I follow Elliot Ross on Instagram. So do 23,999 other people. We’ve known each other for a few years and went to college together but connecting on Instagram is how I am able to keep up with where the hell he is in the world. To say that he travels a lot is an understatement (he traveled to 61 cities in 2013 alone).
I hadn’t seen Elliot in about a year. We met for dinner at bar called Bizarre near his apartment in Bushwick. It was a Saturday night and the place was surprisingly empty. He tells me it’s the norm here, things usually pick up during the week. In a neighborhood of artists and working class, everyone’s “weekend” is different.
Although we stayed in Bushwick the entire night, I felt like I had traveled to a few different places, just listening to Elliot’s stories including his incredible trek on the Trans-Siberian railway and that time he ate deep fried silkworm in Thailand. Halfway through the interview, we got sidetracked and started toying with travel sites and playing around with different destinations, a common pastime for Elliot. He shared photographs, samples of rocks and salts from all over the world and journals he has kept along the way. I’ve never felt more inspired to buy a one-way ticket to some far off place and just go see what happens.
Caroline Aylward: How does it feel to be home?
Elliot Ross: I love Bushwick. I’ve been home for a while now. About three weeks. I am getting really antsy to travel again.
CA: Wow, that doesn’t seem long at all! Where was your last trip?
ER: I was out west participating in an artist residency called the Land Art Road Trip in August. I met UK based artist Leah Capaldi out there and then ended up shooting with her in central Utah. She was doing a film on horseback rider, Wes Taylor and more specifically the relationship between a rider and their horse. I was director of photography on that. She has an incredible mind. The trip was a blast.
CA: So you shoot film as well?
ER: I’ve just started recently. It’s definitely switching gears but lighting in general is my bread and butter. The biggest challenge is learning how to move. It’s just like learning a new dialect.
CA: What new projects do you have in the works?
ER: With three friends we’ve formed a collective called “Howl,” like the Allen Ginsberg poem. It’s with three friends; Jim Lind, Forest Woodward and Patrick O’Brian. The idea behind the company is to travel with a group of people to a destination and have a good time. Do interesting things. Rather than being on a set or creating a location we just bring our cameras and document a real experience with the intention of selling the images we create. We take the photos as things are happening naturally. Our first trip was back in April in San Francisco. More recently we went up to Maine and invited a bunch of people we have met along the way. We had a blast. We climbed on hay bails and drank beer and ran through fields. We got a lot of interesting photos out of it.
CA: When did you first move to New York?
ER: When I graduated from SCAD I got an internship at Annie Lebovitz’s studio. My friend Jim (also a part of Howl) had interned with her a couple of years prior and he hooked me up with the job. They gave me $10 a day for lunch. I would use $2 to get pizza and pocket the remaining $8. I did that 3-4 days a week and worked at a boutique lighting studio during the rest of the week.
CA: What was your experience like at the lighting studio?
ER: The lighting studio introduced me to big fashion sets right off of the bat. I met a lot of people through that job. It was a lot of heavy lifting and manual labor but a great experience.
CA: Do you have any stories to share about your learning experience?
ER: On my first day I had to drive a massive truck into a truck elevator. This was one of my first experiences driving. It was absolutely terrifying. I had to drive the truck up the West Side Highway to this massive building and back the truck up into a really narrow, dark elevator. Other drivers were blaring their horns at me because I was taking too long. So yeah, that was my first experience driving. Now I love driving in the city.
CA: Did you start freelancing after that was over?
ER: I started working for Mark Seliger, 7 days a week, 14-18 hours a day. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The schedule was tough and there was little gratitude at times. We were flying to LA one day then back to New York and then back to LA again. All of the flights were red eyes. It was a whirlwind of traveling and working. It was crazy hard and I did it for a year. But I learned so much about lighting. Once you do that, then everyone knows you. That is how I started working as a lighting director.
CA: Then you decided to start out on your own?
ER: One day I quit and had a melt down about my decision. I couldn’t believe I’d left. But I knew I was underpaid and working over a hundred hours a week, which isn’t sustainable. I took a day to myself to reflect after that and quitting turned out to be the perfect decision. Since then work has thankfully just kept coming. You have to follow your gut. Sometimes it seems counter intuitive but you have to go with it.
CA: Agreed. Is that when you started traveling a lot?
ER: I have been traveling a lot my whole life. Growing up, I traveled a lot with my father to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It’s just something that has always been a very big part of my life. If I am not traveling for work, I am traveling for me. My camera just comes with me either way. Traveling is a part of my nature.
CA: Do you remember the first thing you ever photographed?
ER: When I was really young I did a series on power sockets. They were something I wasn’t allowed to touch so this was my way of exploring them. I don’t think anyone would find these photos interesting but looking back on it, it makes a lot of sense!
CA: Did you follow any photographers as a child?
ER: Cole Thompson, a Colorado based photographer spoke at my high school. I loved his work so I stayed after his presentation and talked to him for a while. I kept bugging him after that and made it clear I wanted to intern for him. After a while we became pretty close. He would pick me up from school sometimes and we would just go hang out. This was during the process of applying to colleges. I was feeling pressure from my family to pursue engineering or something more “worthwhile.” Cole taught me that you have to pursue what makes you happy.“Your education is your biggest investment in life.” He made me feel like it was the right decision to go to art school and pursue photography. Thankfully. I see him every time I go back home. We stay in touch.
