Ken Ross Celebrates the Offbeat in Travel Photography
Travel shooter Ken Ross has been roaming the globe taking photographs since he was a kid in middle school. It's not that he was some sort of prodigy; his mother was a famous author who lectured worldwide.
"The only way to see Mom was to travel with her," Ross says. "Twice a year I got to go wherever she went, and so I grew up taking photos all over the world – in great places like Brazil, Japan, the Nile – from the age of 13 or 14."
Ross' mom was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, world-renowned author of "On Death and Dying" (which outlined the now-ubiquitous "five stages of grief"), as well as scores of other books about everyone's least favorite subject.
Kubler-Ross was in demand worldwide, which often translated into unfettered photographic access to exotic locales for her son. These experiences left him with a love of travel and photography that has never waned.
"Mom would go to Egypt, for example, as a guest of the Sadat family, so I'd have handlers who were told, "Take care of the kid,'" Ross says. "I'd get carte blanche to go places others couldn't," like when he tried to climb to the top of the Great Pyramids. "It was lot higher than it looked. I got about 100 feet and came back down; I was just a kid."
His mother's unusual occupation also affected his photographic style. Kubler-Ross worked with the dying all her life, so Ross was constantly exposed to people who were reflecting on life and mortality.
"Dying people were always telling me to be excited about being alive and appreciate what you have, to see the world fresh each day," he says. "So I think, as a result, I see the world in a colorful, graphic and vibrant way."
In college, Ross studied banking, but the chilling prospect of facing a lifetime in foreign-currency arbitrage eventually made him reconsider his options. He decided instead to greet each day with camera in hand.
In the mid-1980s, after graduation and before joining the workforce, he did a bit of world traveling. Unable to find a banking job in the U.S., he went to Australia to work over the summer. He sensed that the land Down Under, where competition was not as fierce as in the United States, was a place of unique opportunity, a country in which one might more easily reinvent oneself.
"Photography was really what was in my heart," Ross says. "I thought I'd give it a try."
And so a travel photographer was born.
The business of travel
Travel photography has long dominated his career, but it shares the stage with corporate/editorial work, both on location and in the studio, that he does from his home base in Scottsdale, Ariz. He maintains a small home studio there for portraits and still lifes.
A career-sustaining synergy results from the two-thirds of each year that he spends making travel photos worldwide. He believes that his plethora of globe-spanning photos convey an impression of tremendous capability and success – and clients naturally want to work with capable, successful people.
"Somewhat surprisingly, it seems like people look at my color travel work and say, "He must be very successful and know what he's doing. Let's hire him for some black-and-white sports shots or these corporate portraits.'" (He was once assigned to shoot a tennis player wearing a Cartier watch, in black-and-white, for in-house use by the luxury jewelry brand, after he had shown primarily his color travel work.)
Because travel photography takes up so much time, Ross has long relied on stock sales for a great deal of his income. To prosper, he's had to adapt to the major changes that have roiled that business. "Getty bought 50 stock agencies, so now it is 50 times harder to sell your New York City photos," he explains. Throw in royalty-free stock and micro stock ("One stock travesty after another," he notes), and Ross knew he needed a new approach.
He shifted his stock work to a small, independent agency, Viesti Associates of Durango, Colo., where he says he is the number-one producer. He checks in monthly to find out what the agency needs, learning, for example, that there's a book in production that needs fresh shots of Belize – in two weeks. Ross then immediately packs his bags.
Those specific requests take up only about a third of his travel time, however. Another third is dictated by his own experience and intuition, which tells him where he should go. An upcoming trip to the au courant photographic location of Dubai is one example. The remainder of his time is determined by his own ideas of interesting, if not terribly commercial, places to shoot.
Often, the images from offbeat places turn out to be surprise best sellers. For example, he once saw shots of bathers floating in the hypersaline Dead Sea and thought it worth a visit. Images of the Dead Sea, however, don't have the immediate commercial appeal of, say, a couple on the beach in Hawai'i. "It is a fringe kind of location," Ross notes.
After a day of shooting in the Israeli desert, he went beyond the fringe. While riding in a taxi, he saw dry, caked earth out the window. Asking the driver to stop, Ross shot a few frames without even getting out of the cab. They were the first images from the Israeli trip to sell – for an environmental campaign. "I shot the Great Pyramids and the Wailing Wall [in Jerusalem], and then some dirt out a taxi window, and sold the dirt shots right away for $6,000!" he says, still seeming surprised.
His subjects usually are livelier than the earth, however. He's especially fond of photographing festivals. "Festivals give you an automatic license to shoot people," he says. "People are in a better mood and more open, and places that might not be so safe have a greater police presence."
But such abundant photographic opportunity has its own daunting demands. A recent carnival shoot in Brazil led to three all-night sessions in eight days. "My friend's samba school went on parade at 5:30 a.m., and then we broke for cocktails and then breakfast, and then to sleep at 11 a.m., and back up at 2 p.m., and so on." At 46, Ross quips that he's getting too old for such continuous exertion.
Danger is often right around the corner. A rough rafting trip down the Lower Zambezi River in Africa almost turned fatal for Ross and several friends, all of whom nearly drowned. The friends didn't speak to him for three days afterward, he adds.
Especially early on in his career, Ross repeatedly encountered risk and near-deadly disease. At a festival in Papua New Guinea, he ran into trouble with one tribe. "I needed a police escort to get on the grounds of the dancers," he says. "The people surrounding the festival area were getting too wild and I could not enter safely."
