By: Malcolm Mayhew
It’s the Monday after Mother’s Day, and internationally renowned photographer Rambo Elliott is finally home.
Rambo — the mononym she uses in her personal and professional life — had been on an extended road trip at the behest of a major fashion brand, cramped in a van with her husband and two professional models as they journeyed to national parks and documented their adventures.
Although she’s back in her own bed, work commitments continue full tilt. There’s an upcoming premiere of a short film she wrote and directed, social media posts to catch up on, shoots to plan, plus photo editing from this latest trip.
But today the sun is strong in a clear blue sky, and the front porch beckons. Rambo and her husband kick back with a friend and banter about board games and music and cooking. Cars whizz by. Somewhere, a leaf blower roars. Time passes, but no one is wearing a watch.
In just four years, Rambo established a career that includes prestigious credits like GQ, Rolling Stone and Essence. Many of her most recognized photographs feature local-musician-gone-global Leon Bridges. Their artistic partnership started in 2014 when she was getting serious about photography and his career was taking off. She became his exclusive tour photographer, and together they traveled the world at breakneck speed.
Finally, she had to take a break. “From the moment I started photography, people considered me successful, but I still had a lot to learn,” she says. “I needed the time to say, ‘What am I apart from this?’”
Rambo began exploring fashion photography and thinking critically — and comically — about her own androgynous style (check out her Instagram stories for the latest musings). “I actually dress quite extra on the weekends,” she says with a laugh. “I have a lot of formal wear that I force into social situations that probably don’t call for it. I’m a fan of silk gloves, and I also wear a bandana almost every day.”
But when it’s work time, she lives in black jeans. She made a short film and shot artists and musicians at South by Southwest in Austin and for Fort Worth’s Fortress Festival. She now has corporate clients, including an ongoing relationship with Visit Fort Worth, one she says she truly enjoys. “I want to help the city develop, to make it better, safer — and weirder!” she adds with a laugh.
But Rambo’s aesthetics remain rooted in portraiture, an art form she believes has been overlooked by this generation. Much of her new work explores the feminine form — “a woman’s perspective on a woman’s body” — supplanting body shame with beauty and strength. “The human body has always been the most important thing for me,” she explains. “I’ve always been interested in humans and healing.”
In a sense, it’s a continuation of long-playing life themes. Rambo grew up dreaming of being a doctor, believing that a medical career would be her ticket out of a chaotic life in rural Arkansas. It was. After earning a degree from the University of Oklahoma, she became a neuromuscular therapist. Then, a violent event, the circumstances of which she’s not keen to discuss, changed everything in an instant. As part of her recovery, she picked up a camera.
The connection was instant and organic, as was the acclaim. Not that Rambo intends to stop and enjoy it. “I always want to challenge myself,” she says. “I never want to be in the mindset of being finished — I always want to be unfinished. Always.”
Roll Like Rambo: The Essential Three
1. Black jeans. Rambo lives in black jeans. They form the foundation of her everyday uniform, which usually includes a white T-shirt and a comfortable, closed-toe shoe. After all, when your job takes you from concert venues to national parks, and you have to move, crouch and kneel to get the shot, the best style is an effortless one.
2. Board Games. Sunday night is game night, and Rambo relishes the “real people experience” of getting together in friendly competition over a piece of colorful cardboard. Favorites include Scattergories and Hungry Hungry Hippos. Her only rule of play: The game isn’t over until everybody wins.
3. Telephones. Rambo has been collecting vintage telephones since she was 16, an homage to her grandmother, who worked for the phone company. She has an impressive collection, ranging from doughnut circles to rotary-dial, wall mount styles, and she displays them in groups like art installations throughout her home.
By: Malcolm Mayhew