Art Producers Speak: Nick Ruechel

We emailed Art Buyers and Art Producers around the world asking them to submit names of established photographers who were keeping it fresh and up-and-comers who they are keeping their eye on. If you are an Art Buyer/Producer or an Art Director at an agency and want to submit a photographer anonymously for this column email:

Anonymous Art Producer: I nominate: Nick Ruechel. “I love his work, it has a lot of soul, his lighting is beautiful. He is a perfectionist and the connection he gets with subjects shows lovely in his portraits.”

‘Maximo & Agustin, Brooklyn, 2012’

‘India, Chinatown,NYC, 2011’

‘Rooz, Brooklyn, 2007’

‘Reggie Watts, Comedian, NYC, 2009’

‘Sahr Ngaujah, (FELA!), NYC, 2009’

‘Chico Hamilton, Musician, NYC, 2008’

‘Philip Glass, NYC, 2008’

‘Children in a rickshaw on their way to school, Mysore, India, 2012’

‘Visitors, Coney Island, Memorial Day, 2012’

‘Satmar Hasidim, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2012’

How many years have you been in business?

11 Years

Are you self-taught or photography school taught?

My first encounter with cameras was in high school in Germany as a member of the photography club. We’d get access to Nikon F’s and B/W film and would be sent out on little photojournalistic assignments. I remember once covering the demolition of an historic building which had caused great upheaval in the local community. I had no idea what I was doing apart from rotating shutter and f-stop dials in such as way as to keep the light meter in a viable range of exposure. I felt accomplished because the resulting negatives were actually printable. The club dissolved a couple of semesters later which turned into a 10-year hiatus from taking pictures.

After moving to New York City and graduating from NYU in the late 90’s, I took a job as a freelance talent scout for a record company but I soon realized that I loved music too much to become involved with selling it: I was bored out of my mind. During that time, I purchased an old Nikon F3 with a 50mm lens and a couple of books on basic photographic technique. I began to experiment again: trial and error, roll-by-roll. I would get one or two contact sheets made per week and reviewed my mistakes. Luckily, I soon came across a couple of working photographers who were either sympathetic to my autodidactic plight or plain crazy to give someone a job who had no practical experience at all. I started as a 3rd assistant on German fashion catalogue shoots and worked part-time in the equipment room of a major rental studio in Manhattan. I didn’t do much else; it was a full-immersion crash course.

After freelancing for a number of renowned portrait and fashion photographers for about 18 months, I wound up becoming Annie Leibovitz’s full-time first assistant for two years which seemed like transitioning from weekend outings in the National Guard to full-out warfare in the Marine Corps. It was the best finishing school I could have hoped for. After my tenure, I quit assisting and to went out on my own. It was time.

Who was your greatest influence that inspired you to get into this business?

As cliché as it may sound, Irving Penn probably is a central figure in my photographic development. The discipline and integrity of his photographs have always fascinated me. He was a true innovator across so many genres of photography. Penn’s approach to taking portraits still seems to be the basic blueprint from which so many of us operate, knowingly or unknowingly. Arnold Newman, Jeff Wall and William Eggleston are others who subsequently informed and influenced my ideas about the color environmental portrait. The list is long and always evolving.

Not surprisingly, I have always loved film and cinematography ever since I was old enough to be admitted to a Sunday matinée. But it isn’t photography or visual art per sé which motivated me to choose this profession: it’s more the idea that you can bring something fresh and new into existence every day, meet complete strangers through an “instrument” and learn something about their condition, even if it’s just within the span of a brief moment. It enables you to develop a point of view about the constant sensory impingement that is life. That’s my inspiration. I think that’s what aesthetics are, ultimately.

How do you find your inspiration to be so fresh, push the envelope, stay true to yourself so that creative folks are noticing you and hiring you?

In my opinion, staying true to yourself implies that you trust and follow your creative instinct. That is ultimately what clients hire you for. Contemplating too much what ‘others’ may like, can be dangerous to one’s process. This is not to say that you shouldn’t follow direction in the commercial realm: that is what you are getting compensated for. In the ideal case, a client will trust/expect you to bring your personal vision and ideas to the project so it becomes synergetic: a collaboration.

There are lots of good “technicians” in this business. Executing decent lighting and any other part of photographic technique is a function of practice; even a part of the so-called “eye” is part of that. A way of looking at the world in photographic terms (such as composition) can be learned but it doesn’t replace raw talent: it merely supports it. Once you master technique, you should ‘forget’ it and pay attention to what is really going on around you. Creatives want to see a tangible point of view; images which reflect a sense of identity – a thread of sorts that permeates your work. Some people call that ‘style’, although I think that term is a bit limiting (Maybe it’s necessary to be categorizable in order to be successful in this new environment). In the end, it’s externalizing some of what’s inside of you.

