At 21 years old, Bradlee Rutledge is wakeboarding’s most prominent young photographer. Hailing from North Florida, Bradlee has quickly made a name for himself not only in Orlando, but internationally as well. Although only on the scene for a few years, he has already secured three covers and countless published photos in national and international wake magazines. He even honored WakeWorld by donating two of his prints to our recent Holiday Fundraiser for Brad Smeele, Matt Manzari and Toys for Tots. We sat down with the young gun to find out how he handles his youth, finishing school and pursuing a career in photography.
WW: How did you get into the wake scene?
BR: My family got a lake house in Valdosta, Georgia when I was 14. I started wakeboarding a lot. I was always looking at the magazines and getting pumped on the photos and everything that was happening in the scene. Obviously I was never going to make it as a pro…I was never that great. But I was having a ton of fun with riding, both wakeboarding and wakeskating.
WW: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a photographer?
BR: My senior year of high school I wakeskated with the same group of guys every day. One of them had a camera, so we took turns taking pictures of one another. I really got into it. When I graduated from high school, I used all of my graduation money to buy my own camera. Wakeskating is why I got into this and will always be my first passion.
WW: Who inspired you to pursue photography?
BR: My dad really pushed me to pursue it. I saw how miserable he was working a desk job and I told myself I was never going to do that. My grandparents also had a hand in it. Their cameras were the ones I first started shooting with.
WW: Why did you move to Orlando?
BR: Orlando is known as the capital of wakeboarding. All of the riders, photographers and videographers base out of here. No matter where you’re from, you have to come here for the season. It really is the Mecca of wakeboarding. My decision to move here was based on me wanting to pursue the wake scene and without being in Orlando, it’s extremely difficult.
WW: What was your first photo ever published?
BR: It was of Cole Vanthof at McCormick's doing a huge tucked knee. It was mid-afternoon and I shot it with flash. I had known Cole for a while so it was cool to have my first photo be of my good friend. That was about two years ago and it’s still one of his favorite photos.
WW: How does it feel to be the young gun when it comes to wake photography?
BR: Being one of the youngest photographers in wakeboarding gives me a good perspective about what the riders are going through. It’s a lot of hard work and dedication. You have to earn your place in wakeboarding and constantly be putting out high-quality, fresh content. It’s all about creating your own style.
WW: Describe your style.
BR: I really like to encompass the environment that athletes are performing in rather than just the trick. It’s not always about the trick; it’s about creating emotion.
WW: Sunrise or sunset shoot?
BR: Sunset, by far. I love sunset light. It’s a lot warmer. The gold and orange hues are really appealing to me. Sunrise is nice because you get better water conditions, but the cooler light doesn’t give me the look that I like to go for.
WW: Do you draw inspiration from other established wake photographers?
BR: Absolutely. They are legends and are all still relevant today. I’ve tried to take their styles and blend them into my own and add my touch to it. I think it’s awesome that wakeboarding has provided them with so many opportunities to grow and evolve as artists. It’s paved the way for me to come along and make my stamp on the sport.
WW: What are your goals?
BR: There’s one quote that has really stood out to me: “Turning a passion into business success is easier than turning a boring pursuit into a successful enterprise.” I always loved being creative and not sticking with the norm. I was passionate about wakeboarding and creativity, and from that came my love of photography. I decided I would find a way to turn that passion into a career that I could follow for the rest of my life. My goal is to continue this lifestyle.
WW: You hold yourself to a high standard. Can you explain your integrity?
BR: I’ve seen photos run before that weren’t that high quality. I care a lot about the image and branding, which is really important nowadays for social media. I make sure that what I’m putting out there is only the best, and sometimes that results in not getting a photo from a shoot. Everyone notices when you’re off. You have to be at your best at all times. When I submit photos, I want to make sure that it’s not just the rider’s best, but my best as well because both our names are attached to that.
WW: Your classmates are aspiring to be photographers, but you already are one. How does that feel?
BR: Going to college and trying to pursue a career in photography has taught me a lot not only about myself, but also about time management, professionalism and setting priorities. A lot of my classmates are focused on school and nothing else at the moment. I think school is extremely important, but for me, school actually takes a backseat.
WW: What’s some advice you have for aspiring action sports photographers?
BR: If you’re trying to make it in action sports, you have to be dedicated. You won’t make money the first couple of years. You’ll spend every dime and pinch pennies just to shoot and make it to spots. It’s important to find riders who can be your test subjects and who understand that the photos may not be perfect.
WW: What’s something outside of wakeboarding that you draw inspiration from?
BR: Music, for sure. Musicians and photographers share a very similar mindset and creative process. I really look up to guys like Jack White because he not only creates amazing music, but he also understands everything that goes into making it. Music is created to evoke a feeling in the listener. Photography is the same thing but in a visual form rather than audio. It’s important to know where your inspiration comes from so you can recreate that time and time again.
WW: In today’s world with the popularity of apps like Instagram, everyone thinks they’re a photographer. Explain any frustration you might have with this.
BR: Real photographers make photographs; they don’t just take them. Anyone can go take a picture of a sunset, but a true photographer gets close to the water, squats down and looks stupid getting the shot. Everyone has a camera obviously, but it’s how you use it. Just because you have pencil and paper doesn’t make you a writer. It’s all about how you use your tool and my tool is a camera.
WW: What’s your favorite photo that you’ve ever shot?
BR: I shot this photo of Yan Tibo in the Philippines last year. He was hitting this big pool set up against a creeper ledge on a wall. His face was so close to the wall and it was perfectly T-ed up. I couldn’t have asked for a better photo. Everything was perfect… the trick, the light the surroundings. What’s even cooler is that it was first try.
WW: Besides photography, what is really important to you?
BR: Traveling is really important to me. With traveling, I’ve been put into a lot of weird situations and experienced things that I would never deal with in normal life. I’m still so young and have so much to see, but I’m thankful for what I’ve already gotten to experience. And it’s so rewarding to me that I’m not just traveling to a place because of vacation, but because my camera took me there.
WW: Who would you like to thank?
BR: I have to thank my parents for supporting me through my crazy adventures. Thanks to all of the magazines and editors for giving me feedback. And, of course, thank you to all of the athletes because they are the real reason I’m here.