“there’s just a real lightness to it” — ruth ellen brown, photographerBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Ruth Ellen Brown, a fashion photographer and art director living in Slaithwaite, is a descendent of the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. This is only one of several fantastic truths that hang around her like grey smoke, so that we get the impression we’re drinking coffee with a dark fairytale.
Look closely, and you can see Shelley’s features repeated in Ruth’s face, but also in her demeanor; in the way she explains abstract concepts like atmosphere and beauty with cautious ease. Look closely, and you’ll find yourself submerged in a marvellous place that’s as real as the cold grilled cheese you forgot to eat because you were drowned in listening. Listening to Ruth, who is quiet but candid, so that the hard, fantastic truths she tells are delicate, like moth-eaten silk gloves.
Ruth, who speaks softly; Ruth the photographer. Ruth, who was once a violinist and once an oil painter, like her grandfather, which is where she begins her story; a story set in a large Georgian house in Derbyshire. A story she begins with the words, “Concerning atmosphere”.
“Concerning atmosphere,” she says, “I was born into a large Georgian house in the middle of the antique capital of the UK. And this Georgian house was mainly derelict.”
The Georgian house was mainly derelict because her father — “a perfectionist” — was fixing it up, room-by-room, so that as a child, Ruth skipped from one splendorous room to another, twirling through worlds divided by doorways, where luxury and art and antiques shared walls with dust, dead butterflies and dreamy decay.
“It was a brilliant house to grow up in,” she says. “I think that my aesthetic has grown out of this beautifully proportioned, Georgian architecture where natural light falls on objects, making shadows.”
Ruth followed the natural light and made shadows with her paintbrush, on canvases with oil paints. She followed the silent sound of sunlit dust under the curves of arched windows with the bow of her violin. She invited friends over, and turned off the lights and closed the curtains so they could follow ghosts room to room, up stairwells and into old closets. Sometimes the Georgian house was spooky; sometimes the collected whispers of past residents saturated wallpapered rooms with despair; but it was mostly magical, for there was natural light, and shadows, and it was home.
Ruth lived in the Georgian house with her brother, her mother and father. Their neighbour was Clive Booth, a fashion and portrait photographer and filmmaker. Ruth’s father is a master wood craftsman; “He’d never admit to it,” she says.
Sometimes her father carved teaspoons out of wood; thin and delicate enough for light to shine through. Should the spoon break during his carving, he’d start again, making spoon after spoon, trying to catch the light. Ruth watched him carve, and then followed her own light into oil paintings, with her violin bow, and through the Georgian house on adventures.
When Ruth left the Georgian house it was to go to art school in Falmouth, Cornwall, to study fine art. Falmouth, where there was sun, and streets lined with palm trees, and the air smelled like salt and a joyful kind adventure. Falmouth, where dark days were forgotten with the advent of a bright morning; where boats arrived to white beaches on blueberry water, carrying warm stories of warmer elsewheres. In the summer, tourists ate ice cream and congregated around pints of lager and sunrays, and we like to imagine that sometimes, when she wasn’t studying or painting or performing or dreaming, Ruth did too.
Ruth studied painting in Falmouth for three years. During this time she picked up a camera. She liked taking photographs. Painting, she felt, was “so dirty and smelly.” The clean precision, the naturalness of light and shadows, felt different from behind a lens. Fragile and exact.
When she graduated, she decided to stay in Falmouth and study a master’s in photography and installation. A friend who ran a student magazine asked Ruth along to help out with a fashion shoot, along with three other photographers.
“I didn’t really have anything to do with fashion before,” says Ruth. “I think I’m naturally attracted to it because it’s highly creative, and you’re rewarded for your creativity. I’ve always had an interest in style, and the weight and texture of fabrics.”
Ruth went to the shoot. She loved the way the camera felt in her hands, and the clean, controlled creativity that washed over her like soft yarn.
“There’s just a real lightness to it. I think I got such a buzz from the actual shoot and the fast pace of it all,” she says.
“I thought, this is who I am, this is what I want to do. From that moment on I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do with my life: be a fashion photographer.”
After finishing her master’s, Ruth moved to Milnsbridge in Huddersfield with her partner, a journalist named Karl. It was 2008, and Ruth and Karl lived in a gloomy block of flats with hostile neighbours. As Ruth wandered down the high street past forlorn, boarded up shops that looked like mausoleums for forgotten dreams, she thought of the palm trees, boats and white sandy beaches she’d left behind. She thought of pristine, clean photographs and natural light through arched windows. She thought of the tourists, crowded around pints of lager and sunrays. She thought of her future, and came up with nothing.
“Everything was closed down, there seemed to be no opportunities,” she says. “I thought, what am I going to do?”
For a while, Ruth did what she’d done all her life; she painted. But people in Huddersfield didn’t buy her paintings. She began to sink into poverty and despair. The romance in her world was crumbling like Ozymandias in the lone and level sands.
“I was pretty much at rock bottom,” she says.
Ruth wasn’t yet thirty; she decided to do a course with the Prince’s Trust. After she’d finished, they suggested she apply for a grant to start her own business. She tells us how surprised she was when the funding actually came through. “It was the start of changing my life around,” she says.
