Bill Russ Loves His Job

BY Kevin C. O Donovan

As the North Carolina Division of Tourism’s head photographer for more than 20 years Bill Russ has been traveling the highways and byways of North Carolina capturing its glorious mountains rolling sandhills and shining coastal seascapes with a skill and flair that are difficult to describe. Much like those rare instances when a candid family snapshot accurately captures the essence of its subject Russ’ photos catch the breathtaking beauty of North Carolina unaware and unposed yet still in its full splendor.

A product of Wrightsville Beach and son of two-time Wrightsville Beach mayor Fran Russ Russ fondly remembers growing up at his family’s house on North Channel Drive and then at their more current address on Pelican Drive the third house built on the street.

The view of the surrounding waterway through the sliding glass doors of the Pelican Drive home is stunning. In Russ’ case it stands to reason that being surrounded by so much natural beauty in one’s youth affects the ability to capture it on film later in life.

Russ remembers North Channel Drive as the quintessential family street and recalls that their cottage was the preferred destination of their yearly family gatherings. “All the relatives came and they felt like they were not imposing because it was the family’s house ” Russ says. “That house was always kind of the family’s laughing place.”

Growing up at the beach was idyllic Russ says with summers spent paddling through the marshes with friends skiing and diving pulling up handfuls of minnows from the marsh and learning how to properly handle a boat.

He remembers the sense of community in that era when he could ride for hours on his bicycle until as he says “Somebody would lean over on their balcony and say ‘Bill Russ! Get your butt back home because your mama will be looking for you.’”

rightsville Beach also had its fair share of adventure for a growing boy. Russ recalls how he and a friend who lived on Summer Rest Road pedaled their bikes to Pembroke Jones’ hunting lodge on Wrightsville Sound. The lodge had begun to fall into disrepair and was posted leaving only a caretaker and fodder for ghost stories told by the campfire.

“It was haunted at that point ” says Russ. “You had to take a dirt road up there. It had columns and stuff and ivy growing everywhere and it was starting to crumble. It was way spooky.”

Other times Russ and his friends would trek out to Money Island near Shandy Hall and south of Bradley Creek. Today it sits as a small island slowly eroding into the water. “Back then ” Russ says “the legend was that’s where Blackbeard buried his treasure.”

Russ says it was his father a dentist who practiced in downtown Wilmington’s Murchison Building for 40 years who sparked his interest in photography.

“My dad took me to work one day and let me X-ray my little finger with his X-ray machine ” Russ recalls. “I was fascinated with the whole image process and seeing the latent image arise from the solution. I got into it as a hobby in junior high but I didn’t have a lot of money for equipment so I turned Frisbees upside down for my trays. My dad helped me set up a little darkroom downstairs in the basement and I pretty much trashed it. It smelled like fixer for 10 years.”

Russ’ first camera was the venerable Kodak “Brownie ” a simple and inexpensive camera that still has thousands upon thousands of devotees worldwide. Russ describes it as “two little spools and that was it.”

As he moved on to New Hanover High School Russ saved his money until he could afford an Olympus OM-1 which he still uses to this day. During his high school years Russ practiced his trade with the school newspaper. Wrightsville Beach resident John Henry Brunjes taught photography and ran the darkroom at New Hanover High when Russ was a student there. He remembers that Russ was easy to work with and was very creative. “Bill once took a photo of a boy surfing and a photo of a wine glass and superimposed the surfer into the wine glass so that the boy was surfing insided the glass. He was a very innovative student.”

After graduation he went to UNC-Chapel Hill where he snapped for the Daily Tar Heel and the Yackety Yack the school’s yearbook.

Following his graduation from UNC and still the adventurous youth Russ did something that would strike fear into even the most supportive parent’s heart: He bought a one-way ticket to Milan.

“I had a friend who wanted to be a model and I wanted to be a photographer.  I was just ready to set out ” he explains. “Just do something irresponsible you know?”

