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A story in one frame

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ward Russell has been told that he uses a “cinematic eye” in his photography.

It makes sense, considering his 30-year career working in the movies, 20 of which as a cinematographer.

After retiring from show biz more than a decade ago, the Santa Fe-based artist transitioned into still photography.

“My wife said I needed to have a hobby to get out of the house,” he joked during a recent interview at his downtown gallery and studio. “And all I know how to do is take pictures. So here I am, 10 years later.”

He’s operated Ward Russell Gallery of Photography for that long, in a small second-floor space just off the Plaza on San Francisco Street. It displays bodies of work that he’s shot across the globe.

To celebrate his career and a decade in business, the award-winning photographer has created an anniversary exhibition. “Unscripted: Decade One” opens this Friday and will stay up until at least Jan. 4.

The show features about 70 photographs, the majority black-and-white, selected from the 65,000 Russell has taken over the past 10 years. His subjects vary from portraits, to animals, landscapes and beyond, but Russell describes himself as a street photographer.

“As one writer once said, I’m a ‘flaneur,’ which is a walk-about kind of person,” he explained. “I just take the camera and look to see what goes on. That’s why I travel. I travel to see different cultures, and find the things that are unique and different about them.”

Every year, during the winter and early spring, Russell and his wife Mary leave Santa Fe for several months to visit different parts of the world. Russell has photographed people and places in Russia, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, India, multiple countries in Africa, and states across the U.S. The “Unscripted” show’s images were selected to represent material from the past several years worth of these journeys.

Another handful of images were taken closer to home, including several from ceremonies at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. And other images represent collections that are not site-specific, like his recent “Anthrozoology” series that explores the relationship between humans and animals.

Owning a gallery that shows only his own photography gives Russell the freedom to get away for large blocks of time, he said, either for long travels or whenever he feels like going out to shoot. It’s part of the reason why he quickly transitioned it from a studio where he worked with customers into an exhibition space.

“I’d rather go walk the streets,” he said.

Open-ended images

At the show, Russell plans to screen a highlight reel of his film career, with details that he says locals who recognize him as a photographer may not know about his past.

Russell started his Hollywood career in the 1970s as a lighting technician, working on blockbusters like “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop 2.” As a cinematographer, he shot movies like 1990’s “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, and 1998’s “The X-Files,” the first film adaptation of the hit TV show.

“After 30 years of doing that, the challenge was to learn how to still tell stories in one frame,” Russell explained about moving into photography, “without the support of a camera crew, a lighting crew, a grip crew and a 40-foot truck full of lights. It was, I guess, basically learning to rely on available light, and pick my locations and subjects in the right place.”

Rather than documenting per se, he said his main goal is to present images that are left open-ended, leaving whatever the viewer gleans up to them.

Walking through the gallery, he pointed out a home he photographed in Kansas – he wouldn’t say what town – where there was a large replica of the Statue of Liberty in a front yard. In writing about that photo later, he recalled wondering, “I wonder what the people think she stands for? That they would put her up in front of their house in a small town in Kansas.”

Another, one of his large prints titled “Decisions,” shows a couple and a child in Ohkay Owingeh looking into the distance with contemplative looks on their faces. Russell said he found out later that the man was in the process of breaking up with the woman, leaving questions about what kinds of thoughts or decisions were running through their minds.

“You’ll find most of my pictures have some kind of a story,” Russell said. “I’m not running around looking for pretty pictures. I want more social commentary. I’m looking for something in the photograph that tells you more.”