September 6, 2023
A LOVE SONG TO THE AMERICAN WEST
A WONDROUS NOTE
Photography by Ross Taylor
Featuring cellist Russick Smith
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
We have the pleasure today of seeing and hearing the visual stories created between a photographer, and a musician. As the wind sweeps through the landscapes the notes of a cello fill every void. How does a photographer elicit sound, allowing us to see the music, as our ears interpret what we see? Photographer Ross Taylor is based in Denver Colorado, focusing his eyes through the lens on the ordinary, engaging the viewer to observe more. Ross frequently documents events that have led to human trauma, he finds that through his visual storytelling he can help mitigate grief. Ross explains.
“I seek to create work that reveals and lends new insight into common experiences, In hopes of creating a deeper understanding of the human condition through visual representation.”
Living in Colorado has inspired a new series, a love song to the American West. The musical scores are composed and realized in the western landscapes of the United States, performed by cellist Russick Smith. Together Ross and Russick journeyed nearly 3000 miles, across Colorado and Utah hoping to create a new awareness for geological fragilities that are suspect of the preservation challenges of the devastating effects of climate change. Through a heightened sense of wonder seen in this photographic series they hope to inspire new respect for these spaces.
Russick Smith and his cello bring life to the landscape. Whether performing for audiences high above, like a bird nesting in the trees, Russick plays the accompaniment to the rushing waters of the estuaries cutting through the landscape, carving through the canyons. Together they synthesize the elements, visualizing the music and allowing a deeper, more meaningful connection to be made. Russick adds insight into the creative and critical thinking processes they shared.
“Many of the unexpected circumstances that we encounter throughout our lives are negative, possibly traumatic experiences. Those experiences have a tendency of mounting internally, fostering a cynical mindset that can ultimately become the default lens through which we view the world. To counter these negative surprises, and thereby the cynicism which they foment, my goal is to generate simple and meaningful moments to prove that the world can be unexpectedly beautiful - that to interact with the world-at-large does not just mean susceptibility to trauma but also vulnerability to joy.”
Russick recently lost his father and finds these performances help him heal the trauma of losing a loved one. He shares his loss and inspiration.
“Once, as I sat up in an aspen grove, I played what I would’ve played if I could have sat with him and played him out. I had clipped a picture of him into a tree below, nobody knew it was there. It was the last thing I took out of his place when I cleaned it out. I felt like it was the first tree performance, and he was looking up at me, still helping. When I am helping people see the beauty of this world, I am continuing his legacy. And when I’m playing, no matter where, I’d like to believe that the music is still reaching him; that maybe it finds its way to places at which I could only wonder, to wherever he’s hiking now. Doing these things, the way I’m doing them, I know that he was proud of me and, hopefully somewhere, still is.”
Together Ross and Russick have transformed the American West landscapes, with a symphony of music, allowing the aperture to open providing the viewer with a front row seat to the visual stories that embody the elements through sound.
We have been invited to reveal more of the magic they create in this interview with Ross Taylor that may lead to more understanding of their visualization and their inspiration.
“The narrative we consistently pursued was one of unexpected joy, as that counterbalance to cynicism. While you don’t see it in some of these images, there were sometimes people who stumbled upon us as we made these images. To see their faces, light up and the joy they held in watching him perform was so wonderful. I think that’s at the heart of it - creating something ostensibly just beautiful for its own sake, that’s what we are trying to do.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH ROSS TAYLOR
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Thank you Ross for taking us on your journey through the landscapes of the American West. How did the two of you find each other? What was the connection before this project?
ROSS TAYLOR: Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s an honor to be here. I first learned of Russick from an article in The Denver Post, where I saw an image of him in a tree. It was amazing - I’d never seen anything like it (or him) and wanted to learn more about him. I contacted him via social media, and we later met for coffee. I learned some about his unique past - in part, that he used to work on tall ships along the East Coast and was used to climbing with harnesses high above a ship. I asked if he’d be open to a collaboration over the next year and, thankfully, he agreed.
TPL: Taking a journey over so many miles can be a bonding experience, or distancing one. What were some of the ground rules? Was working together and living together a key to this project? If so how and why?
RT: You’re right. We spent a lot of time together, not just in the making of the images, but in the preparation of them. We also don’t live in the same city (we live roughly an hour and a half from each other), so coordinating these sessions required a lot of planning. During these sessions, we grew a lot closer together, which was key since collaboration was at the heart of this project. We spent scores of hours either together in a car, in a hotel or on location and the ability to get along was critical. Our one ground rule, per se, was that the images had to be made in unexpected spaces in nature, and whenever possible, in remote locations. In short, we wanted as much distance between the expected norms of cellist performance as possible. The idea was to invoke a heightened sense of wonder as a result.
TPL: Introduce your series, ‘A Wondrous Note’, to us. When and how did this project first manifest for you? What is the full story behind the project? What was the inspiration?