In Nepal, he got sick from food-borne illness and lost 24 pounds in 10 days. "I was young and stupid, and just lay in bed, essentially dying for a week and a half. I finally crawled to a doctor's office."
Another time, he contracted the mildest form of what appeared to be dengue fever, and was terribly sick for six weeks. "There are four types of dengue fever, I believe. The worst type kills you," Ross deadpans.
Sometimes the visual bounty of world travel overwhelmed the young Ross. He was taken to a Berber village in Marrakech very early in his career, and found a scene so unfamiliar and exotic that he thought he'd found "the edge of the planet. I went into a smoky restaurant with pots on open fires and shafts of light, and it was a magical moment. I thought, "It doesn't get any better than this!' I had no idea if it was a safe place or not, and I was still uneasy about shooting people, and so mesmerized by the experience I almost forgot to pick up my camera. I didn't get many images out of it."
Ross clearly has gotten over his apprehensions about people photography now, though, and has, in fact, become an adept negotiator.
One close-up shot of a snake charmer exemplifies Ross's bold, direct and colorful style. It's a 35mm image in which Ross powerfully approximates the shallow depth of field of large-format portrait work. The subject wasn't happy, though: "He was extremely upset I didn't want to photograph his snakes, and couldn't understand why I only wanted to shoot him. "But I am a snake charmer!' he kept saying."
For the similarly bold and colorful shot of a tribal chief holding a Coca-Cola can, taken in Papua New Guinea, "I spent 10 minutes talking to the tribe and asking the price to shoot the chief with his Coke. I eventually gave them each a Western cigarette, which they considered a status symbol."
When not dealing with the pressures of photographing reluctant subjects in disparate cultural climates, Ross wrestles with the competitive pressures of the travel photography business. He makes sure that he knows how his subjects have been handled by other shooters, and then applies what he unself- consciously calls his "playful imagination, good sense of creativity, and odd sense of art and design."
Another inducement to finding a new way to see an old subject is having a photo editor say, "Go shoot the Taj Mahal like you've never seen it before!" Being something of an insomniac and a person who spends a great deal of time on planes, Ross says that he has "a lot of hours to think" about new approaches to oft-photographed subjects.
His awareness of competitive pressure, however, isn't nearly as bad as it was earlier in his career. Around 1990, he was living in New York City's intensely concentrated Photo District. "I was told there were 2,500 photographers within a 10-block radius," he says.
While exposure to his mother's milieu of the deeply introspective and dying pushed Ross toward a style that celebrates life, the more prominent denizens of the then-crowded Photo District also made their mark on his style. "My influences are the great, classic color location guys – Ernst Haas, Pete Turner, Jay Maisel, Eric Meola and Al Satterwhite."
He turned from 35mm film to digital capture several years ago, but he's about to take his EOS-1n bodies out of storage and order some fresh Velvia and Kodak 100 SW film. "I love digital; it is amazing for a lot of things, good for some subjects and just OK for others. And for a few subjects, digital just doesn't cut it at all," he notes.
He's mostly had disappointing results with sunsets and warm evening light. "Digital doesn't hold detail in a wide range of brightness levels the way film does. I was shooting a beautiful sunset in Costa Rica on a job for Fodor's recently, and it was killing me. It was such a beautiful sight, but my shots were smudgy and muddy, like a skin rash."
His plans now call for carrying one EOS-1n body along with his Canon EOS-5D full-frame digital bodies, and 10 or 20 rolls of film.
Adding a bit more gear to his bag isn't slowing him down, however. Next on the schedule is his first Middle East visit since 9/11, to Dubai, Oman and Petra. And he wants to visit the Omo River tribe in Ethiopia. Why that tribe? "They have great faces. I love photographing ethnographic people," he says enthusiastically, sounding exactly like a veteran travel photographer.
Eric Rudolph is a New York City-based photographer and writer who has contributed to leading photographic publications since 1994.
IN THE LOUPE: Ken Ross
Location: Scottsdale, Ariz. Ross has a 300-square-foot studio in his home, for portraits and still-life photography.
Publications: Numerous "Travel Guides" for Fodor's. Several periodicals, including Der Spiegel, Elle, GEO, National Geographic, Stern and USA Today.
Preferred equipment: Canon, currently the EOS 5D with its 35mm-frame-sized sensor. His digital camera progression has been from the 10D to the 20D, 30D and now the 5D, but decidedly not the Mark II: "I never had the stomach to spend $8,000-plus for the top of the line, not with cameras changing so quickly." He uses his EOS-1n film bodies to shoot warmly lit subjects that digital doesn't handle well. He's also currently scanning 6,000 of his top images (out of 40,000 in total) with a Nikon Coolscan 9000, to 12″ x 18″ at 300 dpi, completely keyworded, with the help of assistants. "I love Dynalite strobes, and of course Apple computers," he adds. "There is no other computer."
Corporate Clients: All Nippon Airways, Allied Signal Aerospace, American Express, Apple, British Airways, Cartier, Chevrolet, HP, MTV, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sony, United Airlines, U.S. Navy, Visa and many others.
Latest assignment: "Last year I did a number of books, or partial books, for Fodor's "Travel Guides,' including a month in Costa Rica."
Favorite assignment: "They're all great. I am living my dream life by traveling around the world and using my camera to meet peoples I would not otherwise talk to."
Advice for aspiring travel photographers: "Stay diverse. Shoot many subjects to pay for the bills, especially when you are starting out. Portraits, corporate, weddings, your neighbor's dog - whatever."