INTERVIEW WITH ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHER COREY RICH
Red Bull athlete Rebecca Rusch recently became the first cyclist to ride, straight through, the entire Arkansas High Country Route, a new 1,041-mile bike trail across the state. She covered the distance in a new fastest-known-time (FKT) of 8 days, 3 hours and 33 minutes. On hand to document her achievement photographically was internationally renowned adventure photographer Corey Rich, who brought along his talented assistant Bligh Gillies. We sat down with them to pick their brains about what goes into photographing such a challenging project.
How did this project come about?
Corey: Well, I think the reason Red Bull calls me in these instances, really goes back over a period of 20 years, as I’ve worked extensively with Rebecca. Hopefully, I’m a competent photographer who can deliver the goods, but the relationship with the athlete is just so important. Rebecca and I were pretty much kids when we met, and we’ve worked together many times over the years.
Red Bull basically called me a couple of weeks out, asking if I would be able to cover this project for them, knowing that I have worked with Rebecca before. I had a job in the middle of the project, which meant I would have to leave the project for a few days and come back to it, but we figured out a way to make it work, by leaving my assistant as the second photographer with the team, in my absence.
The reality of being a photographer, is that you’re trying to fill up all the days on the calendar, or as many as possible. I’m kind of like a kid when it comes to projects, I want to do them all, and not miss out on anything. I’m very thankful that Red Bull trusted me enough to let me do that, leaving the project and returning to it.
Tell us about your previous work with Rebecca.
Corey: I think the first time we worked together, was in the late 90s, around 1996 or 1997. She seems to have lived multiple lives, and at that time it was her era of being a multisport, adventure race champion, and I met her at an adventure race called the Eco Challenge. I was just a kid in college, she was a former rock climber, and she’d entered the race in Borneo; we met for the first time at the kickoff dinner for the race, where I was taking pictures for the Discovery Channel, and we hit it off because we both had climbing in our lives. We quickly became fast friends, and as Rebecca was becoming a big deal in the adventure race world, she gave me the opportunity to do a lot of shoots for her various different sponsors.
Following that phase of her career, Rebecca morphed into becoming the gritty, long-distance, endurance mountain-bike rider that she is today. One notable project I worked with her on, was when I helped Nikon to launch the D4 camera, and they asked me what I would like to work on to showcase it. I pitched the idea of following three prolific adventure athletes, and tell their story, and of course Rebecca was one of those athletes. So, this was an instance where I was able to give something back to her, after she had graciously brought me on for a lot of different projects in the past.
Another memorable project on which I worked with Rebecca, was for Red Bull, called ‘Rusch Hour’, where she set a new record for female athletes on the 142-mile Kokopelli Trail across Utah and Colorado. That one was particularly challenging, as we shot video on top of the still images.
Did it help to have the prior relationship with Reba, to get the best out of her?
Corey: Absolutely! A solid relationship between photographer and athlete, or a filmmaker and athlete, I think is paramount in getting the best out of any athlete. It’s a given that a company will hire somebody who’s good at taking pictures, or making films, but when an athlete finds joy in spending time with that person, and the photographer really knows the sport, it can go a long way to getting the best content.
I say this all the time, there are a lot of great photographers out there. I’m good, I know that, but it’s the whole package that makes this work as a career. So in situations like this, where you have to work in extremely close quarters with the subject, it really helps to bring the best out of them for the best content.
Rebecca is an amazing athlete and person all around, and luckily we get on very well, she makes it easy. By the end of the day, Rebecca would have ridden for 12 hours, something like 150 miles, and she just wants to have fun and bust our chops. Of course that works both ways, so we had a great time.
It was also pretty obvious that Bligh hit it off with Rebecca immediately; he has the same qualities and that same personality type, which allowed him to just fit right in, and by day two he and Rebecca were both busting each other’s chops by equal measure. Having fun on the job, no matter what kind of job it is, goes an extremely long way. You certainly don’t do this job for money! You do it because you love the act of making pictures, and because of the people you get to share time with, and this job was exactly that.
How challenging is it to do a shoot like this, on the road for almost 10 days?
