Friday, July 20, 2012

Street Style is a Hustle: My Interview with Reuben "Big Rube" Harley of Street Gazing and Philadelphia Daily News

Reuben "Big Rube" Harley is a Philadelphia institution. People know him wherever he goes, honking their horn in recognition or shouting out his name as he walks down the streets. He's also something of a renaissance man, former Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development for the athletic apparel company Mitchell & Ness, local fashion personality, and as of 2010, street style photographer, with his own street style blog, Street Gazing, and a weekly feature in the Philadelphia Daily News. I sat down for my interview with Big Rube last Wednesday at Slice Pizza, 1740 Sansom St in Center City. 

Brent: So what got you involved with street style photography?

Reuben: About two years ago I got a camera for a birthday gift, and since I had always framed everything that I saw in my head, looking at things in an artful way, I started messing with the camera, and next thing you know, I just started hitting the streets.  My grandmother got the New York Times every Sunday, and I remembered the Sunday Times with Bill Cunningham, and I said, “Wow!’ There’s a void in Philly. Let’s make it happen!”

Brent: Have you had any formal training in photography?

Reuben: Nothing at all. My uncle is a photographer, though, and always had a camera around and shot us when we were younger, so I got little tips from him, and I made my mistakes through just learning. My uncle gave me little tips on shutter speed and aperture, and I just went from there.

Brent: So an informal training, then.

Reuben: Yes. But not like in the classroom or anything. I learned on the go.

Brent: So what are your biggest photographic inspirations?

Reuben: Actually, when I first started, in 2010, I would go around different parts of Philly and shoot kids in the summertime, you know playing with water plugs and whatnot, and I reverted back to my memories of seeing Gordon Park’s photos. I was getting images of kids naturally out in the park and on the block, and I started developing these photos, and thought, “Wow! I got something here!”

Brent: What do you look for in the people you shoot?

Reuben: Not anything specific. I mean, basically, I look at their style. But I’ll say what I like. I love a sexy woman that’s confident, walking around in her heels, carrying her bag. That’s what I like, but whatever I see I just react to it.

Image by Reuben Harley.

Brent: Is it more of an instinct thing?

Reuben: Yeah. It’s totally instinct. Because if I run around thinking “I’m looking for a Gucci bag,” I’ll drive myself insane, and pass up some other greatness that walked right past me. So it’s all reaction to what I see. A certain swagger, the way a person walks.

Brent: So how did the Philadelphia Daily News gig come about?

Reuben: That goes back to my childhood, and me just being a hustler. Everything that I’ve done, I’ve done on the highest level, from selling ice, to going around to barbershops and hair salons all over Philly in my pickup truck and selling food, to stepping into [the sports apparel company] Mitchell & Ness in 2000 and making that a worldwide phenomenon. So I figured, if I’ve got a camera I’m going to be the best photographer there is. And seeing that void out here in the market, where it was just wide open in Philly, I said, “Hey, the Daily News doesn’t have no lifestyle thing going on,” and I just asserted myself. Being brash is my forte. I ask for what I want.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: So is street style blogging a form of hustling?

Reuben:  Oh yeah. No doubt about it. I look at it as like a business. You know, I’m gonna take it there. I did my research on guys like Tommy Ton and Scott Schuman, and I was like, ok, this is going to fill that gap in the Philly market. Because I had no formal training or education, I relied on working my mouth. Soon, I had exhibitions going on, businesses approaching me. I started doing head shots. Up the street at 500 degrees they have a wall mural of my photography of people eating burgers, and that just grew out of the street style stuff I was doing. I mean, a good image is a good image, no matter what it is. You get that great lighting, you capture that subject in a certain way, and people are going to respond to it.

Brent: So do you think of yourself as a photographer now?

Reuben: Oh, no doubt. Although my old publisher once said to, “You’re not a photographer; you’re a photo voyeur. Everything you do is an artful way. You don’t take regular photographs.” Photographers are mechanical in the way they do things and how their subjects respond to them, and what I do is totally different. I’m actually a photo voyeur.

