by Sue Babcock
Tammy Ruggles is a legally blind photographer, artist, and writer who makes her home in Kentucky. Her work has been featured in numerous literary journals, art magazines, and photography publications. She creates compelling and dramatic images (see her profile at Deviant Art). We loved her photographs and decided to feature her and her work. We also had, oh, so many questions.
1.What is your background and how did you get into photography?
My background is varied, from art to social work to writing. It may have been photography, if my vision had been strong enough, because I’ve loved photography for as long as I can remember, and yearned to be a fine art photographer. I even have a picture of myself at age 5 with a camera around my neck. But with RP comes night blindness, which means I couldn’t see in a darkroom or read the settings on a camera. I resigned myself to taking family snapshots and sending them off to be developed. I got into photography in 2013, when I purchased my first point-and-shoot digital camera. This camera set on auto, along with a 47-inch monitor, enables me to do photography. It may seem like I jumped into it one day on a whim, but that’s far from the case. It was a buried dream for many years. I just didn’t see a way to do it. Technology showed me there was a different way to practice photography.
2. Who particularly inspired you? Why and how?
Many artists and photographers inspired me, including van Gogh, Picasso, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams. I thought of photography as another form of painting, or telling a story with a picture. I wanted to paint with a camera, and these were my heroes in these areas. I thought I could learn from them as I found my own style. I really like landscapes, and think that a photo of one can be as painterly as an image created with a brush.
3. Do you have any particular themes that you pursue?
No, I wouldn’t say I deliberately go after a particular theme, but I do lean toward nature and landscapes, scenes that are easy to get to given my limited travel. I capture what’s close to me, or where I happen to be on any given day. Sometimes I will deliberately take photos in a cemetery, if I want to collect some darker images for a set of photos I have in mind.
4. The subjects of your black and white photographs vary considerable, from nature to urban streets to rural buildings. For example, in “Awaken,” I see a wonderful contrast of the almost transparent, delicate leaves, and the strong, dark limb. What can you tell us about taking this photograph and why the scene attracted your attention? How did you frame the picture with your camera and decide on the field of view?
I’m so glad you asked me that, because it gives me an opportunity to explain that since what I see in my surroundings is blurry, I don’t often see well enough to “choose” my subject. I may see something that looks like a branch against the sky, like this one. I snap the picture, but have no idea of how it really looks until I transfer it to my large monitor. This is when I can see it better and say, “Wow, I didn’t know those leaves were transparent, that’s kind of interesting, I think I’ll keep this one.” I choose my photos AFTER the fact—the ones with more contrast, or a simple composition, or one that I can see more clearly–and delete the rest. Most photographers frame the picture beforehand. My framing comes later on the big screen, by choosing, cropping, etc.
I do like to experiment with different subjects and styles, when I can. As much as I like the country, I like the city, even if it’s a small one. There’s something about being close to people and activity going on. I love the quiet of the country, and the busy-ness of town.
5. Here’s a photograph of what looks like a back alley in a city. You’ve titled the piece “Canyon,” which is very fitting. I love the contrast of the open sky and the dark, narrow alley. Where was this photograph taken, and what were you thinking about when you shot the picture? Did you do any post-processing on it to highlight what you wanted to show? If so, what was going through your mind as you worked on the image?
This is a street between a flood wall and a building, and when you’re walking or riding down the street, you sense the height of the structures around you, with only some light above you. I wanted to emphasize the feel and look of a canyon, so I darkened the sky some in post-processing. There was another shot of it that I didn’t keep, because it didn’t seem narrow enough. I rarely take a picture based on how I feel. I don’t think, “I’m feeling happy today, I think I’ll take a picture of a flower, or a blue sky with soft clouds”. What I really do is take a lot of photos, and eliminate the ones I can’t distinguish well, or don’t interest me, or don’t think others would find pretty or interesting. The viewer is on my mind a lot too when I choose my photos, not just myself. I like others to enjoy them too, and like it when people tell me what they like or don’t like.
6. I love the curved lines and the play of light and shadow in “Contrast Love.” When you take a picture that has such details such as the sunlit curves in this one, what are you able to see before snapping the picture, and then what are your thoughts as you look at the picture on your large monitor? What was the biggest challenge you faced with producing this finalized image?