He ended up getting a job as a photographer’s assistant for L’uomo Vogue a men’s version of Vogue magazine. “I stayed there for three months and learned some Italian. I was a small-town boy in a big city and I had a great time ” Russ says.

Russ was intrigued by the Italian culture. “The closeness of the community and the richness of Italy is phenomenal ” he says. “Everything is good: The art’s good the wine’s good the food’s good.  It’s beautiful. Wrightsville Beach is an incredibly beautiful place but you have to see the rest of the world too.”

Following the fashion season in Milan Russ came to a realization. “Fashion photography was not my cup of tea ” he explains. “It’s the most superficial photography on the planet. I learned a lot technically but that world is kind of crazy.”

He parted ways with Milan then forged a path through Austria to Munich and eventually to Stockholm Sweden.

After a few months in the Scandinavian late-evening sun and a few more photo shoots he had enough money and — more importantly — enough experience to buy his ticket back home.

It was here that he married his sweetheart Jennifer Potts an accomplished ballet dancer who studied with Balanchine at the School of American Ballet was a soloist with the Houston Ballet and who now teaches dance in Chapel Hill and Durham.

Upon his return to North Carolina Russ took a job at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill not snapping pictures but developing pictures of heart catheterizations. “Film is film ” he says with a shrug.

Then in 1984 the North Carolina tourism board hired him when his predecessor retired and Russ has been promoting the state with his photographic excellence ever since.

Presently his main responsibility is capturing the natural beauty of North Carolina from the mountains to the sea … and below the sea. Russ provides all the photography for the official site of North Carolina tourism. He also serves as a guide of sorts for journalists from around the world who have an interest in writing articles regarding North Carolina’s myriad attractions.

Russ is also a specialist in underwater photography and recently hosted five journalists from different parts of the globe. As Russ explains “We fly them here we pay for their flights and the local community and local visitor’s board provide the lodging and meals. I take them diving and show them around  and they go back and write an article and I provide the photography. It’s great to get a copy of that magazine and see the photograph and know that I entertained the guy who wrote it and helped promote North Carolina tourism.”

Quizzed on the best place in the state to shoot Russ answers “I like to shoot everywhere but I’m from the beach so I’m partial to this area. North Carolina has such a great diversity of attractions. One day I’m shooting aerials hanging out of a helicopter and the next I’m taking pictures of people kayaking out in the marshes.” 

Looking to the future of our coastal region and the state at large Russ says his goal is to help “make sure that we maintain the visual integrity of Wrightsville Beach and the surrounding area. That’s why we’re here. The same thing is true for the state in general. Hugh Morton was my good buddy up at Grandfather Mountain.  He really took me under his wing and he was always adamant about the importance of the environment protecting it and making sure that we preserve all that is great about North Carolina.”

Russ relates that another thing he finds fulfilling is when the local film industry “takes advantage of some of my travels from time to time” — for instance Nights in Rodanthe the film adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel currently in production and starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. The film commission called and said “Bill the producers are looking for a place on the beach on an island near the ocean with a lot of sand around it but not much development.”

Russ replied “I know just the place. It’s up in South Nags Head with just a Coast Guard station and a couple of other outbuildings. It’s in Cape Hatteras National Seashore and there’s nothing around it.” They pulled the exact location up on Google flew out there looked at it firsthand and decided it was perfect exactly what they were looking for. “It’s fun every now and then to be able to provide information from the travels I have done over the years ” says Russ.

Russ relates the following story from his travels to illustrate how much he loves his job: “I went to a whitewater rafting company and they had a guide who was a lawyer in the off-season. I asked him ‘Why do you do this?’ and he said ‘Because when I’m a lawyer people are predisposed to not have a good time. But when I’m here people are predisposed to having a good time. When people get on my raft they’re here to have fun.’”

Tourism attracts people looking to have fun and Russ through his photography is their visual guide. “I love my job a whole lot ” Russ says with a smile. “I’m sure there will be a line of people waiting for this spot when I retire.”