Image by Reuben Harley
Brent: So what’s your process like when you go out and shoot people?

Reuben: I just hit the pavement, whether I’m on my bike or walking. Everybody knows me, and I’ve come to accept that I’m a personality. People just warm up to me. Whether I’m shooting candid or posed, I’m hard pressed to get a “no” out of people. I just get out there and smile and boom! The magic happens.

Brent: So when you first started out was it different than that? Did it take a while to build up that recognition?

Reuben: No doubt. Because people boxed me in as one thing, “Ok that’s Big Rube, the fashion marketing guy,” and it’s like “I’m not used to seeing him in this light, walking the streets. I’ve seen him on TV or wherever, doing events. And now he’s walking the street taking photos of people.” Some people they just didn’t get me. They thought, “What is this guy doing?” It was totally foreign to a lot of people in Philly. But I knew in my mind that this was going to happen, and I paved the way for other people to open up and enjoy this market, because I cracked it first.

Brent: And also paved the ground, because when I go out there shooting, people know what I’m doing. And people bring up your name all the time. Which is one of the reasons why I thought, alright, I gotta meet this guy.

Reuben: Oh, well thank you. I didn’t know that.

Brent: And a lot of people that I’ve shot turn out to have been shot by you, you know, some obvious choices, Erik Honesty, Grace Gordon, Doc Marten store people. Do you ever feel like there’s any danger of running out of people to shoot in this town?

Image by Reuben Harley. Click here for my shots of Grace.
Image by Reuben Harley. Click here for my shot of Erik.
Reuben: Oh no. They call this the sixth borough. Especially Saturdays, Sundays when I’m out, I meet so many people from all over. I mean I’ve shot people from Australia, from the UK, from New York, everywhere all over the world right here in Philly. And they just love it. I mean, I’ve gotten a lot of world followers from that. So yeah, I never worry about that. And because it’s not just fashion I’m shooting, it’s style, I’ve always got someone to shoot. So if a guy is walking down the street in bell bottoms, and he’s rocking it with that swagger, I’m going to shoot it.

Brent: So it’s about swagger first and clothes second.

Reuben: Yeah, because you know the confidence exudes. When you walk into the room and somebody’s confident, there’s an aura that just hits you. It’s like, wow, I gotta deal with this person in a certain manner.

Brent: Do you think there’s a distinctive Philly style?

Reuben: No doubt about it. People are just more laid back here. It wasn’t always like that, though, because I remember just 20 years ago, as a teenager, coming down here [to Center City], and seeing men just looking sharp, dressed to the T, guys in hats, women in skirts with heels on. That was just a regular thing. And we lost that. But I think it’s coming back. It’s coming back. People are progressively getting sharper in their dress, and I love it. It’s giving me more great subjects to capture.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: Any interesting trends that you’ve noticed lately?

Reuben:  Especially in the summer, these kids are wearing a lot of fitted shorts and tank tops. Tank tops are real huge, and for women a lot of stripes, wedges, clogs, Daisy Dukes.

Brent: Yeah, I notice that too. They’re getting shorter and shorter.

Reuben: Yeah. I like it.

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: Do you have a lot of contact with other people doing street style blogs?

Reuben: Yeah, some in Philly. Mostly internationally. A lot of people I’ve met at Fashion Weeks I keep in contact with. And it’s cool, because I find I actually pick them up on their game. They see how people react to me, and it’s like, “How do you do that? How do you get your subject to do whatever you want?” I encourage them a lot. And you know, me and Bill Cunningham are some of the few people doing this who are actually in print every week, so I’ve inspired people. People see this guy who’s a photographer of street style, but is not classically trained, doesn’t cover sports or anything like that. They pay him for a column, in print. If you’re a photographer, no matter who you are, you want to see your work in print. My work is in print every week.

Brent: It still makes a difference.

Reuben: Oh yeah.

Brent: Do you go to blogging conferences and things like that too?