RT: The project began in fall of 2021, our first session together was along a mountain pass outside of Breckenridge, Colorado in an Aspen grove. It was there, seeing Russick high above in an Aspen tree mixed with the brilliancy of the fall colors, that I felt we were onto something. I think the story behind the project is multi-layered. I’ve worked as a photojournalist for a long time, and I’ve covered some very intense and traumatic issues along the way. For me, this portrait series was a type of counterbalance to some of this work. I wanted to give myself permission to ostensibly create work that was beautiful and could spark joy, and Russick felt the same. As noted in this piece, Russick’s father passed away unexpectedly not long before we began this series. He was quite close with him, and his father instilled a deep appreciation for nature. While I can’t speak for him fully, I do know that he thinks of his father often when he plays in such locations. As a team, we both also wanted to create a sense of wonder in these images, through the connection of his performance and the stunning backdrop of the American West.
TPL: Talk to us about your method and experimentation before the final images in your project. Did you know how you wanted the project to look? How long did each image take to create?
RT: Russick has lived in Colorado a long time, so that helped in our understanding of the region. His insight, paired with my understanding of visuals, helped us scout out locations and time of day/lighting, etc. Regarding the aesthetic, we wanted no imprint of human activity (buildings, power lines, etc.) and a theme of remoteness throughout. Most images usually took a day (more or less) as we normally would photograph around sunset and just had time for one scene (typically). The actual photographic part was usually a window of about 30 minutes to one hour.
TPL: What camera did you use? How much equipment did you bring, what did you use? What was Smith’s equipment?
RT: I used a Nikon D850 with a 24-70mm, 35mm, or a 50mm, typically. I often brought a 8-foot ladder, or a step ladder when needed. Russick brought a cello that he uses for outdoors and he hand-built his tree harness! It’s really impressive.
TPL: What importance does storytelling or key themes hold for you?
RT: For me, storytelling ties us together. It helps bridge gaps and offers connections through a shared experience and heightened understanding. When you mix this with unexpected moments of joy and beauty in the natural world, I think the experience is also more deeply shared.
I wanted to give myself permission to ostensibly create work that was beautiful and could spark joy, and Russick felt the same.
TPL: Was there a time of day you aimed for? Music is played in time, did time dictate the music?
RT: We usually photographed at sunset, and we had to make sure weather conditions were appropriate (not too cloudy, etc.) He played usually improvisationally and he’s exceptionally good. It was a joy hearing him play.
TPL: Did you keep a journal, a sketchbook, did the music and photography inspire words? What stories did you share over a campfire?
RT: I didn’t keep a journal, but we did work out some of the wording you referenced earlier in the piece. It took some time for us to distill the project idea. And while we didn’t have a campfire, we spoke often and at length about some of the deeper issues we’ve faced in our lives, and how creating work like this can be therapeutic. I’ve very grateful for those conversations.
TPL: What were some of the surprises along the way? What was your 'take away'?
RT: I think almost each session had a surprise, mainly in seeing Russick perform in such stunning places. It just so unusual, seeing and hearing him perform with stunning backdrops. It’s also really fun seeing people who come across us. One woman we ran across in a slot canyon in Utah told Russick it was the most moving performance she had ever seen. My 'take away' from this is that it’s ok to want to create work that has the potential to be therapeutic, in whatever form that may be.
TPL: What do you want the viewer to 'take away' from the visual stories?
RT: Our hope is what we talked about above, namely that the images can spark some unexpected wonder and joy in the viewer. I know creating these images did this for Russick and me.
TPL: What have you learned about collaborating on projects? Share some of your wisdom about making these honest connections through photography and music.
RT: Collaboration was key here. I couldn’t have done this without him, obviously, and the same for Russick. Together, we created something beautiful, in my opinion. Making these images was an honor. To hear Russick playing high in an Aspen tree, in a lonely desert landscape or with the backdrop of mountains at sunset, was just such a privilege. I don’t take it for granted and will always be grateful. Thanks so much for allowing us to share these images, as well. It means a great deal.
TPL: “When I am not out photographing…
I love to be outside exploring Colorado and the surrounding western states. I also really love to hike high elevation mountains - anything above the tree line is where I like to be.”
Ross Taylor is not only a photographer but an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His work has been recognized with a Photographer of the Year designations for large markets by the National Press Photographers Association, along with Northern Photographer of the Year, Virginia Photographer of the Year and North Carolina Photographer of the Year (twice). Ross is also on the board of directors for the National Press Photographers Association.
Russick Smith has previously performed before Yo-yo Ma who called his performance “gorgeous,” and Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who has lauded him as “uniquely Colorado.”
The Pictorial List thanks Ross for his musical series of photographs, and for the visual stories they created and shared. We applaud their work, and as the curtain closes, we cheer Bravo.
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