CA: So you grew up in Colorado?
ER: My first four years were spent in Taiwan. Then we moved to the states and I spent most of my time growing up on farm in Colorado.
CA: How did end up choosing SCAD?
ER: When it came time to apply for college it was really about the money. SCAD was part of the career fair at my high school. I applied to SCAD, RISD and SAIC as well as a few Ivy League schools. I did the entire three-week application process to join the military during that time as well. Then SCAD offered me a full ride so that was that. I had never been to Savannah before I moved there.
CA: Since you have such an academic background can see yourself going back to school?
ER: My high school was extremely academic. I grew up thinking I would become an engineer and attend an Ivy League school. I got into Yale but ended going to art school. I’m addicted to learning but I don’t see a need for going back at this point. I don’t know. Never say never.
After we finished dinner, we got a six-pack and went back to Elliot’s apartment that he shares with three other former SCAD students. The apartment smelled like new shoes. Probably because there were about fifty pairs of Oliberte shoes sitting on the kitchen table waiting to be photographed. Oliberte is the world’s first Fair Trade Certified footwear manufacturing factory. Elliot photographs for their Instagram.
CA: I saw that you just updated your website. What inspired the re-vamp?
ER: It felt like the right time. I hadn’t really sorted through all of my work in a while. It seems like a quick and easy fix, but then you spend months sifting through your work and fine-tuning your brand. I began to have a little bit of an existential crisis. What work should I show? It was a massive undertaking but after 2-3 months it came together nicely. It really forces you to define yourself as an artist.
CA: Do you think your Instagram profile has played that role as well? That is where I see your work most frequently and you have quite the following.
ER: My Instagram acts as my visual journal. I take some of the photos with my iPhone and some with my cameras. It’s a great way for me to look back and reflect on my work as well. It feels silly talking abut my Instagram profile but it really is a great way to display and share your work. Pamela Chen was a photo editor for National Geographic then she left and became one at Instagram. Instagram featured me on their blog. I am still trying to figure out the way of the Instagram world. I just recently learned what #tbt means!
CA: So where to next?
ER: I leave for Tulum this week. This will be my 3rd time there working with fashion photographer Enrique Badulescu. If you are looking to shoot a hot girl on a beach in a bikini, he’s the man for the job. He lives in a New York but has a house in Tulum so we go down there for work sometimes.
CA: Do you have time to get out and explore while you’re there?
ER: Definitely. Tulum is such an amazing place. They have a really diverse local community and world-class restaurants. Tulum also has a large system of cenotes, which are ceiling-less caves that have been flooded with crystal clear water. It is un-paralleled from anywhere in the world. You can just float around from cave to cave. It’s like swimming in an aquarium. Some of them are as big as Barclay’s Center. Some have hanging vines. It’s like being on another planet. Definitely an inspiring place!
CA: That sounds absolutely magical. Who else have you traveled and photographed with?
ER: I have worked with portrait photographer Martin Schoeller. He is gearing up to release a book of his portraits, which I think will establish him as one of most important portrait photographers of our generation. Martin also shoots for National Geographic. About a year ago, I got a voicemail from Robert Clark, who shoots for National Geographic quite a bit. I ended up traveling with him on an exploratory dinosaur mission, dragging lighting cases through unmapped areas. We were camping for three weeks, driving up dried up riverbeds in expedition trucks. It was like a dream. I also worked with him, shooting a cover for Nat Geo at NASA. That was like two childhood dreams in one day.
CA: Do your childhood dreams still stand?
ER: I would definitely love to shoot for National Geographic. I’m drawn to shooting portraits – and really just photos of peoples’ lives. Traveling is such an important component of that.
CA: Being a lighting director has kept you involved in fashion. Is this a world you want to stay in?
ER: Yes, it really has. I’ve done a lot of work in the fashion world and I really have a waining desire to stay. It is something I battle with a lot. I think fashion is trivial in so many ways but it’s also another form of expression. The journalist in me wants to share stories about people in the world and fashion just doesn’t do that for me. That said, I’ll be traveling to Africa and Asia with Johan Lindeberg shooting 50 influential women from 50 countries for Italian Vogue’s 50th anniversary.
CA: How do you get inspired when you are home in New York?
ER: There are so many amazing moments New York allows for. So many opportunities to meet people. It is a cultural hub where people flock to chase their dreams. Being surrounded by these people and these moments is really inspiring.
CA: What is your favorite thing to photograph?
ER: For me, photography is a tool to connect with people. It’s all about people telling their stories. Photography helps you understand them and find commonalities.
Elliot plans to continue traveling and photographing life around the world. With a role model like Martin Schoeller, I would say he is well on his way. To keep up with Elliot’s work (and his travel plans) you can follow him on Instagram @elliotstudio. His newly renovated website: www.elliotrossstudio.com. I also recommend playing around on skyscanner.com. Destination: everywhere.