Ruth used the money to buy her first camera and a cheap pair of studio lights. She loved the weight of the camera in her hands; it felt like possibility. She began working part-time with an e-commerce studio; she spent her free time photographing hair artists, and began to get offered small freelance jobs. She was concerned with detail, and making the photographs the best they could be. Her work was noticed by a photography studio in Huddersfield who offered her a full-time job.
“I think it was working in the photo studio when I began to feel like a professional photographer,” she says. “I was getting paid a better wage, being given more responsibility and working with other photographers that were a bit more senior to me. I was learning a lot.”
Ruth’s work placement at the studio ended a year later; she decided she had learned enough to go freelance.
“That gave me the kick I needed to go self-employed. From that point on, it was do or die,” she says.
Not long after that, Ruth heard about a masterclass course with award-winning British photographer Nick Knight. Ruth looked through her portfolio and was disheartened; it was mostly product shots. It didn’t show off the extent of her creativity, and it was that kind of creativity she’d need to get on the course.
She put in an application.
“They came back and said, ‘You don’t have a lot of fashion work in your portfolio. Can you put together a shoot within the next two weeks?’ And I thought, okay, that’s a tall order, but I’m going to pull out all the stops,” says Ruth.
Ruth booked in seven models and a hair artist, and borrowed clothes from the Vintage Emporium in Slaithwaite. Because of the shoot, she was accepted onto the course.
“It was very exciting; I had the time of my life,” says Ruth. “I felt like I was feeling that creativity I felt when I was a child, when everything is colourful.”
As part of the course, Ruth was briefed to produce a film. She’d not worked with moving images before, and didn’t know where to start. One afternoon, she took a wander through the back rooms of a studio, the derelict parts of an old mill building in Yorkshire. She noticed the sunbeams coming through the window; the way the light from the arched windows hit the dust and made shadows out of corners; she was reminded of the Georgian house. She found an old model boat and a bottle and she was reminded of Cornwall.
“It ended up being a story about me leaving Cornwall, and missing Cornwall, and how these memories you have become like ghosts,” she says.
She called the film Spirits. It was picked out by Nick Knight to go on his website, SHOWstudio’s, archive.
Ruth was elated.
“He sent me an email telling me it was beautiful, which was wonderful,” she says. “Really a dream come true for me.”
There are two big events concerning atmosphere in the story of Ruth Ellen Brown, fashion photographer and art director living in Slaithwaite.
The first happened on a Monday in August in 2014, at the Pompadour Ballroom at London’s Hotel Cafe Royal. On this evening, two hundred guests are invited to the Future of Fashion VIP charity party, in support of the Prince’s Trust enterprise scheme. It is also the launch party for a new book by Simon Collins, the Dean of Fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York. The room is ornate and lavish, with gold-plating, mural ceilings and a large stone balcony. It feels overdone and majestic, like Versailles or a wedding cake. Ruth, wearing a sleeveless black dress and low black heels, is invited on stage by TV presenter June Sarpong. She is a little tipsy from the champagne, and trying not to wobble. With cautious ease she tells her story and the crowd float in a sea of lulled listening as she tells her fantastic truths.
“I hate public speaking,” Ruth says. “But it was great, and I would do it again at the drop of a hat if I got asked to.”
The second event concerning atmosphere happened at Buckingham Palace, two years later. It is the fortieth anniversary of the Prince’s Trust and the Prince of Wales is hosting a garden party. Ruth received an invitation in the mail, and so on a Tuesday in May, she took a train with Karl from Huddersfield to London. They stayed at The Rubens at the Palace, a hotel opposite Buckingham Palace where they were greeted by British flags and a doorman in a top hat.
At 3pm, Ruth and Karl stand outside the gates of the palace. From the outside, the walls are black and lined with barbed wire like a prison. They enter, to find the interior walls are red and the grass is so green and even when the clouds roll over the sun like lazy ghosts everything feels saturated and everyone beams. Inside, there are trees and tents and a pond, with birds and ducks and celebrities, who drink champagne and laugh with the unreality of moving statues. “It was like stepping into Narnia,” she says.
Karl proposed to Ruth on the lawn, that day. “It was one of the most amazing days of my life,” she says.
When Ruth tells us this story, we are immersed in its telling; and then she pours her tea, and we remember that we are in Coffeevolution in Huddersfield. And going cold is the best grilled cheese sandwich we’ll ever eat.
“Huddersfield is a great place to come back down to earth and actually focus and achieve something,” she says. “There are a lot of creative connections around here, and I’ve had a lot of support from people. It takes me a while to feel like somewhere is my home, but I feel like Huddersfield is my home now.”
Huddersfield, where Ruth works out of Co Up, a creative co-working space; where she has photographed products and models for British Vogue, Vogue Italy, Drapers, Cosmopolitan, Home & Gardens. Following light and shadows.
“I think if you know studio photography you know lighting inside-out, pretty much,” says Ruth. “I mainly call myself a studio photographer because that’s where I excel.”
Listen closely to Ruth, who speaks softly, and tells stories that are layered on heavy like oil paint. Ruth, who once busked with her violin outside on Huddersfield streets, cold puddles of despair welling up to her ankles. Ruth, the photographer; the descendent of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ruth, who chased ghosts through a Georgian house in Derbyshire, a story she begins with the words, “Concerning atmosphere”.
Originally published in The City Talking: Huddersfield — issue 01