Marla Rutherford Photography

by Julie Wolfson


Marla Rutherford's dramatic images turn heads. Her subjects include everything from celebrities and fetish models to babies, convicts and more. While her work references several different genres of photography, it's all highly stylized.

Recent sitings include pieces in the group show "Bettie Page: Heaven Bound" at Los Angeles gallery World of Wonder and "characters," like the iconic image of the fiery redhead curator Lenora Claire in the USA Network Character Project. CH recently checked in with the photographer to find out more about her portrait work, her artistic process and working with fetish models.

How do you decide on an idea or setting for the portrait?

It depends what kind of subject matter I am photographing. Usually I chose the location first, then wrap the whole concept around it. With my latex and fetish work and my fine art work, generally I go for a desert kind of Blue Velvet David Lynch atmosphere—very surreal. The type of light that I use is already pretty strange, so I look for a location that fits that type of lighting, like bizarre rooms or a more Planet of the Apes type location where it's minimalist and looks like a desert or another planet.

You often juxtapose something with an edgy or a fetish theme with a more natural image from everyday life. What makes you want to put those two elements together?

Initially it was for shock value. At the same time I thought from an innocent approach, I was juxtaposing a dominatrix in a puppy mask with a baby. The color palettes were very similar. They were both headshots and they were looking at each other and playing off each other. I thought is was a cool idea that in photography you can make everyone seems equal if you photograph them the same. It doesn't matter to me if it is a dominatrix, a baby, an ex-convict or a grandmother, I present everyone the same way from the lighting to the color palette. Then I juxtaposed those characters together to show that in the end we are all humans. Some of the people that I photograph have a bad reputation and people can misconstrue what their occupations are about. So putting them next to the everyday images can help the audience be more accepting of them and not immediately see the subject matter as disturbing.


When did you start taking photos and why do you think it is the best medium to express your ideas?

I started taking photos a long, long time ago. I sat on Santa's lap and asked for a camera when I was six. I didn't start thinking about it professionally until after college. I went to Boston University for Psychology. I was always taking pictures in college. So I went to Art Center College of Design. Photography is the best medium for me because I am a people person and at the same time I am very introverted. Photography give me an excuse to really get to know people that otherwise I would be very shy to approach. I am always curious about people's quirks and about underground subcultures. Photography is the perfect medium for me to approach them and say, "I think you are really cool can I take your picture? I like to create an image rather than take a picture of something that is already happening like photojournalism. It gives me more control artistically.

You photographed Lenora Claire for the USA Network Character Project. Who else did you photograph for the project?

My whole concept for that project was to photograph people who had never been photographed before. That really didn't apply for Lenora, but I think she is so cool looking. Everyone else I shot in the series are not professional models or actors. I found those people at clubs, on MySpace, on Facebook. I would find them on the street, at a bar. I made a list of archetypes to give an idea of what America represents. All the ethnicities and ages and jobs. This goes back to my concept from the beginning giving everyone an equal platform.

You have two photos of Bernie Dexter in the Bettie Page show at World of Wonder Storefront Gallery. The setting is gorgeous. Did you see the helicopters when you were shooting the image?

Yeah, I saw the helicopters coming, which was so cool. I don't think I would have ever come up with that idea. Those helicopters bring that image to the present. So it makes it even weirder. We heard the helicopters, so we made her pose like that for a while and told her not to move. Right when the helicopters were coming she intensified her facial expression and that's how I got that shot. All of the stuff in those photographs is in camera. Bernie was practically killing herself on those rocks. She is super cool and was totally game for anything.


You also photographed comedian Joel McHale in an empty pool for stuff magazine. Was he cracking jokes during the shoot?

He was totally cracking jokes. He was really easy to work with. The pool was very deep and I asked him to try look like he was crawling out of the pool. We didn't have a ladder. Joel was running as fast as he could around that pool and jumping on the ledge to look like he was crawling out. He was game for anything. He is by far one of my favorite people I have ever photographed.

What other projects do you have coming up?

I am going on a trip to Kenya with my brother. We are going to go to bunch of villages and we are bringing medical supplies and I am going to be taking photographs. My brother, Ken Rutherford, ran over a landmine ten years ago in Somalia. He has no legs; he has two prosthetics. He does a lot of work to ban landmines and he has the Landmines Survivors Network. He works with Oprah Winfrey and Heather Mills on many issues about land mines and travels around the world giving speeches. He kind of a rock star.

Then I am doing a whole series on these rockabilly ex-convicts down in San Diego. I want to do a whole series lighting them very commercial and cutesie and soften them up a little bit. Every time I see a photograph of an ex-convict people shoot them with really dark lighting or they make them look pissed off. Some of these guys have completely changed their lives in jail and they come out new people. I want to photograph them with an innocent beauty lighting. That and some magazine shoots are coming through.


Who are some photographers who inspire you?

I really like Sebastaio Salgado. He is one of my favorite photojournalist photographers. I was initially inspired color scheme wise by David LaChapelle. I really like Jill Greenberg's work. I think she pushed the envelop quite a bit. She is mart with her work conceptually. I love Dan Winters. I think he is one of the best editorial photographers out there right now. He can take any subject and make it interesting looking.
More images after the jump