Director/Photographer Aaron Ruell, repped out of Biscuit, is known for his quirky characters and keen art direction, evident in his recent print work for LG as well as his spots for NBCNewYork.com, Burger King and others. Paper Magazine recently tapped him to shoot his first fashion assignment ever, for its March/April spring issue. Although shooting waify models and posh duds isn't really his cup of tea, Ruell agreed to do the project as long as he could shoot at San Luis Obispo, California's fabled resort hotel the Madonna Inn—his childhood summer mecca and home of spectacularly preserved kitsch. Below, check out a slideshow of his photos from the spread and read about his thoughts on shooting still vs. moving images, and why he's so fascinated with the old California hotel.
So Aaron, this is your first fashion spread? Why did you decide to do this—and why haven't you shot one until now?
Yes, this is the first fashion spread that I've shot. It happened because Paper Magazine called me up and posed the same question: "Why haven't you shot fashion? And what would it take to get you to shoot a spread for us?" So I thought about it and mentioned that if they could get me access to the Madonna Inn, not only would it be a dream of mine come true, but would make for a great spread.
And what really drew me to the idea of shooting this spread was that Paper wanted me to do what I do. They were very clear about not wanting me shoot, "what I thought a fashion spread should look like." But rather, it should be an image I would want to shoot and call my own. The only stipulation was that the models wear high-end designer clothes.
When you're shooting photos, is there one thing that you always set out to achieve? How does it differ, and how is it similar to what you do in your directing?
The mindset that I have on every project I take on is, "How do I make this interesting enough for me to want to stop and look at it?" So in that regard what I do behind the camera, whether it's still or motion picture, is the same. But what's different between the two is creating tone. With the work that I do as a director, I've got dialogue, camera movement, and character blocking to help create a tone to the piece. In photography those elements are somewhat void so that tone becomes a bit more subtle, but still equally important. And I feel as if I've been fairly successful with maintaining a cohesive tone between the work I make as a photographer and as a director.
So tell us your about your fascination with the Madonna Inn. Why did you decide to shoot the spread there?
My introduction to the Madonna Inn came as a young boy when we would take summer vacations to a nearby town. My Dad would take us into their gift shop bathroom which was a huge waterfall that functioned as the men's urinal. So as a kid this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. The idea of someone not only allowing, but asking us to pee into a running waterfall was magical. Part of the game though was that you needed a "look out" person to keep guard at the door because women would always walk in to take pictures of the waterfall.
What's impressive about the Madonna Inn is that unlike other "themed" hotels, the Madonna is meticulously kept up. The carpets always feel/look brand new, as does the wallpaper, etc. And the entire place was put together by Mr. and Mrs. Madonna. So it feels like there was a lot of love that was put into the place, rather than it being a Disneyland experience.
I have this dream of shooting a different model for each room for a book one day. So this was the beginning to that project.
You also have a birthday ritual there too, right?
The birthday series project was one I started a few years back where I would go to the Madonna, sneak in my photo equipment and take a self portrait each year. It didn't last all that long, though, due to my schedule taking me out of town during birthdays.
How, if at all did this job differ from your previous photography projects? What were your biggest challenges?
This was the first job for which I've cast a "real" fashion model, and I have to admit, that was fun. I had to reign in her wanting to over-pose, but that's what she typically gets paid to do, so that wasn't her fault.
The trickiest thing about this project was having to narrow down what rooms to shoot in. We had full access of the hotel, so I was like a kid in a candy shop. The other challenge was getting the pieces of clothing that we wanted from designers. My stylist spent a good month in advance trying to wrangle all the clothes together.
Any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?
Nothing too good, although, Mrs. Phyllis Madonna ran into my stylist in the hotel restaurant and told her that the dress she was wearing was one of the most fabulous she had seen. That means something coming from Mrs. Madonna herself!