Since making The Invisible Circus, which is a project that I first became familiar with whilst you were still at University, you have developed a consistent style and a way of working. What is it in particular you are looking for when starting a new project?
I think that I find myself particularly drawn to communities that I’m unfamiliar with. The Invisible Circus was in response to a specific brief we had to work on for my course but I think that it set the precedent for future work. I became fascinated with people that lived a life that may be deemed a little off the beaten path. Since then, I suppose it has materialised into a fascination for groups of people that all take a similar interest in something, whatever that thing may be.
Your commission, Through The Eyes with Ace & Tate resulted in a body of work called Landguard. How did this particular opportunity arise?
The opportunity arose very beautifully, it all really felt quite serendipitous. I had made the big (and daunting) decision to move back home for the summer after living in Bristol for five years but the decision was panning out better than I could have predicted. After everything had felt wrong for so long, things were starting to slot together with such ease. I started to spend a lot of time at Landguard that summer, and thought about the kind of project I would like to make. When Ace & Tate contacted me with their brief, the project I had been obsessing over fitted so very perfectly.
Perhaps not known to the general viewer, but I recognise some familiar faces within Landguard alongside pictures of strangers. How do you find the process of photographing people you do not know compared with those you are close friends with? Do you have a preference for either type of picture making?
I was very excited by the idea of combining these intimate photographs of close friends with strangers. I imagine the viewer can probably tell who the close friends are but I really tried to approach both friends and strangers similarly and intimately. I find the process of photographing strangers absolutely terrifying. It took a lot of visits to Landguard with my camera before I approached someone. But that feeling you get after approaching a stranger and taking a brilliant photo of them? Well, nothing really beats that. And rather beautifully, some of the subjects that started off as strangers turned into friends through photographing them. I guess both types of picture making have their advantages and charm but ultimately I get a lot more out of the rush of photographing a stranger.
What have you been most excited about since graduating from University?
I think I felt most excited about having free reign to develop my style more and to challenge myself without the safety blanket of University deadlines. Maybe it’s strange to call University deadlines a safety blanket but I know that it helped me to stay disciplined over those three years. Without that blanket, I had to really push myself to finish personal projects of my own accord.
Speaking of University, what was your experience like?
In hindsight I don’t think that I made the most out of the resources available to me and this thought still plagues me! I was fortunate enough to have tutors that encouraged me to experiment with medium format as film has become such a prominent part of my work and has massively shaped my style. Frustratingly I think that it took me a long time to figure out what my style exactly was and consequently I floundered for the most part of the first two years.
Your work has so much depth and richness to it, particularly within the portraiture and across various projects, yet they all feel so tender and intimate too. How do you put people at ease and make those in front of your lens feel comfortable?
Tender and intimate are my two favourite things! I think that there’s always an advantage with the Mamiya RZ as you hold it at your waist so it feels a little less intrusive. I always try to engage in conversation just before I take the photograph to normalise the situation and make it feel like less of an intimidating process. I mean, I’ve always felt that my portraiture has quite a ‘quiet and calm’ feeling to it which would make sense as I’m quite a ‘quiet and calm’ person. I like to hope that I’m easy to be around and that’s reflected in my work. Even though a portrait is a photograph of another person it’s also a reflection of yourself and I certainly like to try and be as tender as possible in all parts of life.
What has been the most challenging thing you have faced in your career so far?
Perhaps lack of confidence and consistency has hindered me in some ways. I think as a photographer you really have to sell yourself, if you want your work to be seen then you have to make it be seen and be your own cheerleader. I think I have struggled to consistently self-promote if I am going through a period where I’m lacking confidence in myself.
What are you working on at the moment, photography related or other?
There’s some plans brewing! But I’m taking it slow. My partner and I are working on a collaborative project that will be a lot more conceptual than my previous work. It’s going to be a lot of fun, very odd and hopefully challenge me as a photographer. I have always wanted to dip my toe in set design but it’s always felt so far removed from my social documentary work. Having someone to work on ideas with has made it all feel a lot more possible.
In your project Tribodar, you spent some time living and working with a community in Portugal. There is a mixture of various domestic and rural settings, with posed and candid portraiture scattered throughout. Living a lifestyle alternative to societal norms seems really apparent in this work, and the overall tone seems to celebrate this way of life. Is this way of life something that appeals to you, and perhaps one of the motivations for making the work?
The series Tribodar was borne out of my University project The Invisible Circus. Most of the circus performers that I photographed tried to live as self-sufficiently as they could and I began to fall in love with this way of life. It was at an age where I was starting to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted to live. I wanted my next project to be a way of further educating myself about alternative lifestyles which inspired my trip to Portugal. I spent some time researching eco-communities in Portugal and came across Tribodar. The initial idea was to solely focus on the people I met in the eco-community but after spending some time in the nearby town Nisa, I became fascinated with the contrast between the locals and the people I met at Tribodar.
The series (Tribodar) feels quietly observational and optimistic, with careful studies of light considered throughout. What is your process in terms of directing people within your pictures? Does this process change depending on the project?
When I was in Portugal, the sunlight was very harsh in the daytime so I would often wait until the golden hour to photograph people. At Tribodar, perhaps I’d be having a moment with someone and the light would fall so perfectly that I would run and get my camera and ask them to stay still. Whereas in Nisa, I had my friend ask the locals in Portuguese whether I could take their portrait. I found that by having that language barrier with the locals there was a kind of awkward stiffness in their body language which I loved in contrast with the more intimate portraits.
Your style seems to spill over into editorial, fashion and music commissions. Is this something you would like to do more of in the future?
I found that my photography was the perfect gateway into Bristol’s music scene. If there was a band whose gig I’d particularly enjoyed, I’d contact them later on Instagram to ask if I could take some photographs for them. So for me, the music commissions are rather selfishly a way of getting to meet musicians that I love. I would really love to do more editorial and fashion commissions in the future as it would be a great opportunity to challenge myself and incorporate that ‘tender intimacy’ from my social-documentary work.
The pandemic has affected people in many different ways. How are things looking for you with ‘lockdown’ slowly easing?
For me, I found that the ‘lockdown’ really creatively stunted me. The summer has always been a period for me where I create a lot of my work and so this is the first time I haven’t felt particularly inspired but I’m really trying to go with the flow and accept this creative lull. I can’t say how long this lull will last for but I am allowing it.
What is the next chapter for you, both in terms of your stage in life and your creative output?
I guess I’m just trying to find a little more balance. Right now, life isn’t always creative and that’s ok. I’ve started a counselling course which I feel very passionate about. I’ve been accepted for an artist residency in Florida next year but that feels very uncertain right now, but I know that I feel my most inspired in an entirely new place that I’m unfamiliar with.
Interview with Josh Adam Jones, June 2020.
See more of Ruth’s work here – https://ruthbaldry.format.com/
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