It’s June 24, 2011. I am about to launch South x Southeast photomagazine and I receive a ping on my Facebook IM. And there is this incredibly successful Hollywood still photographer by the name of Ralph Nelson congratulating me on the launch and telling me he’s from Americus, Georgia. Don’t you just love the way the world goes round sometimes? We talk, we stay in touch, and he agrees to grant me this interview and images. Meet Ralph.
Nancy McCray: I have to ask – did you know the Carters when you were growing up?
Ralph Nelson: Everyone pretty much knew everyone growing up in a small town. Jimmy did not catch my attention until he ran for Governor. His sister Gloria would come over on occasion on her motorcycle and sit out in the yard with Mama and friends. I met his brother Billy when I was working on Hee Haw and he made a guest appearance. It’s hard to imagine more different siblings from the same litter. Miss Lillian (his mother) was a lovely force of nature and a Southern Lady of the highest order. My absolute favorite of all time Lillian Carter quote: “Sometimes when I look at all my children, I say to myself, ‘Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin.’”
NM: How old were you when you realized your interest in photography? And, how did you get started?
RN: I was inspired by the Walt Disney True Life Nature series. As my first love has always been nature, I wanted to either be a forest ranger, or to live in the wild and take photos. And, having no concept of time-lapse photography, I also wanted to see how the desert bloomed in minutes. Time-lapse photography required teams of professionals working with truckloads of equipment, a technique that we can now replicate with an iPhone. Take note, young photographers / filmmakers.
NM: Why, and when, did you leave Americus for the west coast?
RN: In 1963, the beginning of my senior year in high school, I went to live with my father in California. I had a perfect record as a terrible student and he was hoping that he could make a difference, which he did. California was a seismic personal shift. The cultural revolution began in the sixties and I had landed at ground zero. My transformation is blessedly incomplete; there is still red Georgia clay in my Soul and a soupçon of Holstein manure between my toes.
NM: You have lead a life many photographers would be envious of – what is some good advice for those just embarking on a career in still photography for t.v. and film?
RN: Throughout my career, I’ve been approached by photographers who, lured by the siren song of Hollywood, want to work in film, imagining themselves hanging out with (insert your favorite movie star name here) and strolling down red carpets.
Establishing a balance between encouraging and explaining the reality can be a challenge.
Feature films’ budgets can reach hundreds of millions of dollars with the publicity / advertising costs in direct proportion. With that in mind, one can understand the critical value of the photos and the role of the still photographer.
For those who are considering becoming a motion picture still photographer, there is good news and bad news:
First the Bad News:
It can be physically demanding.
You can often spend weeks or months away from family, working hours that should have been outlawed long ago.
There are already a number of well-established, qualified photographers who are already known to and trusted by the studios.
And now the Good News:
There is always room for someone whose talent sets her/him apart.
It can also be, as it was for me, a very rewarding experience…working with extremely talented people of all professions, the crew members whose names scroll by at the end of the film.
A personal observation about celebrities/fame:
I’ve had the privilege of working with some great actors, some of whom I call friends, but as one who knew farmers in my youth, I can say with absolute certainty that fame and celebrity are often vastly overrated.
NM: You tell a story about Dolly Parton that is both true and poignant. Would you repeat that for our readers?
RN: With pleasure…
Although I’ve donated all of my film work to the Margaret Herrick Library, now and then something still turns up. In my attic, I recently found Polaroids of Dolly Parton from 9 to 5. They bring to mind my favorite memory of her.
When production was completed, Dolly invited all of the women from every department to the recording session to sing the theme song which she had written only weeks before. Very likely most of them couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but they were invited…and they were there…and every one of them sang. As the only man in the studio, I just hummed along.
When the recording was finished, all of the ladies were saying their goodbyes and drifting out the door. The lights were being turned off…
I was among the last to leave and here is where Dolly won my heart forever…lights slowly being turned off, people leaving…and there is no doubt in my mind that I was the only one to see this ~ and share it now.
Dolly was in the kitchen alone…washing the dishes.
You can take the Girl out of the Country, but you cannot take the Class out of a Country Girl.
NM: In 2012 you published a book of photography from a personal project of yours. BOTANICA: iPhone Photos is a lovely book of flower images. How long did you work on this composition? Tell us about other personal photography interests you’re working on.
RN: Thank you.
BOTANICA: iPhone Photos started out as me wanting to test the limits of the iPhone as a camera. I soon realized that the limits were my own. It was my first personal photo project after retiring from the film industry. I established a set of rules. Having spent decades working with actors, I wanted images completely void of any evidence of people. (In one image, there is a small section of a wooden fence, but you have to look for it). No accessories of any sort–no tripods, no filters, nothing. No cropping. Those limitations were liberating in that I could devote my full attention to the subject.
At any given time, I have more projects in mind than I will be able to complete in a lifetime. The one which currently commands most of my attention is the project that I whimsically call “The Saltwater Series.” On Facebook, I hypothesized what the results might be if one were taking photos at the beach and accidentally dropped their cellphone into the water, and I posted my first altered image to suggest the possible results. Many believed that I had actually done just that. In fact, it is a very carefully crafted set of digital manipulations to a photo which transform it into a more visually compelling image. Although the procedure is constant, there are carefully constructed variables that provide a full gamut of choices ranging from deeply intense color palette, to far more subtle and delicate versions.
*BOTANICA: iPhone Photos is available through Amazon. Click Here for more information.
NM: I’ve read you worked as an assistant to Ernst Haas early in your career. Tell us a bit about him and working for him.
RN: I met Ernst when I was acting on one of my father’s films, Duel at Diablo, in 1965. I had no interest in acting and was working to save money for college. Ernst was there on assignment for Look magazine. It was in the early days of my interest in photography and if you believe, as I do, that there are unseen and unknowable forces and influences that can change the course of your life at precisely the right time, meeting Ernst was certainly among them.
I later accompanied him as his assistant on a number of assignments. Artists often cite influences on one’s work and I have many to thank, but Ernst shaped my way of seeing more than anyone else. I will always remain deeply indebted to him and hope that on occasion, his influence shows through in my work.
NM: Film or Digital?
RN: Now, fully digital. The weaning process from film to digital was sometimes clumsy and always expensive. Then, a 1GB memory card cost one thousand dollars, and now, a 128GB card costs just under thirty dollars. As I reply to your question, the price has probably dropped even further.
Digital required learning an entirely new vocabulary, but offers previously unimaginable new potential.
NM: Thank you, Ralph, As always, it’s a pleasure speaking with you and I tend to learn something each time.
Photography is my connection to The Source — a constant and overwhelming sense of awe.
Although my career was based in Hollywood, at heart I’m still the same barefoot farm boy whose first love has always been the exquisite mystery that surrounds us all. I often feel that I am guided by a Muse and I am simply the one assigned to press the shutter release.
Defining the impulse can be as futile as trying to catch the wind. The moment that I think I may have explained myself, what seemed like a rock-solid definition in one moment evaporates and makes no sense at all the next.
But the following I know with certainty and does not waver.
My motivation can be best explained by a quote from Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” In my opinion, the beauty of that miracle can be seen in everything, from the obvious beauty of flowers, to the unexpected abstract patterns found in the most unlikely places. Sometimes it takes a second look to see it, but it’s there.
Photos are the trail markers left in my path to show others where I’ve been and to suggest one of the many paths they may want to consider.