By David Rogers. June 1, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Leave it to a former engineer to turn digital photography into the highest form of art. Whether catching a deer’s leap over a barb wire fence along a tree-lined rural road in the Great Smoky Mountains or finding just the right spot — with just the right lens at just the right time — to shoot Grandfather Mountain’s mile-high bridge against a larger than life full moon, Blowing Rock’s Jim Ruff epitomizes precision intertwined with creativity in practicing what is now his third career.
Blowing Rock News caught up with Ruff on Saturday at Edgewood Cottage, where a sampling of his photography work has been on display this week as part of the Artists in Residence series produced and hosted by Blowing Rock Historical Society. Each week during the summer, a different artist’s work will be on display and the artists will be present to answer questions and talk about their respective craft, the mediums ranging from watercolor or oils to sculpture, ink, wood, and more. Ruff’s brilliant work, including an abundance of time-lapse photography, is just the beginning of what looks to be a great Artists in Residence season in Blowing Rock this year.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): Jim, when did you first get interested in photography?
Jim Ruff (JR): I served in the military in Korea. There were periods of time when we didn’t have much to do and the Army made available to us a lot of stuff at pretty reasonable prices. So I bought a camera and took up photography as a hobby, shooting around the Korean countryside and taking pictures of the people. At that time, it wasn’t so much of a passion as it was a hobby. When I got back stateside I was an engineer for John Deere & Co., working on tractors and such, then I was on the engineering faculty at North Carolina State University for several years. I was always interested in photography but didn’t really take it up seriously until around 2008. That’s when I retired and had more time on my hands.
BRN: So you have seen a lot of changes in the technology of photography, too.
JR: Oh yes. Back when I first started, a roll of film was relatively expensive and you could only get something like 20 or 30 images to a roll. Unless you had a big bankroll behind you, you had to be selective. Digital photography changed all of that. Today, when I go out on a shoot I might capture 1,000 or more images.
BRN: Scanning around the work you have on display this week at Edgewood Cottage, you appear to have a special affinity for wildlife, nature, and landscapes. Why that genre of photography instead of, say, sports, portraits, or people going about their daily lives?
JR: I love being outdoors, in nature. Sometimes you will find me shooting an early morning sunrise from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Maybe I will hike a trail, lugging my equipment with me, up Grandfather Mountain to a special spot. I love being outdoors.
BRN: Are most of your subjects around the High Country?
JR: About 80% of my photography work, I’d say, is done in the High Country. We are blessed to live in an incredibly beautiful corner of the world with lots of changes in the weather. You might capture an image one day, but because of changes in the environment — the weather or the time of day, with different lighting — a shot taken from the very same place and setting is probably a very different image the next day.
JR: Every place I go to shoot is unique and special in its own way. Nearby, I have some favorite places in the Great Smoky Mountains. Out toward the Outer Banks, roughly east of Washington, North Carolina and north of Swanquarter, Lake Mattmuskeet is one of the stopover spots for thousands, maybe millions of birds migrating north and south in the spring and autumn. There is nothing like seeing a hundred thousand geese take off all at once.
A couple of years ago I was able to experience a “super bloom” in central California, toward the Pacific coast in what is called the Temblor Range on the west side of the Central Valley. Whenever there is generous precipitation in the winter and early spring, the burst of color brought by the wildflowers in bloom is nothing short of stunning. I traveled up and down the state, from north of San Francisco to the Big Sur area, Cambria, and the Temblor Range west of Bakersfield and got some amazing shots. Then I went over to the desert, to Red Rock and the Antelope Valley. It was a wonderful excursion for a nature photographer.
JR (laughing): I went to Norway to shoot the Northern Lights, expecting it to be much colder. But I learned that a good part of it is more of a maritime climate. At the time I was there, it was colder in Blowing Rock! Of course, in some of the more northern sections of the country, the weather gets more extreme.
I loved shooting in Patagonia, in the more southern end of the Andes of South America, in Chile and Argentina. While there is some amazing scenery, the winds are fierce and make for challenging conditions to shoot. For any photographer wanting to go there, I recommend a REALLY sturdy tripod!
While in South America, I also went to the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. It is reputed to be the world’s driest desert but before I got there torrential rains washed out a bunch of the roads and bridges!
Iceland was beautiful, too. There is a highway called the “ring road” that circles the whole island. I was not able to do it because I was there in the spring, but in the summer it would be a great 7-day or so trip to take. Because Iceland is so far north, in the summer you have 24 hours of daylight, but in the winter much of that road is impassable. So in the early spring and late autumn, weather on the road is also an issue for travel.
JR: There are so many very talented artists in this area and this series is a great way to showcase those talents. And this cottage is the perfect place because so much art history has been made here since it used to be Elliott Daingerfield’s home and studio. Being next door to Blowing Rock Art & History Museum really complements the setting, too. This is now the ninth or tenth year of the series and the Historical Society has expanded the calendar as well as the region from which the artists come.
BRN: Before we close, tell me about a couple of these images and let’s start with the Grandfather Mountain bridge with the full moon behind it. You walk in the room and it is like a magnet for your eyes. It is just remarkable.
JR: The timing for that shot obviously had to be just right and of course I was lucky it was a clear night. I found the perfect spot down off Highway 105, near Linville, shooting back up the mountain.
BRN: How about this one? You have several amazing shots of predatory birds carrying fish that they have caught, probably taking them back to their nests, maybe to feed some young uns, but this one is remarkable. Your hawk or eagle is about ready to pluck a fish out of the water with a pretty determined look in his eye. And how long did you have to wait to get that shot?
JR: Yes, you can see, as the bird sees, the fish just breaking the water there in the bottom left corner. What I think is special is the fierceness, the intensity, and the concentration reflected in the predator’s eye. I basically spent the morning shooting from the banks of the James River, up near Richmond, Virginia.
JR: Good eye! Yes, that is Charlotte, taken from the Blue Ridge Parkway very early in the morning, just before sunrise. In the bottom left corner, that is steam from a power generator down at Lake Norman. As a sports photographer and someone who covered the 2016 Super Bowl in San Francisco, you may especially appreciate this image because I shot it on the day that the Carolina Panthers played the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. I call this my Super Bowl image because from the rising sun you have the orange of the Denver Broncos up there in the sky behind the Charlotte skyline and the blues and blacks of the Panthers in the mountains and Piedmont landscape below.
Listening to his descriptions from an artistic eye, the engineer in Jim Ruff is clearly evident. Every shot is art with a purpose.
Ruff will be exhibiting through Sunday, June 2nd at Edgewood Cottage.
Next artists in the series, June 3-9: Pamela B. Smith — oils, cold wax oils, mixed; and Susan Jespersen — oils and acrylics