Corey: Well, it’s definitely challenging all around. We had to work hard for the duration of this, obviously in a very different way than Rebecca had to. Rebecca’s ass hurt by the end of this trip, and ours definitely hurt too, but for totally different reasons. We just sat in the car, and my back hurt by the end of it. We gained 10 pounds by the end of it, while Rebecca lost 10 pounds! Psychologically, it was pretty tough too, Bligh and I are both pretty active guys, so to be sitting for 12 hours a day was pretty hard to deal with.
We had this grand vision that we would be able to take our bikes along with us, and get in some riding time, in-between shooting, but there was just no way that was going to happen. We weren’t really able to take a break for the entire trip, as we had to be vigilant the whole time, looking for fresh shots along the way.
Corey, how did it feel stepping out and back in, and having your protege be the ‘main man’?
Corey: Haha, well, Bligh is an emerging talent in the adventure photography world, I trust his talent completely, so I had no worries about leaving him to cover the job in my absence. Being his boss, as well as his friend, I’m always looking for more opportunities to get him on board to shoot, so the stars really aligned on this job for him. Now I’m a little worried, because he did so well that I’m not going to get the call from Red Bull next time! Being the ‘senior guy’, I am really happy to be able to pay it forward and bring Bligh on for projects like this and work alongside him. It seemed like a win-win at the end of the day, whereby Red Bull were able to get full-time consistent coverage, and Bligh was able to spread his wings.
It did hurt my feelings a little bit when Bligh and Rebecca sent me a text message saying “don’t bother coming back”! There were the inevitable feelings of jealousy, when I saw some of Bligh’s photos coming through while I was away, thinking “damn I wish I’d shot that”! I’ve found over the years that photographers tend to be either competitive, or they feed off each other, and I’ve just never been that competitive guy. I came back and was really excited to see how everything had gone with them.
How challenging was it to keep coming up with fresh shots day after day?
Bligh: Very much so, especially the more it went on, even after maybe day three or four, when Corey was still there. There would be moments where we look at each other, wondering if this was something new and fresh; there were lots of ‘cool photos’ we could take, but we had already shot so many images of the same scene previously. At first, it was a little scary, thinking that we still had four or five more days to keep on making unique, interesting photos, and wondering if we would be able to do it. We ended up making a little challenge between the two of us, whereby we would say when taking a photo, we’re going to do something different that we haven’t done before, whether that was getting wet, or climbing a tree, or shooting from the roof of the car, just something to mix things up and avoid repetition, which is easy to fall into.
All the locals we encountered had warned us that the woods in the area were full of tics, which frightened the hell out of us, even though we’re both kind of tough dudes. If we were going to take a shot from the woods, we would play-rock-paper scissors to see who had to go and do that!
Corey: The photos only capture very fleeting moments; the truth is, and I don’t say this to talk negatively about Arkansas in any way, but it was very repetitious. I’d say about 95% of the time it looks exactly the same: green trees with dappled light, on a dirt road. Very occasionally, there would be a winding road, or something that made it a little more interesting.
Also, we made a pact between ourselves, that if we uploaded a photo of a certain style, or composition or theme, that we would not release another similar photo from that point on. So we were constantly challenging ourselves to think “can I do this better”, because once you release that photo, then we can’t do it again. We were constantly thinking ‘‘can I take this same photo in a better situation or in better lights tomorrow’? There was definitely an element of Groundhog Day to this project, so the challenge was to keep it fresh.
What did you pack for this job?
Corey: we kind of have fun with this, but something we do on every project is we say that every piece of gear we bring, we have to use it at least once, and we did the same here. We brought a whole quiver of lenses, basically from 16mm wide all the way up to 400 mm telephoto lens, incorporating both primes and zoom lenses. Challenging ourselves to use each and every lens also forces us to be creative, as certain lenses have certain limitations, which we have to then consider for our frames.
We both shot with Nikon D5’s and Nikon D850’s, and our lenses consisted of;
Zooms – 16-35 / 17-35 / 24-70 / 70-200, 200-400
Primes – 16, 24, 35, 50, 85, 105, 200,
On top of that we brought;
Drone – DJI Ronin
GoPro with dome port
Monopod / Tripod
Strobes (ProFoto B1) (I think this was the one piece of equipment we didn’t use)
About 2½ gallons of DEET!
We ended up buying a large tarp, because it rained a lot and our gear was in the back of a pickup truck, so we had to keep that covered and dry, which added a whole extra element to it.
