you want people to respond to your work with excitement and enthusiasm, you have to be excited and enthusiastic about your work. If you’re going through the motions, it will show. It will absolutely show.
I found that taking a break from what I was doing as a professional and spending time as a teacher of photography gave me some space to reassess things. I had an opportunity to study my medium from a new perspective by sharing it with a classroom full of beginners. I am fortunate to teach in an environment with tremendous administrative support that allowed me to develop a unique curriculum that features my artistic and business vision and experiences (Lively Technical Center). It gave me a place and a reason to learn more, experiment with techniques and play with photography in a way that I had not done for many years. Those are good exercises for anyone looking to reconnect with what made them pick up a camera in the first place.
Looking back, what would you say have been the most significant changes to your style and execution?
In the first part of my career as a photographer, I think that I was successful because I found the place where what I enjoyed shooting overlapped with a style and theme that people wanted. I did fine art photographs of college stadiums, Gulf coast beaches and beloved landscapes and scenes in Southeastern communities. I enjoyed this. Having worked in environmental preservation, photographing things like Tallahassee’s amazing canopy roads or Pensacola’s beaches meant a lot to me, and I was gratified to see that these places meant a lot to other people too.
The infrared collection is different. My earlier work was very commercially popular and we’re incorporating some of the elements that made that collection successful into what we’re doing now. But there are also a lot of differences. Whether we’re photographing famous and familiar places or hidden gems we’ve found in our travels, many of the compositions are more abstract. We’re driven less by creating commercially popular scenes and more by the quest to create an incomparable collection of fine art infrared photographs.
There’s also a strong narrative that accompanies our infrared collection. We’re exploring everything from whimsical roadside attractions, stunning landscapes and brilliant examples of American ingenuity, to the sites of some of our greatest national tragedies. When photographed in infrared, the radiance and the surreal nature of the technique allows people to experience our country in an entirely new way…and we love that. That’s why we say we’re exploring, examining, celebrating and definitely photographing America In The Best Possible Light.