In conversation with

Elliot Ross

Photographer

Elliot Ross Photographer

Introduction

Introduction

Elliot Ross is a photographer whose work engages with themes of political borders and geographic isolation. It makes sense, then, that he’s travelled to some of the most remote locations on earth. Since growing up on a homestead in Colorado (“I was the kind of kid that always needed to see over the next horizon”) Elliot has gone on to shoot the plight of refugees on Greek islands, the sprawling landscape of the Namibian deserts and intimate portraits of life in the American West.

The focus of Elliot’s lens is rooted in research – he’s rigorous about his production process and about the words that accompany his work (these days, they’re often penned by his partner Genevieve). Books, podcasts and magazines keep him going on the road, and good thing too, because there’s a lot of ground to cover. “I tend to choose locations that are absent on google search results, says Elliot, “I like filling in the blank spots on maps.

Question and Answer

Do you remember the first picture you ever took?

The first photo that I ever took was of the family station wagon that I adored when I was about four and a half. From an early age, I had an intense obsession with cars and travel. I was the type of kid that always needed to see over the next horizon and the car I was in mattered.

What stories did you engage with while growing up? Did they take the form of books, magazines, radio programmes?

Seeing as my curiosity of the greater world and for the far flung began at a young age, National Geographic Magazine was my religious text — as it was for so many of us I’m sure. I’d also lose myself in books too of course. Mostly they were of the travel/adventure/outdoors variety. I wore out my copy of My Side of the Mountain in the early years, then onto Mark Twain and the indignant idealism of Edward Abbey.

"I wore out my copy of My Side of the Mountain in the early years, then onto Mark Twain and the indignant idealism of Edward Abbey"

Were there any photographers who were integral in your decision to pursue photography as a career?

Surely. The hook was the glitz and glam of rock n roll photography and the access it provided to the musicians I idolized. I remember watching Almost Famous when it came out and thinking, yes, that’s what I’m going to do too. Annie Leibovitz’s early photographs of the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers inspired me to great lengths. For the half decade, my practice was dedicated to photograph every musician that moved me.

Which photographers do you admire today?

Where to begin. The list is long and comprehensive across disciplines, subjects and intents. Working for a few of my heroes, mainly Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger, unfortunately has soured my outlook on their work to an extent. That being said, the work that Annie made from 1970 to 1990 still blows my mind. She had such a knack for nailing down one simple, iconic description of a person, famous or not. My close friend Forest Woodward who is an adventure photographer and documentarian pushes me to work harder daily through his relentless pursuit of good light and evocative storytelling. I think that Todd Hido has always and still is making stunning work. Oh and have you seen Adam Ferguson’s environmental portraiture? He has a way of connecting with people very different from himself. Same with Joey L and his defiant portraits of female Peshmerga fighters. Pieter Hugo would have to round out my list with his incredible ideas, tenacity despite danger and stunning use of color – you might recall the now iconic series of Nigerian gangsters and their chained hyenas.

“Working for a few of my heroes, mainly Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger, unfortunately has soured my outlook on their work to an extent”

What are the components of a really good travel photograph?

In my book there’s only one component. It’s a photograph that transports you to a moment in time. Sultry light, strong color theory or a striking composition helps, sure, but really it’s grasping that moment. So very hard to do too.

Which magazines do you love for their photographic content?

California Sunday is putting out some really beautiful portrait work. The New Yorker really did themselves a favor when they began commissioning portraits by Pari Dukovic. I recently went on assignment for Collective Quarterly and was blown away by my fellow contributors. National Geographic I feel like has gotten their groove back lately too with the infusion of young blood on their pages – Ciril Jazbec, Robin Hammond, Charlie James Hamilton and Ronan Donovan – all doing world class work.

"California Sunday is putting out some really beautiful portrait work"
"I have the lucky distinction of oftentimes being commissioned to develop stories with my life partner"

You often pair up with writers including your creative partner Genevieve. How does that process work for you?

I feel as though I’ve been really fortunate in this department. Photographers oftentimes can be salty about their relationships with writers. And yes, I have the lucky distinction of oftentimes being commissioned to develop stories with my life partner. The process with Gen or anyone else is the same. First we define the key questions we both want to answer and then build the general framework for the mechanics of the narrative – the storytelling perspective, voice and structure mainly. This is important to define from the outset so that there’s a sense of harmony between the words and visuals.

What keeps you occupied on the road – books, podcasts, magazines?

I usually have my eyes in a couple books at once – typically one fiction and one non-fiction. I subscribe to a mountain of publications that I honestly do read front to back. Finally, I’m a podcast fiend. So much of my time is spent in transit — over 60 flights for 2017 and more than 20,000 miles logged driving my mobile studio in the last five months. That being said, podcasts are my best friend. From relative newcomers like S-Town, Serial, 99% Invisible, Reply All, Crimetown and Hidden Brain to classics like This American Life, Radio Lab, Planet Money and The Moth.

Can you name a novel that have inspired your work?

Sure. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck showed me how to isolate the important details of a person or scene and discard everything else.

East of Eden
"Steinbeck showed me how to isolate the important details of a person or scene"

You worked with a number of brands. What do you look for in a brand partnership?

In brands, I look for a voice that I identify with and pinpoint how I can bring a new perspective to that identity. It helps when brands are open to new ideas, to taking risks and spending the appropriate amount of money to get it done. Carhartt has been one of the most incredible patrons to my work. Not only do they trust me to execute many my ideas for their campaign and catalogue shoots, they support many of the aims that I have outside of commercial work. Recently, they sponsored a large share of a four month long, exhaustive survey of the U.S. / Mexico border where Gen and I traveled every inch of the frontier and collected testimonies, anecdotes and perspectives from thousands of people who live within eyesight of the border.

“It helps when brands are open to new ideas, to taking risks and spending the appropriate amount of money to get it done. ”

Are there any brands you have your eye on for future work?

I’d love to start creating work for automotive brands. The visual work in selling cars leaves so much room to be evocative, and as with any great adventure or road trip, there’s a story to be told. I want to apply these same storytelling sensibilities that I’ve cultivated over this last decade of work towards car advertising. The same could be said for hotels and resorts – another avenue I’d like to take. A travel experience is defined in large part by where you stay and the spaces you occupy. I want to create stories about those experiences.

How do you choose where to travel to next?

Of all the challenges I face, this is certainly one of the most difficult. My bucket list is lengthy and growing daily it seems. I feel like I ought to dedicate my life and practice to one region and get to know it intimately, and to an extent I have done that with the American West, but the lure of the unknown pulls me oftentimes in sporadic, disconnected places. I tend to choose locations that are absent on google search results. I like filling in the blank spots on maps. The genesis for many of my trips have begun with Google Earth. Weekly, I spend an hour or so fully zoomed in on satellite view, virtually traveling the nether regions of our planet. Sometimes, a weird feature or an evocative name for a village will appear and the rabbit hole presents itself. Many of my most memorable adventures have begun this way.

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