We had seen the forecast showing a lot of rain, so we just found a Walmart on day one to buy a couple of large golf umbrellas. These proved invaluable, even though you feel guilty, when Rebecca comes cycling past and she’s getting absolutely soaked to the bone, and you’re standing there nice and dry and comfortable under a huge golf umbrella.
What were the biggest challenges of the shoot?
Bligh: We were there mainly to document what Rebecca was doing, so that meant we had to eat where she was eating, and sleep where she was sleeping, So, we not only had our job to do, which was to capture the moments, but then at the end of each day we also had to download our cards, backup files, process images and so on. Rebecca’s routine would involve cleaning her bike, eating, and poring over the next day’s maps and of course we still had to eat and then had a bunch more work ahead of us, and naturally had to be up early when Rebecca was setting out each day. It was definitely tricky to wake up early each day, not having had much sleep.
One of the harder logistical things for Corey and I was just trying to figure out where she was going to be, and when. We had quite a few comedic moments, where we would find ourselves waiting around, both having a great shot lined up, and waiting for her to come around the corner into our frame, and we would wait 15 minutes without her showing up, before realizing we were on the wrong road, or she had stopped to grab a bite to eat. It was pretty much a big guessing game the entire time!
Corey: Yeah, there was one time where we stood around waiting for her for something like 45 minutes, before Rebecca finally called me to say “where are you guys?”. She was at the hotel, waiting to have a drink with us. Trust me, that one would’ve been an epic photo!
Did Rebecca have a GPS tracker allowing you to see where she was?
Bligh: She did, but it would only ping every 10 minutes, in order to save battery life. To access her location, we needed to have cell phone signal to visit the Garmin website, and I would say 50% of the time we just didn’t have any service. Plus, she’s moving really fast! If we could actually see her position on a map, there was no exact science in determining where she would be at that moment, as that point could be 10 minutes old.
How did you get by for food in the remote locations?
Bligh: With difficulty. For one, we would have to eat where Rebecca was eating, which could be a gas station or McDonald’s, which isn’t ideal. To be honest, we didn’t really eat many meals for the duration of the project; we had a cooler in the back of the car, and we would stack on energy bars and snacks throughout each day. Whenever we found a grocery store that sold fresh fruit and vegetables, we would stock up on them and keep them in the cooler, so that we had some good food to eat on the way.
I used to be a vegetarian, which would’ve been even more challenging, as I ended up eating a hell of a lot of fried chicken from gas stations! It was definitely a shock to the system; diets tend to be very different in the South, compared to in California, where we are based.
Corey: To put it into perspective, at the end of the trip, we found a Subway sandwich shop, and we all celebrated because we were able to get fresh lettuce and tomatoes!
Do either of you have favourite shots from the project? If so, why?
Bligh: One of mine would be the close-up shot of Rebecca, where she’s covered in mud, as well as the close-up photo of her tires, splashing through the water as she goes through a puddle. That day, to me, was just such a realization of what a powerful athlete Rebecca is, and how strong her mind is. She left that day at 4:30 AM, while it was already dumping rain, as she knew she had to catch up a few miles to stay on track, and I realized she was as good an athlete as your going to meet. Her nickname is the ‘Queen of Pain’, and I could really see where that came from that day.
Corey: There are two photos that really stand out for me, the first one is from the very first night, at the hotel we were staying in. Which, of note, was the biggest dump of a hotel I have ever stayed in my life! Seriously, Bligh and I both slept in sleeping bags on top of the beds. I walked into Rebecca’s room just after she had arrived, she had ridden about 150 miles that day, and she just sat down on the edge of the bed and buried her head in her hands, exhausted. It was a reality check for me, to see her like that, realizing that she had a lot to accomplish ahead of her. I think that photograph really encapsulates the idea of struggle.
There’s one other frame that really stands out for me, and it’s not even the best photograph; for example I wish I’d been on an even longer lens. I was sitting in the back of the car, shooting with a 200mm f/2 lens, when a dog started chasing Rebecca, and you can see the dog with all four legs off the ground, bearing its teeth very aggressively; it looks like it wants to rip her to pieces. And Rebecca, she just rolled with it, she just pedalled harder and blew past the dog, she didn’t let it phase her at all. You can tell from this photo that it takes a lot to faze Rebecca Rusch, she’s not going to stop unless she really has to.
All photos by Corey Rich, used with permission by Red Bull
Story by Red Bull