Aaron Ruell is an award-winning LA-based photographer and director. Represented by Giant Artists (still) and Biscuit Filmworks (for film), you can see his photo website here and his commercial reel at Biscuit Filmworks here. He is best known for his environmental portraits, shot on flawlessly constructed mid-century suburban Americana sets, designed with a sincere appreciation for the aesthetic of this period. Ruell also shoots these environments without the distraction of people, ordinary spaces made extraordinary by their simplicity—a focus on color, line, contrast and the unquestioned beauty of lighted, moving waterfall painting when placed above a classical mid-century waiting-room couch.
Ruell has built a successful commercial career which allows him to take print jobs for which he feels a genuine interest. His clients include Old Spice, LG, Clear, T-Mobile, Citibank and mun2 among others, for which his campaigns also bring humor and a trademark quirky sensibility. He recently shot his first fashion feature for Paper for which he agreed to shoot if they could get him access to The Madonna Inn, a central California hotel with 110 theme rooms. They accepted with the requirement that all the shots feature high fashion clothes.
I spoke with Aaron about staying true to his style across all his work, getting hired for his style and building narratives in print and film. The conversation came back over and over to simply shooting what one loves and creating images that make one want to stop and look. Thank you to Aaron for his time and sharing his work, process and insights with POP.
POP: You are first a commercial director and second a still photographer. What is your background? How did each career evolve?
I discovered photography while in high school. And that was a natural segue into filmmaking. So I started to make little pieces on video while in high school and then went to film school and photography was put on the backburner.
I then started taking stills on my sets knowing that I would need promotional material to support them at festivals. And that body of photography started to grow. I also took a trip to Europe in an attempt to put a book of work together.
The book got me representation in the photography world around the same time I started directing commercials. I had two short films that I wrote and directed at Sundance and that caught the attention of commercial production companies and that’s how I got into directing spots.
POP: How often are you shooting both motion and stills for the same job?
It’s very rare for me to shoot both print and motion on a job. The schedule rarely works out for that. But I’ve done a handful of jobs where I shot both and it was great because it made for a really cohesive campaign.
POP: You’ve said you take about four commercial photo projects a year. How do you connect with art buyers or art directors?
Now it’s probably more like one or two ad/photo jobs that I shoot a year. My reps do most of the connecting. If I respond to a project I’ll engage in a dialogue but that seems to happen less and less for me these days.
POP: You are hired very specifically for your style; what is the collaboration process like?
I typically have a “take” on the boards or layout that I’m sent. So the agency/client knows very early on what my vision for the project is. And if they like it we move forward. And I’m pretty open to collaborating with the agency in hopes of making it the best it can be.
POP: What makes your decision to take a job? You are hired for your style, so you must screen for projects that appeal to your sensibility. Any other criteria?
I just need to be able to “see” the job when I’m reading it. If I don’t get a sense of how I would shoot something that’s an indicator that I’m not the guy for it.
POP: What projects have you worked on this year?
I had a solo show at a gallery in New Orleans at a space called Martine Chaisson Gallery. It’s a new space that opened down there and is run by Martine. She’s got a good sense about her and shows some interesting stuff. And I’ve had a handful of group shows that I’ve participated in. And the year before that I had a solo show in Paris at Colette. Both shows were comprised of images taken from my book titled, “Some Photos” which was published by Nazraeli Press.
POP: How does your approach to your still work differ from your motion? How is thinking about narrative different in the two mediums?
I approach both mediums in a similar way. I like there to be a sense of narrative present in both my film and print work. In film it’s driven by a narrative. In print I like to set a space up in a way that leaves the narrative open for the viewer to construct. And I also like to make both very visually interesting to look at. I always attempt to create an image that would cause me to stop and look at it. So few images these days do that to me.
POP: The Old Spice work is great. Very funny. What was your involvement in the concept? Because you are hired for your style, are you brought in early in the process?
The old spice creatives are smart people. So it’s really easy to collaborate with them on projects. They send me rough layouts of the job as they see it and then we start to work things out and I offer ideas and changes and the end is a good mix of what we each brought to the table.
POP: You build sets for most of your work. Do you work with production designers on the still work or traditional photo stylists?
I work with production designers. I find that I need people who know how to really build and construct big things. Photo stylists aren’t typically well suited for “builds.”
POP: You’ve written about a ‘quiet’ quality in your work, yet there is a lot going on graphically, with bright pops of color, contrast, design elements, and a lot of humor. The quiet seems to make room for these elements. Has this always been your style or has it evolved over time?
My work really has always been “quiet.” I use that word because it seems to make sense to me when describing my aesthetic. Even early on when I all I was shooting were empty interiors or spaces there was still very much a sense of stillness to it. I don’t consciously set out for it but it always seems to surface in my work.
POP: You have an affinity for mid-century suburban design. Some might interpret it as kitsch, but there seems to be a sincere appreciation for the design aesthetic.
Early on my style veered more towards kitsch but I find myself drawn to good design and the best design in my opinion comes from the 40’s-60’s. I also like that there is a tinge of nostalgia that appears when an environment like this is seen or experienced.
POP: Your work in the Madonna Inn, both for Paper and a personal project, seems to honor and use the design as a starting point for some beautiful images.
That’s another project that is unfinished. Ha.
I grew up taking family summer vacations to Morro Bay which is the next town down from the Madonna. So each summer as a kid we would stop by the Madonna to go pee in the waterfall urinal and look around. And it was such an extravagant otherworldly place to me. And so I always wanted to capture it with the same wonder I had for it as a kid.
I just wanted to have an excuse to be inside all the rooms! But I loved the idea of capturing these rooms in a beautiful way. Some consider the Madonna to be tacky but I look at it as this work of folk art almost that the Madonnas created to share with other people.
POP: You seem very successful being ‘yourself’ in your creative work. Even Kip in Napoleon Dynamite had a similar muted, deadpan quality.
I’m not sure how to articulate how I maintain a thumbprint between my film and print work. It’s something that happens without me having to think about it. I honestly just always set out to create something that I would like to see or experience. And once it’s out I hope that other people can find some sense of enjoyment from it. But never do I make decisions based on what someone else might think. Perhaps that’s why my “style” is what it is?
POP: After Napoleon Dynamite, you said you had to prove yourself more than you ever did before to overcome the perception that you were an actor first and a director and photographer second. What did that experience do for your work?
Actually I had to prove that I was a director/photographer first and that the acting thing was a fluke. I’m not sure it effected my work at all. It just took longer for people to see that I did have a distinct voice and directing/shooting was not just a hobby of mine.
POP: In addition to your commercial work, are you always working on a fine art project as well?
I have a hard time staying motivated for fine art projects. I always have ideas for things but rarely take the time to execute them. I am working on getting better with that.
POP: You’re working on a feature film. Do you want to talk about it?
I’ve had a story that I’ve been trying to finish for about 5 years now. It’s finally done and I hope to be able to make that film later this year or early next year. When asked what kind of film it is, I respond with, “It’s a quiet thriller.” Which is a surprisingly accurate description I think.