Exclusive (for now) Interview with Digg’s Favorite Photographer Trey Ratcliff

Trey Ratcliff is an amazing photographer making a name for himself with a slew of amazing photographs that have populated Digg’s front page so much that he has been dubbed “Digg’s favorite HDR photographer”.

Some of his well known works of cityscapes at night are haunting. They look more like neo-futuristic cities rendered by the best graphics engine that money could buy yet “real” at the same time. However, his subject matter and technique is more diverse than you would imagine as evidenced by his selected portfolio. He’s captured amazing scenes and amazing people from countries all over the world documented in part at his entertaining blog “Stuck In Customs”.

However, what most people don’t know is that Trey Ratcliff is not a professional photographer in the sense that he earns his primary living from photography. In fact, Trey is the CEO of a game development company with a background programming advanced mathematical algorithms for a variety of projects after graduating from Southern Methodist University where he studied computer science and mathematics.

The man behind the camera just might be more fascinating than the photographs that he is famous for. Trey was kind enough the grant me an email interview you will find below.


Interview with Trey Ratcliff

Q: Briefly, tell us a little about yourself and what you do outside of photography? What is your background? What are your other interests?

A: First, I would flip around your question and say that I do photography outside of my real-life job, which is running an online game company, John Galt Games. All of our amazing products are currently in development, and I am very proud of them. However, I can’t talk about any details yet.

My background is Computer Science and Math, although I have always enjoyed the creative side of life. Computer Science is actually a branch of philosophy, so it has helped to frame the world for me as a series of intersecting segments and pattern-recognition.

Other interests include reading; I alternate from one book to another between fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is usually fantasy, sci-fi, or cyberpunk. The non-fiction is a lot of sociology, economics, and history. I find it a personal challenge to rip through a book per week, especially while people keep sending me YouTube videos and sucking up my free cycles!

Q: What initially got you interested in photography? When did you start pursuing it seriously? Was there a specific moment when you found your current style?

A: I started getting serious about photography nine months ago. That is when I got my first DSLR and dove into new and evolving techniques in digital photography. HDR was just starting up and there were some interesting efforts, and I was anxious to see if I could help to evolve the artform. There are many great photographers out there that do this sort of work, and I am pleased to be working with them to take this exciting evolution through the next cycle.

When I choose to do something with my life, I am quite intense and competitive. I find that photography is a good outlet for my creativity because, otherwise, my ADD brain gets involved with too many projects at the same time. I’ve learned it is very hard to execute on every “good idea’ that one may spawn. A “good idea’ for a photograph though has a pretty short lifecycle before it is complete, so it is nice to have a quick-cycle alpha to omega process for creativity. Games take forever to make, in comparison, as do other forms of art – painting, movies, theater, etc – there is a tremendous amount of time and effort to produce a product. Photography, by comparison, is a very satisfying medium to quickly share creativity and production with consumers.

Q: You have an interesting background in computer science and video games. Does this inform or shape the world view captured in your photos? What are some of the common themes you find yourself coming back to time and again?

One aspect of my photography probably is related to personal eye problems. I really only see out of my left eye. My right eye is useless. As a child I had a few failed surgeries, and tried everything from eye patches to Hubble-size corrective lenses. Nothing has worked, and to this day, I still read and see with mostly my left eye and my right eye is like Dwight’s dead vestigial twin. Seeing the world in 2D, effectively, during my formative years, threw the right side of my brain into a unique compositional pattern-matcher. I am convinced that I record visual information differently than other people. For example, I played a lot of soccer, so I had to record every diameter of that ball to know how close it was to my foot since I didn’t really have 3D vision. Stereoscopic memories and imagery is stored differently than these 2D patterns – so my entire brain has oriented itself towards a shape-pattern world and associated all memory, thoughts, and creativity around this visual information. Honestly, I don’t know exactly how this translates into my photography, but I certainly think there is some kind of connection.

This feeds into my personal thoughts and ruminations on pattern-matching. Our brains are cellular-automata-based computing machines that are spawned by patterns and respond to patterns. Some music is pleasant to people because they recognize similar patterns they associate with good emotions. Photography is similar and can be an elegant mathematical pattern-matching experience.

