The Rise of Rukes: How a Low-Key Cameraman Conquered Dance Music Photography
Stealth and symmetry lie at the heart of Drew Ressler's artistic approach.
When festival moments fade to memory, the dance music world relives them through Rukes.
Artists regularly plaster his signature shots across their social feeds, showcasing their sets as they've always imagined them -- messianic figures facing the full fisheye glory of an endless crowd while CO2 spews in perfectly timed plumes.
The man behind dance music’s most desired photos is a bearded, soft-spoken video game enthusiast named Drew Ressler. For a guy with more than 160,000 Facebook fans, star DJs on speed dial, and his website splayed across his chest, Rukes is arrestingly humble. With a calm and measured tone, he describes how his approach can be distilled down to stealth and symmetry.
“If my shots aren't perfectly centered, it bugs me a little bit,” he says, shrugging. “I like being as stealthy as possible. Most people don’t even know I’m there.”
Rukes previously worked as a video game tester and can speak the same uber-leet language as many of the DJs he calls friends. True to form, his Rukes alias originated from a “rules” typo in an AOL chat room during the mid-90s. He credits gaming and directors like Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson with helping inform his behind-the-lens aesthetic.
“I’ve always been a very visual person,” he says. “I always loved pixel art -- how they're able to get art just out of squares. It’s just very visually pleasing to me… I feel like I’m Porter Robinson now.”
Rukes was first introduced to photography by publicist Lainie Copicotto, who invited him out to his first show and introduced him to BT. After the video game company he worked for went bankrupt in 2004, Rukes moved to L.A., bought a DSLR and cold-called DJs at Hollywood club Avalon to get his first gigs.
“Unlike New York, there was a good DJ playing every week at Avalon,” he says. “I just hit them up and was like ‘I have a camera and I'm learning photography, do you mind if I come by to take some pictures?’ They were like ‘Here's a photo pass,’ because back then no one else took pictures.”
Rukes soon found himself meeting some of his favorite musicians, including Welsh breaks duo Hybrid, who encouraged him to keep working at his craft.
“Mike Truman is a really good visual guy and he’s like, ‘You know, I think you have an eye for photography,’” he says. “I’m like ‘I do?’ A lot of my photographer friends were helping me, and it just built up from there.”
Tired of dealing with drunk and obnoxious crowds, Rukes began bucking the nightlife trend by prioritizing shots of DJs over fans in an era when the former wasn't typically the focus. It was a distinct approach that proved ahead of its time.
“I kind of jumped the gun on that,” he says. “Back then it was more about the people than the DJs, but I figured that it’d eventually be like rock shows where everyone’s taking pictures of artists -- which is how it should be. And that’s now where the scene’s at.”
Living in L.A., one fateful meeting has a way of leading to more. While shooting a Giant show in Orange County, Rukes met and befriended Tommy Lee and DJ Aero. Lee would later take Rukes to deadmau5’s first LA show and introduce him to the rising dance star.
“He was like, ‘I’ve heard of your work, and I like your stuff,’” Rukes recalls. “From there it built up to ‘why don't you come with me to WMC and take pictures?' I started going on tour all over the world with him. It was a first for the industry, and every other DJ was like ‘I want what deadmau5 has.’ It just went up and up.”
Rukes first met Zedd while touring with deadmau5 in Taiwan, and they soon "became best friends." The German artist offered Rukes unprecedented access, allowing him to fully document the Clarity studio sessions and subsequent world tour. As Zedd achieved crossover success, Rukes' profile continued to blossom into dance music's most in-demand cameraman.
"Each year I'd be like, 'Ok this is the biggest year I've ever done, it's not going to get any bigger,' and then it just gets bigger," he says. "Now I'm usually taking an international gig every month and promoters hire me, so I'm going out to do festivals and not touring as much."
Rukes has the festival circuit down to a science, figuring out logistics in advance and familiarizing himself with popular songs to prepare for drops. He admits that repeatedly taking his signature "behind the DJ" shot gets tedious -- as well as more difficult, as stages get higher and higher. He recently had to invest in a Monopod when his tiptoes would no longer suffice.
"The shot makes festivals a bit more difficult because I know so many DJs, and they all want the same stuff," he says. "But as long as everyone's happy, it doesn't matter how repetitive it is. It makes me happy that other people are happy."
While Rukes enjoys his practically full-time festival schedule, he sorely misses being on tour. He recently promised Zedd that he’d clear his schedule to come along for the entire True Colors world tour.
“You get so many candids, and it’s almost like a mini-vacation,” he says. “You usually explore whichever city you're in. Tour buses are always a fun thing. You get back on the tour bus and wake up in a new city - it starts all over again.”
Rukes attributes some of his success to consummate, perhaps compulsive, perfectionism. He religiously deletes photos that don't meet his lofty standards and refuses to settle until he gets his shot -- practices that have gained him the trust of notoriously camera-shy artists like Calvin Harris.
"They know I’m not going to get in the way," he says. "And they know I’m going to take good photos.”
Social media plays a major role as well. Rukes has built six-figure followings that rival many of the artists he shoots, and he regularly engages with artists and fans. He adopts a different approach for each platform, posting galleries and standalone shots to Facebook once per day and using only iPhone shots for Instagram. One of Rukes’ favorite pastimes is trolling his famous friends on Twitter - a platform that has helped showcase his irreverent sense of humor.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a little bit of a comedian,” he says. “Zingers and things like that. I became friends with so many DJs, and they became so comfortable with me, that I could poke fun at them. People like Dillon Francis and I work well together -- I’ll make fun of him and he’ll make fun of me. But no one can top him. He’s like the ultimate comedian.”
Rukes has also leveraged his recognizable brand (prominently featured in this year's HARD Summer trailer) into a budding merchandise line and a successful on-demand printing business. While he says event photography will always be his meal ticket, he enjoys dabbling in video and press shots as well.
"Zedd's my favorite person to practice with," he says. "I need to learn how to shoot footage really well, then I'll probably start video as a side thing."
As the dance industry continues to expand and touring schedules get more demanding, Rukes has noticed a growing trend of artists hiring in-house photographers. He celebrates it, rather than seeing it as a threat, noting that most managers will still make him the exception to any exclusivity rule.
“A lot of guys are like ‘we need our own Rukes,’ which is good because there are other good photographers out there,” he says. “It means I don’t need to get hit up by like 50 different DJs for the same thing.”
Rukes pauses, smiling sheepishly.
“I still get hit up a lot though,” he continues. "‘Is Rukes shooting this?’ Yep I’m shooting it. I’ll be there. Don’t worry.”