The Experience Collector
STORY BY Seth Putnam
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Kevin Russ and Jay Gullion
"You learn things when you have difficult experiences."
These days, he photographs his way through America’s protected wilderness, alone except for the 91,000 people he carries in his pocket. But it wasn’t always this way. Kevin grew up in California, the son of entrepreneuring dad and a homemaking mom who homeschooled him and his three sisters through high school. Off he headed to Multnomah University, a bible college in Portland. It didn’t take long to find photography. Or maybe it was photography that found him. He picked up his first camera—a Kodak point-andshoot—one day in 2003 when he was a freshman in college, because he was bored. Before he knew it, he was swamped with portrait work. A stream of people flowed at high speed past his lens over the next few years like a jerky time lapse. There were so many that Kevin, who’s deeply introverted, realized he was numb. There was little challenge in that life, hardly any hardship, few vivid memories. He had to get away, and fast.
He’s a traveling man.
For the better part of the past couple of years, Kevin has been on an odyssey. He remembers the colorlessness of his old life, and he’s not keen to return. His story now is one of getting lost, getting hurt, getting stranded. Once, he sheltered with homeless mechanics who got his car up and running during a strange week without transportation. “In Portland, where my friends and house are, I don’t even have a room anymore,” he says. “It’s packed into a garage.” He’s been driving around America, through Havasu Canyon and Oneonta Gorge and Monument Valley and others, taking pictures of the land. There’s a wildness out here, and most of us don’t get to witness it often.
He’s a quiet man.
Silent, sleeveless, and bearded, with tangled hair that by now hits pretty close to his biceps, Kevin is the least pretentious character you’re likely to meet. He has an agreeable, easy-going laugh. When he does talk, it’s matter-of-factly, and though he’s fully invested in the conversation, you can see his eyes are always scanning the landscape for the beauty in nature that others may not be as quick to see. He prefers to listen and discover. “My first night in Slab City [an RV oasis in Niland, California] I met a couple of guys who had some regrets with their children and hadn’t seen them for a long time,” he says. “I don’t meet people every day but when I do it’s usually people like that.”
He’s a frugal man.
Four dollars a day doesn’t buy much food, but it keeps Kevin alive. His menu is simple: oatmeal for breakfast, a tuna sandwich for lunch, and ramen noodles for dinner. Water is free at gas stations, or the odd pump at a pet cemetery. That leaves the rest of his money for his biggest expense: the unleaded fuel he pumps into his dusty, white 1998 Toyota 4Runner, with its 18-gallon gas tank. It's an ascetic existence, but Kevin has learned from his travels that hardship is what allows him to grow, which is why he dilberately seeks out experiences that will stretch his idea of comfort and safety. "You learn things when you have difficult experiences," he says.
He’s an artist, man.
He sees in rectangles. And though some might view the 4-inch screen of Kevin’s iPhone 5 as a constraint, he has turned it into a world whose pixel limitations pale next to the multitude of doors they fling open. An iPhone is relatable because everyone has one, and it releases a mover like him from the moorings of a computer’s bulky editing software. He’ll go to great lengths to get the shot: “I will often run and literally chase light,” he says. “I have to capture it. I’ll also do hikes to tops of mountains, and the sun will be setting and I’ll want to shoot it. I know it’s going to be dark coming back, but it’s hard to leave the mountaintop. I know the pictures can be better if I just wait another half an hour, so I’ll often be hiking in the dark.”
He’s an unpredictable man.
He has the tendency to disappear, following his eyes on a treasure hunt of photographic gold. There was the time in Big Bend National Park, when the Collective Quarterly crew hiked up Lost Mine Trail to take in the view on top of the ridge. Kevin wasn’t quite satisfied, though, and before they knew it he was gone, having vanished into a thicket where the trail ended. It began to rain, hard. Thunderous whip cracks were getting closer and closer, and lightning seemed to strike in front of their faces. They didn’t know whether to spread out and look for him or trust that he could take care of himself in the downpour. As they began to make their way toward the trailhead, he suddenly appeared, dashing down the path, hair trailing behind him
He’s a curious man.
There was another time in the little pueblo in Mexico, when his feet took him on a walkabout toward the Rio Grande, where he had seen man bathing his horse behind a row ramshackle houses. In broken language, he made friends with a family who invited him inside and proudly showed him their living room. It was 5:50 p.m., 10 minutes before the border crossing closed, and he would have been stuck for the night. The Mexican agent on duty had stamped Kevin’s passport when he crossed a couple of hours earlier, and now he looked worried. The United States of America doesn’t wait around for tourists who dillydally. But then came Kevin, unhurried, and he made it back to the boat across the Rio Grande and into his country with a few minutes to spare.
He’s a powerful man.
He’d never see it quite that way, but it’s true. You see, the smartphone has become an object of intimacy—as much as your bedroom, bathroom, or Internet search history. For many, it’s the first thing you look at when you wake up, and the last thing you take in before you drift off. When people choose to follow you, they’re choosing to put you in front of their eyes during some of the most intimate moments of their lives: the times when they’re alone. And nearly 100,000 Instagrammers have chosen to do that with Kevin’s vivid, tiny photographs of the natural world. His work has connected his audience with vistas they don't often get to see, and his journey has opened their eyes to the idea that seeing the world can be a way of life. — Seth Putnam
Kevin makes his living in part thanks to Stocksy United, an ethically conscious stock photography website, founded by Bruce Livingstone. The British Columbia-based photo licensing co-op’s first commitment is to its artists. Livingstone and his team handpick Stocksy’s contributors and compensate them fairly, thus developing a vibrant community of talented photographers who offer a vibrant body of high-quality images. Scan to learn more about Stocksy and how to license Kevin’s work.