Pictures like this, with a lot of contrast, are the easiest for me to see and take, and there is very little processing to be done later. People see things in my photos that I don’t see, and that’s all right, I don’t mind it. Like the time I accidentally caught the edge of a hay bale in the corner of a landscape. I hadn’t seen the bale, but it was okay that it was in there, because it made the picture more interesting, at least to me. With this picture, I saw a curved white shape standing out from a dark background, took the picture, and when it was on my big screen, saw more of what the curved shapes really looked like, at least to me. Those with better vision than me say they see gray curves, but I don’t see them. I see the white ones.
7. The reflection of the moon and clouds on the box produce an exquisitely balanced image, with the stronger light from the moon and the soft reflection on the structure. It contrasts both light versus dark, as well as nature versus man. What can you tell us about this image? It appears that many of your pictures are taken at night. What attracts you to nighttime photography?
Well, I’ve always been aware of the dual nature we all have, but this isn’t what I seek in photography. I mainly go for contrast that is easy for my eyes to see and distinguish. I think part of the reason I make night images is because I never could see at night, except for the moon, and, many years ago, the North star, and it fascinates me that people can see stars and constellations spread across the sky. I think these high contrast images at night help me feel like I have a connection to night that others have. Reflections and rays of light catch my eye, and I snap a picture. I may not see it clearly until it’s on my huge monitor, but I know I’ve got something to check out. There is something exciting to me about a high contrast black and white photograph. Sometimes it just catches my breath.
8. This nature picture is a delicate balance that to me tells a story about the need for the sun’s energy for growth, and how taking care of our environment is essential to continued life on earth. With your limited eyesight, what could you see as you were setting up to shoot the image? What kind of camera do you use? Tell us about your photography background and experience and what photography means to you.
This was one of the few deliberate pictures I made. I found these flowers walking back from my mailbox one day, and wanted to take their picture, but wanted to take them from a different angle to show a different perspective, I just held my camera down low to the ground and pointed it skyward. I didn’t realize the sun was in the frame, and later I worried that it may have damaged the lens, but the picture came out the way I had anticipated. I didn’t notice them growing until they grew taller than the weeds around them, and leaned down to them for a closer look. Once they stood out, they caught my attention, and when my eyes got about 2 or 3 inches from them, I was pretty sure they were daisies.
The camera I use is a Sony RX100 set on auto, sometimes black and white, sometimes color. The reason this camera works for me is that I don’t really have to see my subject, read dials and settings, or change things around, unless I want to, and then someone helps me find it. But I mainly leave it on black and white, or landscape. The dial has distinct notches on it, and I’ve used it enough to know which setting it’s on when I turn the dial up and down.
My photography background is limited to family photos that were developed by dropping them off at a shopping center or mailing them off. My professional photography didn’t start until 2013, when I got a digital camera. I use my 4 years of high school art, and 3 years of college art, and my own taste and style.
It’s hard to describe how much photography means to me. I love writing and art, but photography is that thing I never thought I could do, ever, so I guess that’s why it’s so important to me. Not only does it help me create art, it literally helps me see my surroundings. The head of a daisy is 2 feet tall on my monitor.
And yes, I do love nature. It’s very alive, but fleeting. The cherries in a tree are here one day, and gone the next when the birds come to eat them. The tree that holds your son’s tire swing or tree house will be gone some day. So, if my photos bring attention to nature and the environment, and how we should treasure it and preserve it wherever we can, then it serves a higher purpose than just aesthetics.
9. The textures in this photograph are outstanding. I love the old, rusty wheels against the rough grass. What inspired you to take this picture and what do you want your viewers to know about it?
These wheels were lying in the grass next to a car lot a cousin and I stopped at one day. They reminded me of growing up on my grandparents’ farm, and I thought it might be something I would sketch if I could. I do like images that remind me of the rural scenery I grew up with, and is still around me to a certain extent. I don’t know how much texture is in this photo, but I tried to add some.
10. What new art are your working on, and what kinds of goals do you have for yourself?
I’m not working on any new art, just taking and selecting photos that I like and that I think others may like, hopefully getting some published, and shown in gallery exhibits, if those in a position would like to have them.
11. Is there anything you’d like to say about yourself?
Yes, that I am not completely blind, I am legally blind. This means I have some vision, and use it to the best of my ability. I don’t do photography in a mysterious way; I use what I have. Thank you for the opportunity to share my photography
Thank you very much, Tammy, for taking the time to answer our questions.