Aspects of beauty and pattern-evolution adhere to phi, the Golden Ratio. Our brains are naturally drawn to phi patterns and good photographers can effortlessly compose photos to orient the shapes to hit that ratio. Your entire life, your brain has recognized true beauty in the phi ratio because it is important for evolution. Humans seek the opposite sex with that has phi-ratios in their face, bodies, etc. because it indicates good health and disease resistance. We also like to look at landscapes, flowers, and other natural beauty, which perfectly adheres to this same ratio. So when photographers can re-create the phi ratio in a perfect photograph, it is just naturally pleasing.

A good example of the phi ratio is “This Is Vespucci” (one of my pics from Rome). The proportions are phi, the compositions are phi, and the coloring and lighting is in phi as well. The colors of his face are the same as the background, but the textures of his face are the same as the wood, which is a phi-distance away across the noiseless white space.

HDR brings the phi ratio to colors and luminosity rather than to geometry and angles. Humans use their neocortex to patch together a visual scene. People do not take a “photograph” in their head and store it at a single shutter speed, aperture, etc. On the scene, the human eye is constantly darting around and the iris lets in more light in some areas and less light in others. This “patchwork quilt” is made up of very different light levels and colors. These most beautiful scenes have colors that lay on top of the geometric patterns that traipse up and down the spectrum in a phi pattern. I’m slowing evolving my HDR process to nail those phi patterns within color and luminosity to bring a visceral reaction of beauty from the viewer.

Q: What’s the idea behind the name “Stuck in Customs”? It seems open to multiple interpretations: a perpetual traveller or people trapped in “certain customs” that prevents them from appreciating the wider world around them. What’s the motivation behind writing this blog?

A: You have the dual meaning correct. I am conterminously and antithetically both very judgmental of other cultures and very open to other cultures at the same time. Since I travel a lot, I see a bit of everything. I see Russian men of my age that grew up during the cold war and used to play outside with their friends, having simulated Red Dawn firefights with the evil Americans. I see Indians that are rigorous and serious with their children while preparing them for the confusing anachronism of arranged marriages and then see a modern Bollywood music video where the dancers and dirty dancing around a grapefruit tree. I see angry Muslim men with ninja-dressed wives from Saudi Arabia and I see diet-Muslims in headscarves that laugh and dance around Malaysia. I see deeply religious catholic Costa Rican women and Italian Catholic women that stay out till three AM, not doing Catholic things. I think it is interesting how culture is getting mixed and mashed and combined with a new move towards globalism and mass media dissemination of popular cultures, all fighting to win a mindshare of the Earth’s five billion people.

Overall, I’ve learned that people are pretty much the same around the world. I have two Iranians that work for me and are some of the sharpest programmers and nicest guys in the world. They have a tremendous sense of humor and we sit around and poke fun at the world of politics and how crazy everything is. As a CEO and a Blogger with over a quarter million readers, I am actually doing my own little bit for world peace by helping to interconnect the world with capitalism and information. People talk too much about “democracy” as what makes things peaceful, but it is really the free trade of goods, services, and information that brings things together.

Like everything, the blog has evolved. It started as something for my mom – so she could keep up with my travels and me. After I really got into photography, I thought it would be a good medium to share my work. Contemporaneously, my photography became suddenly popular at Flickr, which ended up getting me nominated for the 2007 Bloggies. None of this was a master-plan… it just sort of happened.

Q: You’ve travelled the world extensively. Is there anywhere you still want to travel to? What is the most memorable destination you’ve been to and why? What makes travel attractive to you?

A: There are many places I would love to visit and many cultures I would like to experience. I need to visit all over India and remote parts of China. I think the UAE looks incredible as well as other places that have stayed unique, like Morocco and southern Spain.

My favorite place I have been for photography is Iceland. That place is just insane. It’s like Yellowstone times ten.

Contrary to what appears obvious, I don’t travel just to travel. I travel for work, and many of these places are quite far from home in Texas. I often end up with spare time in the morning or over a weekend if it is a long trip, so I use that time to go out and get lost in these new places. For example, I spend a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur because we have a game studio there. I end up having to stay a few weekends – rather than stay in the hotel, I just buy a cheap plane ticket for $150 or so, get a cheapo hotel, and go hit Thailand for a few days. Why not? Nothing to be scared of…

I equate these little get-out-of-the-hotel-moments to reading The Economist. I don’t believe anyone that says they read every article inside every single Economist. However, I always force myself to read a few extra articles and then I think, “That was an interesting article. I’m glad I read it.” This is the same as coming home and saying, “Wow that floating market in Thailand was really cool. I’m glad I went.” It is tiring, but usually worth it in the end. Luckily, I only sleep a few hours per night so I end up with extra cycles.