It would be easy to label Kevin’s work as a “dream job.” And it was, for a time. But it has also brought its own set of worries. If before he felt oppressed by the ceaseless stream of faces, he’s now discovered the inherent loneliness of running pell-mell into the wilderness. Now, he has a few questions about why he’s doing it. Slowly, he has discovered an inexplicable internal drive to collect memories—and to simply experience. On their last day together at Ranch 2810, Seth Putnam and Duncan Wolfe sat down with Kevin and tried to unpack that concept.
SETH PUTNAM: Part of the reason parks are attractive to you is that they offer an opportunity to get away and be by yourself. Is it lonely? Is it closer to nature? Is it spiritual?
KEVIN RUSS: It’s definitely lonely at times. But that goes away whenever I am shooting something that is really inspiring to me. I’m just so focused on capturing what I’m seeing. Sometimes there’s some fear if I’m close to some large wildlife. But it’s hard for me to stay away instead of trying to get close. I’m there, and it’s that moment, and I may never come across it again.
Duncan Wolfe: What do you consider a successful day as a photographer?
KR: I feel like I’m becoming less of a photographer and more of a traveler. I’m trying to do things I haven’t done before and capture the moment I felt when I was there in person. That’s really all I’m trying to do: be able to feel the same things by looking at the photo.
DW: Is it the encouragement from followers that drives you to keep doing this?
KR: It’s not just likes and comments, it’s people going out of their way to come on a hike with me or to offer me a place to stay. I had a guy give me some clothes and buy me food, and he didn’t even know me besides my photos. A lot of people that come up to me are homeless. I was in New Mexico using some McDonald’s WiFi, and there were these homeless Indian men in the booth next to me. One of them came over to ask for money, and then his friend saw I had a computer so he asked me to look up his son on the Internet. He was a rodeo guy, and his picture was there, and his dad got super excited and called his friends over to show off his son. And then another guy wanted me to look up his kids on Facebook. It was weird, because it seemed like it had been a while since they had seen their kids. Seeing them so proud of their children and showing them to others—it just felt good to be able to be in that place and have a computer available so that they could have that time together.
DW: It seems like your path has unraveled in an interesting way that you probably didn’t predict in the beginning. Do you think you’ll keep going?
KR: Sometimes I do question myself. Why am I doing this? I could do something else. But I’m sleeping in my car and I’m not seeing my family that much or my friends—people who really care about me. And that’s when it’s hard because I chose this for myself and I just keep doing it. The opportunities that have come up have made me feel like I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing and because of that—and because I enjoy it—I think I’ll to keep going. But it’s easy for me to get into patterns or ruts when I’m making art and doing what I know works and is comfortable. That can get old to me. That’s part of the reason why I stopped shooting portraits of people. I couldn’t pull myself out of that and shoot different, so I just changed everything.
SP: It seems like you’re chasing happiness by choosing to be vulnerable up to hardship.
KR: You learn things when you have difficult experiences. And maybe that’s why I went to Mexico, where I can’t speak the language. The way I was raised, we never had any money is - sues or anything tragic happen around the house. Not that I’m seeking out tragedy, but if you don’t have difficult experiences, how do you grow as a person? If you know what you’re doing, you’re not really making art; you’re just going through the motions. I’m just realizing this now: When I am in situations that I’m comfortable with, I’m not inspired.
SP: What was it about Marfa that was inspiring to you?
KR: Marfa seemed to be an offbeat artists’ community in the middle of nowhere. It’s cool because I don’t really know any other place like it. I remember one photo I took, the one with the truck and the dog: It was such a one-off, quick moment. I turned around, and he was driving by, and I only got one shot. But it was during that time we pulled off the road and had a beer and were hanging out, watching the sun go down. It meant something to me, and I wanted to remember what it was that I felt there. Marfa came along right after my longest solo trip, which was four months. Spending a week with you guys and being in a community every day—I was kind of craving that, and I was only just realizing that I was. Talking with John Mooty on his last night, we were saying goodbye, and I got emotional because I think for both of us this trip was a moving experience.
DW: Do you think there’s a compulsion to explore every last bit of America?
KR: It’s kind of just an obsession to see everywhere. That feeling that you have when you’re climbing a mountain or going around a bend in a canyon: You just have to see what’s on the other side. Even if it’s not good, you don’t know that, but you’re compelled to see what’s around there…what’s next.
DW: So what happens when you go all over the world, and you’re 85. Is there a ‘done’? Is there a finish line, or is it not about that?
KR: No, there isn’t a finish line because the landscape is always changing. The light is always going to be different, and encounters with wild life are always going to be different. There’s always going to be something to see. There is no end. There’s an end to a checklist of countries or cities, but there’s no end to taking photos or exploring or chasing light. It’s going to be there to chase all the time.photos or exploring. Or chasing light. It’s going to be there to chase all the time.