Frank Lee Ruggles: Photography Was His Life LoveJul 13, 2021
Well, folks, last week was a rough one on your Photo Mentor, Lee Love, as he learned of the sudden death of friend and fellow photographer, Frank Lee Ruggles.
As usual, working with Lee means lessons and research for me. But, learning about Frank was an unexpected and joyful discovery.
Frank Lee Ruggles, Conservationist, Artist, Photographer, Educator
I promise you, Frank’s story will inspire and enlighten you. It was a true pleasure to learn more about Lee’s talented and big-hearted pal.
(I’m waiting for my copy of Frank’s Chasing Light to arrive as I type!)
You see, the more research to learn about Frank Lee Ruggles I did, the more I found myself blubbering with sadness at the loss of a true national treasure.
At the same time, my heart is filled with love and respect, and admiration for a man I only learned of at the time of his exit from his beloved playground here on earth.
How can the mix of heartbreak and love feel so inspiring and majestic? It’s just this, Frank Lee Ruggles was bigger than life in life, but his genuine love of living, exploring, learning, music, and photography lives on and, I suspect, always will.
I do know his essence, his mission, and his artistry touched me profoundly.
It’s nearly unimaginable how one person impacts so many and creates such an epic body of work in such a short time. But Frank certainly did.
Perhaps that’s why Frank seems to have squeezed so many lifetimes into his ultra-short time here. Just a look at Frank’s postings on his Facebook Page make you feel, understand, and love the spirit with which Frank experienced and loved every moment, every creature, every mishap, and miracle—all with a zealous and infectious passion he wasn’t afraid to share.
I love Frank Lee Ruggles. How can you not?
Frank Never Met a Person Who Wasn’t His Friend
Everyone who ever met Frank loved him; called him kind, generous, friendly, and fun! No wonder everyone who met him felt like his friend! Throughout his explorations and unending search for the perfect shot, and in an effort to share the beauty and timelessness of our spectacular National Parks, Frank found friends. All over the country. Each day of his life.
Frank had more “best friends” than the population of some towns. But, he wanted to make friends and to share his love of photography, conservation, and preservation and with urgency for learning and teaching— like he was sprinkling seeds of enlightenment as he spent his lifetime “chasing light.”
Frank not only chased but also captured the light, and his work proves he was an expert. He was willing to do whatever it takes to capture the shot. Lee teased him about being the “hardest working photographer in the business,” and it was true. But, to Frank, it wasn’t work at all.
Frank’s love of photography and passion for his work shone through his words, his actions, his photos, his songs and emanate from his heart through his eyes and face. He simply couldn’t keep his enthusiasm in, and I love that so much about him.
I believe Frank woke up happy every day and his amazing zest for life is a lesson for all of us and something he portrayed in his photography. He wants you to feel, see, embrace, and take all of it in, feeling and experiencing our country’s natural beauty. He modeled this attitude and invited us along on his heartfelt ride. I dare you to watch Lee’s interview with Frank and not feel the same.
“If you can’t see the light, be the light.” ~Frank Lee Ruggles
I’m pretty sure it won’t take long for Frank’s spirit of service and commitment to his life’s work to win you over and suck you in, too.
Frank’s final project, the 79 Year Project, represents a longtime dream coming to fruition and something he devoted years to make happen. This chance to officially emulate his hero, Ansel Adams’ work, in essence recreating his famous photo collection taken in 1941-42 in Frank’s beloved National Parks, became a complex operation.
It involves access to stuff like Ansel’s handwritten notes from the National Archives, talking to his surviving family members, and even recruiting veteran NASA astronaut Leland Melvin to help handle the scary trigonometry part of tracking down authentic shoot positions! Did I mention Frank built a replica to the precise specs of Ansel’s darkroom for this project???
Ironically, Frank admits to Lee that on first hearing Ansel Adams’ name, he asked Miss Lisa, his wife, and the person who introduced him to a camera, who SHE was? But, after discovering Ansel, Frank aspired to shoot photography for our National Parks, too.
photo by Frank Lee Ruggles
As an Eminent Photographer for five years for the National Parks Service (NPS) from 2007 - 2011, Frank reached the same position as his hero, shooting photos of our natural wonders.
For Frank, shooting national wonders turned into wanders, traveling all 50 states, plus hiking over 15,000 miles with forty-two pounds of camera gear on his back. He enjoyed the awe and inspiration every minute. He wasn’t afraid no matter what it took to get the image he wanted—Frank was persistent—even if it took days or weeks to capture his vision.
Frank posted images of himself in the snow, the rain, sleeping on the ground in a tiny tent, standing in water, or at the edge of a cliff.
When You SEE Like an Artist, You Convey Feelings
Chasing Light: An Exploration of American Landscape is a hardcover coffee table book written by and including photographs from his personal collection spanning 11 years of Frank’s adventures.
In his interview with Lee, he says, “I never want to take a picture of what some place looks like, but what it feels like.” The photos in this book and the artistry of Frank as a professional landscape photographer are evidence of his ability to do just that, allowing you to dissolve into these places, transporting you. Frank’s work makes you feel good.
Further, like Lee’s last interview with guest photographer, James Torrenzano, Frank reminds us two essential parts are needed to create a photo, the subject, and the photographer.
“I want to celebrate photography as an art form.” ~Frank Lee Ruggles
Frank embodies Lee’s teaching and philosophies about photography and art. And sure enough, Frank talks about the day he started to SEE like an artist in the interview. Hey, this MUST be a thing and not just Lee, after all!
Education is a Cornerstone
Again, Frank’s mastery of the landscape genre reveals his artistry, love, and emotional attachment to our country’s natural gifts. Even the sale of his book illustrates his commitment to the future of the parks and his generosity in promoting them, with a portion of sales going to the National Parks Trust, Kids to Parks Program.
In the interview, Frank tells Lee, “I think education is the cornerstone of our civilization,” and he explains how he imagines “creating virtual field trips for students all over America” through his work.
Frank’s love of photography and the outdoors, his care for our National Parks, and for sharing and preserving our country’s resources, especially for others to experience and learn about through his work, made him a natural for the multiple projects he shot for our Federal Parks, Monuments, Seashores and even of secret treasures.
Of a total of 419 parks, monuments, and seashores listed, Frank covered 338 of them as of this April of 2020 interview with Lee. He also had big dreams beyond the shooting of the 79 Year Project to stretch it further than a photo series but into a learning tool for students, a visual measurement for environmentalists, and as a way to share the longstanding beauty of these rich and historical national landmarks.
His work is, in essence, historical visual documentation of time and places, nationwide, explored and captured for all time by Frank Lee Ruggles.
I think we all feel the same in wishing Frank was still here chasing light…
NOTE: John Mahoney, host of The Streaming Alchemy Show, will interview Lee Love LIVE on July 16th, at 2p EDT, check it out.