Don’t Clean Up Your Background

Photo by Don Rutledge

Every time I hear someone teaching photography and says you need to “Clean Up Your Background” I know they haven’t met Don Rutledge.

photo by Don Rutledge

There are so few photographers that know how to make the background work.

Today I think many photographers use the smooth BOKEH as an excuse for not knowing how to make sense of a location and use the background to help give context to a story.

Philippines – by Don Rutledge

Don spent a lot of time studying situations he was in and was not looking for ways to take things out of photos–he was trying to see how to include more.

Puerto Rico – Don Rutledge
by Don Rutledge

Some people do talk about layering for composition, but often are talking about just creating a 3-D look to an image. Don saw layering as a way to tell you more about the story and the people.

Poland – Don Rutledge

The three ladies in the background help show the fashion of the old Poland in the now moment.

Spain – Don Rutledge

Some people would get low and help isolate this guy with the flag. Don would go just enough above the person to see the crowd in the back and give you an idea how large the crowd is and this guy being in the midst of this.

Still under Soviet rule in 1988, believers from four language groups meet for Easter worship and communion in Tblisi, Georgia. Their faith stood firm during tough times, as captured by Don Rutledge’s camera.

I remember sitting with Don in his office and me asking him to walk me through his editing process with contact sheets and slides. We spent hours doing this. Don would show a few of the frames before this one where the framing wasn’t as good. He would talk about including the women on either side in the background. Many would shoot this and concentrate on the three men and cut the women out.

Egypt – Don Rutledge

What you learn from Don is how important background and things around people give context.

John Howard Griffin is shining shoes in New Orleans. This was Don Rutledge’s photos that were to be in the book “Black Like Me”

Back in 1956 Don Rutledge partnered with John Howard Griffin on the book Black Like Me. Don wanted to show the context of Griffin becoming black and how people treated him solely based on the skin color. To do this Don used background to show the White Man looking at him judgmentally.

Born in rural Mississippi, Bailey King, at age 65, is stoop-shouldered, gaunt cheeked. Doctors say he had a mild stroke–friends say “his body was just plumb wore out.” For Bailey King has worked since he was five. Yet all he has to show for it is a yard full of chickens, a half-acre vegetable garden and a bowlegged Chihuahua named George. “But bein’ pore ain’t so bad,” King says. “it’s just inconvenient.” Don spent three weeks living in the ramshackle home. His photographs awakened the conscience of many. donations poured in; the Kings now have a government subsidized home, a better standard of living, and a close friend in Don Rutledge.

One of the photos I love the most of Don’s was from the time he went and lived with Bailey King for a month to capture Poverty in America. Again you can see Don is making sense by not cleaning up the background but allowing it to add more information about Bailey King.

Shortly after coming to the Home Mission Board, Don spent six weeks photographing inside the Artic Circle, Alaska in 1967. This photo was taken as Don, with two volunteer workers, visited an Eskimo house. So happy was the family to see their friends, everyone ignored Don’s click-click-click.

Don saw the kids in the doorway and in the window. Many photographers only would see those n the porch. This is my favorite photo of Don’s because it embodied this skill that he had developed better than anyone else I knew. He would become invisible and the audience would be transported to see everything and not just a selective focus that most would give you.

Russia – Photos by Don Rutledge Monks at the Pskov-Pechorsky Monastery in Pechory, Russia walk to lunch in a “line up”.

Don’t try and just clean up your backgrounds. Take the time to really pay attention to the background. Move until you can frame your main subject and help tell more about their story by using the background, foreground and everything around them.

Take the time to make the background work for you and not against you. When you do your photos will be more informative and for the photojournalists the is your ultimate goal–to inform the public.

photo by Don Rutledge
Mark Rutledge, on the left, is missionary in Haiti and also Don’s son.