Though to the broader world, Aaron Ruell is famous for his role as Kip in Napoleon Dynamite, in the world of photography, he has been established for quite some time. You are probably aware of his work and don’t even know it, as he is the man behind those outrageous Old Spice ads with retired NFL star Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Raven, as well as ads for T-Mobile to Nintendo and Coke to Burger King.
Beyond his commercial stuff, however, his personal stuff is his best stuff, and has been exhibited around the world. Aaron has gained acclaim for the neat candy colored vignettes that have become the staples of his work. His photos have a sense of hyper-organization and proprietary, often framing the unassuming shrug of small town America. He works off of sets that he constructs, and his staged scenes has a sense of detail and perfection that is something to see.
His work is cool, it’s awesome, it’s original, and so we had asked him to do an interview with us.
How did you grow to love the medium of photography and start doing it professionally?
I started taking photos when I was a teenager. There was a photography class at my high school and I had a really good photo teacher who helped me boost my confidence with shooting. I didn’t have any particular style at that time it was a lot of simple compositions but more rural settings (I grew up outside of town in the countryside).I started to get paid for my photography after I had put together a book of my work. I travelled to Europe for a few weeks and shot some things there that helped round out my body of images. And got a rep around that time.
Your award-winning advertising work is some of the most recognizable stuff out there, and also some of the funniest. Where does this come from and is finding the humor in something part of the process for you?
I usually find the “funny” by watching the model or performer and I let their body language inform how I manipulate it into something comedic or interesting. Sometimes I don’t do anything, it’s just about finding the right face or person. I usually know that something is funny when I’m the only one laughing on set. That doesn’t happen a lot but when it does, I’m happy.
There is a traceable theme of small town America/”suburbia” that seems to pop up in your work. Where does this come from?
It must come from growing up in the country. I worked on a horse ranch as a kid and my relatives are all blue collar people. That must inform what I do but I’m not sure I can articulate how it informs what I do.
A lot of your photography happens on sets that you build. How did you start working with sets, and what is it about this that you enjoy so much?
Building sets allows me to create a little world that fits (as I see it) the face of the person who is present in the image. It just allows me to create something that doesn’t exist somewhere else.
As beautiful as your sets are, the people in your photos are also very interesting, there is an earnestness there. Do you have any pointers for how to direct people on set?
I’m a big fan of reminding talent to relax. It’s very easy to be self aware. Especially on a set with lights and crew. So I gently guide them to a place that looks calm and unforced to my eye.
One of your claims to fame is that you actually played the character Kip in the movie Napoleon Dynamite, but what many fans of the movie don’t know is that you also did all of the promotional photography and even designed the title sequence. Can you speak a little on how this project came about?
I went to film school with the director and he asked me to play that role. I’m not an actor but he felt I could pull it off and so I did. But yeah, I knew we would eventually need images in order to promote the film and so I would shoot during or after days that we were filming.
The director later asked me to put together a title sequence for the film. That was a lot of fun to do but also a lot of pressure because I only had two days to plan it out before presenting it to the head guys at Fox.
You published a photography book back in 2008 titled “Some Photos”, is there another book on the way?
Eventually. I haven’t been shooting much new work lately. I’m just not very inspired to shoot stills at the moment. And I’m not one who can force creativity to happen. So if I don’t feel it, I don’t feel it. So unfortunately that’s where I’m at right now. But it will pass. It always does.
What is it like seeing your work exhibited in galleries around the world?
Having a gallery opening (and having your work published in books) is the most special moment for me as a photographer. To see a body of your work hanging on walls of a gallery is a very rewarding feeling.
If you could have one of your projects saved in the national archives to be remembered by, what project would you choose?
It would probably be my “empty spaces/still life” work. It’s less contrived than my portrait work but is still connected to it. There is a through line there. Both bodies of work are “quiet” but I sometimes like spaces that are void of the human element.
What is your favorite part about being a photographer?
I enjoy how fulfilling photographs can make me feel. That moment when you shoot a great image is such a unique feeling that can’t be replicated in any other way. Well, at least I haven’t been able to find it.