Q: What are some of your goals and aspirations for photography?

A: I don’t really have any goals per se. I’d like to continue to experiment and improve. I look back on my old stuff in horror… and I wonder if I will look back on my new stuff with horror too as well – I hope I do!

Q: Has the recent exposure to a new audience changed anything either for you or your older fans? How do you feel about it in general?

A: I don’t know. I’m certainly a student of media and social networks, so it has only become recently obvious to me that there are people that create media and people that consume media. Creators are also consumers, but the typical media consumer can now create media along with the best, with tools like Flickr, YouTube, and blogs.

This technology creates a true media meritocracy. I don’t know how many hits the National Geographic Site gets, but in February I am getting well over 250,000 visits. My posting about a trip to Chernobyl got over a hundred thousand hits within just a few hours. My Flickr shots get direct hits of many more than this as well, especially because of DIGG. DIGG has taken about a half-dozen of my shots over 75,000 views each and one is over 200,000 views – in just a few days. This is not bad for a one-man show that spends 5-10 minutes every morning posting a blog entry and is probably why traditional media outlets are nervous about News and Media 2.0.

One thing that has changed recently is how much I write and my approach to it. I’ve adopted a bit of a Mark Twain “Innocents Abroad” tact. Innocents Abroad was Twain’s first big seller and it was from his post-civil war cruise overseas to visit Italy and Greece and the Holy Land. He took the opportunity to lampoon traditional boring travel books and used a disarming and irreverent choice of words to describe amazing places. I can’t do exactly the same thing, of course, because I am using photography, and it is silly to use overly descriptive and beautiful language to describe something that is already right in front of the viewer. So my tact has shifted to a fantastic retelling of stories that surround the picture with a hand-to-god swearing of actual events. Of course, none of these events are terribly accurate, but my brain is vacillating always between a dream state and a reality state, so it is real in its own way.

Q: What can we expect from Trey Ratcliff in 2007 and beyond?

A: I’ve got a huge backlog of photos that I need to process when I get 10 minutes to rub together. I think some of the best from Iceland are still to come, along with a few other unique places that I have not had a chance to process yet. I don’t have any solid plans on travel… just wherever work is gonna take me. Honestly, I hope it takes me home so I can spend more time with my family.

Q: Any final remarks?

A: The color spectrum we see the world in is extremely limited, but that will change in the next 10 to 15 years as people evolve to get eye implants that both improve vision and can see (and record) new wavelengths beyond the current visible spectrum.

There are already a few mutant tetrachromatics currently alive today that see four colors, one order of magnitude beyond the exiting three-axis RGB scale. To envision what these people see is like someone that is color-blind envisioning what seeing color is like.

Imagine if we are able to see a larger spectrum, like honeybees or machine spectroscopy. The world would be full of new information. The wavelengths of infrared and ultraviolet are the obvious ones, but there is also a world of chomoluminescence around us the thermal infrared. How could we use this new visual information? It’s hard to say but colors helped humans to differentiate things: red fruit is often bad, but a red behind on another monkey is good (if you are a male monkey looking to replicate).

The more visual information humans have, the better decisions we can make on how to interact with people and nature – and the more beauty we can see in the world. I’m sure that I see the world in a more beautiful way than someone that is color-blind, so I look forward to being able to increase my visual capability in the near future.

HDR photography is only a first step in dipping my toe into an evolving visual future. Via this style of photography, we’ve begun to see the world in new ways and appreciate dynamic luminosity in real and tangible ways. I think, in the end, that it’s all art, and even the beholder is evolving.

Interviewer’s Note

First of all, if you’ve arrived here after reading the entire interview, thank you. Trey was a real pleasure to work with and his answers just blew me away. He’s the digital renaissance man in the truest sense. Thank your for giving me this opportunity Trey.

For those of you looking to usurp Trey of his claim to being “Digg’s most popular HDR photographer”, you could always start with his newly updated HDR Tutorial. It even has a nice discount coupon for the software he uses to make these amazing images. It’s also great because you get to take a peek into his artistic process. Check it out.