Our artist of the month, for December, 2015 is none other than our own Ruby Berry. She was chosen for her dedication to her craft, commitment to excellence, and because over the months of working with her in The Film Shooters Collective I've come to respect her as an artist immensely. I traveled to visit her in November of 2015, the story is below.
Leave Nashville heading East and you’ll cross the Caney Fork River no less than three times. The Caney Fork promises trout, but you’ve promised you’ll be somewhere so you can’t stop. You push on through Crossville, home of the Oreck Vacuum cleaner, which promises cleaner floors, but you’ve promised you’ll be somewhere so you can’t stop.
You’ll push on and pass signs promising the most interesting of things. “Y-12 National Security Complex” sounds like something you’d like to see, but time and a lack of credentials keep you from stopping, as do armed guards. Thief Neck Island sounds like it has a story to tell as well, but you stay focused and continue on the road.
The highway pushes on, deeper into Tennessee, and you’re making good time so there’s no point in stopping anyway. “Good time” is seldom a priority for me, but when you’re meeting someone for the first time it’s essential, I am told, so I hurry past the security, vacuum cleaners, and trout that have begged me to stop and press my way towards Appalachia and my destination of Johnson City.
“I’m actually right off the interstate. As in, you can see it from my backyard” reads the last message I received and so as I slow and exit the interstate I know I am close. I make three more turns, all down one way streets, and as I circle the block I know I am close. The house ahead fits the description so I pull into the driveway. The neighborhood and the house are both silent; wind blows through trees older than anything that comes to mind and I find myself on the porch of a house I’ve never been to with someone I’ve never met on the other side of the door.
I prepare to violate a law seemingly fit for Interstellar or The Matrix in the hopes of turning an online counterpart into a real life friend. For a moment I think about the Craigslist Killer, but I’ve already knocked and soon Ruby answers the door and the thought slips from my mind. Ruby’s presence is commanding, but she is smaller in stature than I imagine. I remind myself that though I am not a fighter I think I could take her if I have to.
One of the greatest things about the collective is that it feels like a literal family, and so the awkwardness normally associated with first introductions quickly fades away. It becomes just two friends hanging out. She offers the usual hospitalities and shows me the house and her working spaces.
When I meet people for first time, especially when it involves the collective, I feel the need to tell people the last 10,000 things that I’ve been meaning to tell them. Ruby and I find ourselves in her studio where most of my sentences start with, “before I forget I want to tell you about. . .” We get through at least a dozen of these thoughts before I have a seat in front of the background in her studio.
Ruby gets to work firing up lights, moving stands, grabbing cameras, and taking readings. The seriousness of the situation changes when Ruby has a camera in her hands. It’s hard to describe the shift, but it’s decidedly quick and even more so intentional. She doesn’t arrive at her spot in the studio by accident, and there’s no guessing where she’ll put the light stands. She moves around the studio and instructs in a nature that shows her proficiency and suggests that you, as the subject, are an integral part of the artist’s larger plan.
The lights are in position and you’re now staring into a Kodak 2D camera. Earlier Ruby had mentioned her house is 103 years old, and as you’re staring into the camera you think about how the house itself feels like a JuJu vortex. It’s age, combined with it’s contents, contribute to that feeling. A couple of rooms away guitars and amplifiers fill a room in which music and repairs are made and I imagine that a little bit of the music bounced off of those walls actually permeates it and adds to the energy. I won’t get too mystic in my interpretation of the event but I will say that creatives live in this house, and it feels like all of that energy is imbued upon the tools kept within the house. I’m stuck on these thoughts during that suspended moment so inherent in large format photography and before I know it two frames have been taken.
The camera is moved now and I take a survey of the room which produces the following: there are photobooks, numbering many, including two copies of the The Negative. A bookshelf across the room houses more cameras than books, and finally there is a Hasselblad on the farthest counter, which Ruby is reaching for.
A well worn prism finder is affixed to the Hasselblad and the pace of our impromptu photo session changes as Ruby switches to the smaller format. “Turn your face more towards the light on the left and bring your eyes back to me,” Ruby says. I’ve had people take my picture before, of course, but this is the first time I’ve had someone make a picture of me and the experience seems different as a whole. There’s an electricity and simultaneous fluidity to the shoot as Ruby commands, moves, and then reconnects while shooting.
We take a few photos, she switches backs and we shoot a few more. She picks up a Diana and asks if I want to go outside, which we do. It’s breezy, leaves cover the yard, it feels like Fall in TN which is a welcomed break from it always being sunny in California. I pose briefly by a tree and we talk about one of her favorite photos that she took in a spot not too far from where I am standing.
Later we find ourselves in her darkroom where I ask if I can take some photos. Something about it feels like you’ve just found yourself in someone’s diary. I’m not sure how to explain it other than to say it feels highly personal. I’ve been in the darkroom twice in the same day and both times my eyes find new details to fixate on: notes on the wall, metal development tanks lined in descending order of height, and a guys with cats calendar - the same one can be found on my wife’s desk.
Ruby is entirely self taught, and when I ask her how she got started with all of this as I make a sweeping motion with my hand around the darkroom she says, “with an iPhone.” She goes on to explain that she was interested in the “why” behind the camera filters, and began doing some research which led to the purchase of her first film camera and the subsequent journey that she’s been on which has recently led to large format.
“It’s the only digital camera I have,” says Ruby about her phone. It’s a statement that leaves me partially envious, and with an amount of respect that I later came to realize was actually awe. How an iPhone could lead on a journey like this is nothing short of inspiring.
Ruby is available for portrait and boudoir sessions in the Johnson City, TN area. If you’re interested in booking, contact her. If you’d like to connect with her on social media you can find her on Twitter.