By contrast, it’s also very important to be content to do absolutely nothing sometimes. Putting all your emphasis on being prolific can often come at the expense of producing mediocre work. There is a new theory in the field of Quantum Physics which examines how the creative process really works in humans. The first stage is information gathering, the second stage, a state of inertia or ‘incubation’, as it were, where we permit ideas and concepts to proliferate within our mind. It all sounds pretty haughty and theoretical but it does make sense to me. Then again, everyone’s different. If you can produce 20 good pictures each day, good for you. Charles Bukowski most likely wasn’t too involved with physics and he once said: “This is very important — to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything…just to do nothing at all, very, very important. And how many people do this in modern society? Very few. That’s why they’re all totally mad, frustrated, angry and hateful.” Ironically, he was a very “prolific” writer so go figure.

Do you find that some creatives love your work but the client holds you back?

It depends what shop you are working with: some agencies represent more traditional clients and have to be a bit more conservative in their creative approach. If time permits and it’s feasible, I try to shoot things in a number of different ways from ‘safe’ to a bit more towards the proverbial ‘edge’. Every situation is different and you generally get a good idea at the outset as to how flexible the client is when it comes to creative concepts and their execution. There is a time and place for everything.

What are you doing to get your vision out to the buying audience?

Websites and iPads have replaced much of the physical portfolios photographers were circulating in large numbers only a few years ago. Not having to constantly update ten or more books with prints and sleeves is a bit of a blessing in disguise. Creatives can now pre-screen your work on the web to determine whether your work is consistent and appropriate for their purposes. It’s more productive and time-saving for everyone involved.

Nonetheless, I feel that a face-to-face meeting with a client and showing physical prints is more important than ever before. Nowadays, personal meetings are also an examination of your personality: we live in a world with far fewer jobs and a lot more photographers than ever before. There are thousands of talented artists out there who can execute any given project well. An individual in a position to award you a job will want to make sure you are a nice person and a team player. Nobody wants to work with a Diva/Ego-tripper.

I email images to art buyers and photo editors on a regular basis but I personalize every message rather than ‘mass-blasting’ 5000 potential clients. I think that invites immediate deletion. It seems better to develop a relationship with a select number of people than carpet-bombing the entire industry. Keep it short and sweet. If an art buyer or creative director takes time out of their crazed schedule to click on your message, they most likely want to see one image and a brief message, rather than your life story and half your website. If you have the time, check out the agencies you’re targeting and what accounts they are servicing. Is your work applicable to any of their accounts?

What is your advice for those who are showing what they think the buyers want to see?

As mentioned before, I think in quite a few cases, this approach can put you on the road to confusion and failure: you’ll never truly know what creatives are looking for and things are always changing. You’ll pose that question to 15 people and you will most likely get 15 different answers. Portfolio reviews are a good indicator of this: some people will respond to certain images, others will react differently. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to criticism and input: some people might be better editors of your work than you are. I have good friends in the industry who have pointed out things to me that were of great value.

One’s relationship with art is quite personal and subjective. I follow my intuition but regularly get feedback from my agent, peers, and other individuals whose judgment and experience I trust. One can sometimes be too close to one’s own work: others have more distance and that can be conducive to a better edit. No one book is right for all occasions; every possible job you bid on might require a modification of your portfolio, i.e., the addition or subtraction of images which might or might not be relevant to the project at hand.

Are you shooting for yourself and creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?

Always. Personal work is essential to my mental health. I always feel compelled to self-assign to pursue ideas that I find exciting and relevant. Coincidentally, that is the work that creatives seem to respond to most enthusiastically. To me, it’s the most accurate reflection of who you are as a photographer. I constantly write down new ideas for new images in a small journal I carry. I refer back to it, re-edit, modify and delete things until I select something to work on.

How often are you shooting new work?

Apart from using my iPhone and Instagram, I try to shoot something once or twice a week, depending on how busy I get with editorial and commercial assignments. It’s not a compulsive thing; I try to relax as much as possible which paves the way for being inspired to go out and putting a good idea into a better photograph.

Nick Ruechel was born in Berlin, Germany and moved to New York City in the mid-1990’s. His photographs have appeared in many editorial publications such as: Vogue, Vanity Fair, Esquire, New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, Men’s Journal, VIBE, Interview, Wired, Fast Company and others. Notable commercial clients include: NBC/Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Television, CNN, Bravo and Showtime Networks, AVAYA, Sun America Banking, Hyperion Books, Discovery Channel and others Some of Ruechel’s recent work has been selected to appear in AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHY’s AP29 annual, to be published in May of 2013. Besides editorial and commercial assignments, Ruechel has been working on a large portrait retrospective of Jazz musicians since 2004, entitled, ‘I can’t get started’ , a new series of close-up video portraits, entitled ‘Padartha’ and a documentary short film, entitiled “Las Piezas Que Faltan (“Missing Pieces”) He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after founding the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter fed with helpful marketing information.  Follow her@SuzanneSease.

Suzanne Sease

There Are 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. “Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything”.. thanks for some excellent and thought-provoking insights Nick.

  2. Great interview and sound advice. Enjoyed Nick’s discussion of the creative process. Along those same lines is Goethe’s much-quote advice: “Do not hurry, do not rest.”