Reuben: Nah, I actually haven’t, because you know, like I said, I’m a photographer. I’m not an insider to that world. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t go, but you know, it’s like I have my own technique. I do what I enjoy. I’m not really into that mix. Good or bad.

Brent: So you were talking about doing fashion and marketing prior to getting into street style photography. Tell me a little about that.

Reuben: Well I was with Mitchell & Ness from 2000 to 2006, where I turned the world upside down with throwback jerseys. A kid from West Philly, a high school dropout, had a dream of taking a whole company and making it big. I made that happen. And had every celebrity in the world buying our stuff. It took me from the steps of West Philly to Osaka, Japan. It was a phenomenon like no other. And there hasn’t been one since. Everybody wanted to have a throwback on, from Jay Z to Justin Timberlake to Mariah Carey. It was a whirlwind. I dreamed it, and it came true. And that really introduced my name to the world. I’m not an entertainer or an athlete, but I have a nickname that people know. Big Rube is well respected. I’ve been in Time Magazine, People Magazine. Every major publication covered Mitchell & Ness, TV, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Today Show, Good Morning America. It’s been a journey that I wouldn’t take back for anything.

I always say that life is a book. There’s chapters in it, and I’m just flipping through them. This is just another chapter in my life. Maybe a couple years from now there’ll be another chapter. But for right now, I’m enjoying being creative and doing what I do.

Brent: So what else are you involved in these days?

Reuben: Well I’m still doing creative marketing, marketing the brand of Street Gazer. I do fashion photography for various brands or whatever, and I put my own stamp on them. 

Image by Reuben Harley.
Brent: You’re doing partnerships with different brands, but I haven’t noticed any advertisements or paid content, or at least obvious paid content, on your blog. What are your feelings about that?

Reuben: Well, I kinda do it in a way. What I do is they send me the product or a model, and I pick one, shoot it, and put “The Street Gazer for American Apparel” on it, or “Street Gazer for Hush Puppies,” or this hosiery brand that I shot. So I do a lot of that sort of thing instead of banner ads and whatnots. But, you know I’m working on banners, because there’s a lot of companies that want to advertise on my site. Actually, I’m working on a new site now.

Image by Reuben Harley. Street Gazing: Audrey Kitching for American Apparel. 
Brent: With a similar concept?

Reuben: Yeah. A similar concept but with some tasteful company endorsements and banners, linking what I do with a whole lifestyle. You know like, “This is the beverage I drink. “ That sort of thing.

Brent: So are you going to keep up the old one too or is it all going to collapse into the new?

Reuben: No, it’s all going to collapse into there. It’s still going to be that honest content that you see, but it’s just more about the monetary aspect on this one, because, you know, gotta pay for the bread.

Brent: No doubt. It’s not cheap to be able to do what you love.

Reuben: No, it’s not. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I can honestly say I haven’t been on anybody’s payroll since I was 19. Everything I’ve done is in collaboration.

Brent: Do you run into any other street style bloggers when you’re out shooting?

Reuben: Yeah, every now and then. There’s a lot of them that I don’t know personally, and they’ll come up to me and tell me how much I inspired them, and opened up a lot of doors for them. I love it. They say money is one thing, but the accolades are everything. You start out doing something for you, and the world interprets it, and gives it back to you.

Image by Reuben Harley. Kim of Eat.Sleep.Wear.

Brent: So what advice would you give someone trying to get in on this game?

Reuben: If anything, don’t take no for an answer. If someone says no, you’re talking to the wrong person. I don’t have any formal training or anything like that, but I have an innate nature not to be mediocre, not to be regular. Everything I do, I do at the highest level. I kicked down that door. I’ve spoken at colleges and prisons, juvenile centers, schools, and people are surprised by my story, and it’s like, ok, he had all the odds against him, but he didn’t let that take him in a direction that most people do in life. If you put your boundary up against me, that’s your problem. It ain’t mine. Just kick it down. Keep your mouth talking. Somebody’s gonna listen. Somebody’s gonna open that door for you. But you can’t play Double Dutch with it, you know, ring and run. You in, you in. You out, you out. I want in. 

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