The Frank I Knew: A Tribute to Frank Lee Ruggles

Frank Ruggles, Photographer, with his big camera

I had plans for this week’s post, but they all shattered to nothing Monday night when I learned that my friend, fellow photographer, and adventurer Frank Lee Ruggles had passed away (1966-2021).  Frank was a man of mystery, a constant source of inspiration and adventure, and with a personality that could make friends with anyone he met.  Many websites will tell of his accomplishments, so I’ll only mention a few of those in passing here.  Instead, I’d like to talk about how Frank impacted one small-time photographer/blogger… namely, me.

Me (with the green backpack) making my way through the rock formations at the Valley of Dreams to meet Frank Ruggles for the first time (group in the center)
Me (with the green backpack) making my way through the rock formations at the Valley of Dreams to meet Frank Ruggles for the first time (group in the center)

My first encounter with Frank was as I was covertly watching my brothers chat with him while I set up our van for boondocking on a very windy evening in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness of northwestern New Mexico.  We were in literally the middle of nowhere, 50 miles or so from a paved road, in a nearly-unmarked parking area that seemed to have more cows for visitors than humans.  Frank and two friends were off to find rock formations to photograph at sunset.  Frank claimed he was always “chasing the light” – photographers are always crazy about getting the “perfect light,” and Frank was no less crazy than most.  When he and his friends returned (many photos richer), he walked around our quiet van, just to make sure we were all right, before heading to another road to spend the night camping with his friends.  (“I like to make noise and be an adult and stay up late,” he told us later.)  That’s who Frank was: He made sure complete strangers were safe and sound.

Frank Ruggles on the edge of the Grand Canyon
Frank on the edge of the Grand Canyon

In the morning, we stumbled across the trio’s camp on our expedition to the Valley of Dreams East, then met up with Frank and the others in the Valley of Dreams proper.  On foot, and with better-researched directions, I managed to find the Valley of Dreams before Frank Ruggles… I’m a little bit proud of that.

Frank Ruggles (left) and his friend photographing the formation known as the Alien's Throne, New Mexico
Frank (left) and his friend photographing the formation known as the Alien’s Throne

Frank told us about his career as the official national park photographer for 3+ years.  His work hours were from 9am to 5pm, so his boss suggested that he make a book in his “off hours” – which, it happens, is when the light is best for photography.  He made more than one book out of those photos, including “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape.”  I got a copy for my grandparents, and they enjoyed it very much.

Mesa Arch, one of Frank Ruggle's favorite places to photograph sunrise
Mesa Arch, one of Frank’s favorite places to photograph sunrise

We went our separate ways, only to find each other again at the King of Wings parking area.  How we could keep seeing one another in the absolute middle of nowhere, ending up at the same unmarked trailheads and the same destinations with no trails and nothing but GPS tracks and photos to follow, is a mystery.  A thunderstorm blew through, but as we waited for the skies to clear, Frank kept us fascinated with stories.  He was larger than life, but he also was humble enough to know who he really was.  Those two traits don’t often go together, and that’s part of what made Frank so engaging to his listeners.

Frank Ruggles setting up the perfect photo at the Alien's Throne in the Valley of Dreams, New Mexico
Frank setting up the perfect photo at the Alien’s Throne in the Valley of Dreams

Last seen, Frank and his friends were filling up water jugs at a local watering hole.  But once we got back to civilization, I followed him, first on Facebook, then on Instagram, after he personally convinced me of the possibility of using IG on my PC.  That’s who Frank was: He’d help out a random person on Facebook if it meant that they could realize their own full potential or life-dream.

Mt. Rainier National Park by Frank Ruggles
Mt. Rainier National Park

Following Frank Lee Ruggles on Facebook was a variety show.  Most of his posts were of his own stunning photography.  I loved it; those photos were inspiring to this budding photographer, who would study what it was that made each photo great rather than passable.  There were technical details, of course, but it was usually because Frank could tell a story with a photo using light, angle, and other techniques unique to the photographer’s viewpoint.  It was Frank’s story, and by seeing the photo, we were invited into the experience that made the photo a reality.

Joshua Tree National Park by Frank Lee Ruggles
Joshua Tree National Park

Those posts were a constant source of inspiration to me.  Not only did I study his technique, but his work persuaded me that I could, indeed, lay aside my point-and-shoot camera to use a full-fledged DSLR (actually, mine is mirrorless and crop-frame; I didn’t figure I was quite up to Frank’s full-frame Pentax standards yet!)  His work made me think beyond the image straight off of the camera and opened the possibility that it might be best to edit a few of the photos, no matter how slightly, to tell a poignant story of my own.

But sometimes Frank’s posts went well beyond photography.  You never knew what he’d be up to next; besides collecting old photo equipment, we watched as he built a movie theater and recording studio in his basement, collected parts of old cameras (just like Ansel Adams), made twangy videos on one of his many guitars, showed us photos of his peanut butter and bologna rollups, inspired others of all ages and races to get into the outdoors, and occasionally shared parts of his own story.  One day we learned that he’d worked for both the CIA and the FBI.  Another day it was that he’d been in three (?) bands, worked as a bouncer at a bar, and did a summer gig as a professional scuba diver.  We also learned of his wife, Lisa; the story behind how they met (when Frank was homeless after a hurricane and Lisa was volunteering relief work); tidbits about their courtship in the indie music scene; the tenderness in the words whenever he mentioned her (even when she was, in his words, “Drill Sargent Lisa” training him for running marathons).

A young Frank Ruggles in Hawaii
A young Frank Ruggles in Hawaii

How many of these stories were 100% true and how many were the most poetic way of looking at the situation will always be a mystery.  But that’s who Frank was: A guy who loved his wife. A guy who could take a happening and make it into an engaging story. A guy who had an insatiable imagination to dive into new projects like a little kid and finished those projects with perfectionism that sometimes (ok, often) bordered on overachievement.

Frank Ruggles at Harper's Ferry
Frank at Harper’s Ferry

I could go on and say more, but I believe I’ve captured a bit of the Frank Ruggles I knew: A friendly guy, an inspiring man, a man with a varied and surprising past.  A man who would stop for one person and help him or her in any way he could.  A true professional who wouldn’t take “that’s impossible” for an answer and always worked for the best-of-the-best he could possibly accomplish.

If you would like to make a contribution to the National Park Trust – for which Frank was an Artist Ambassador for almost seven years – in memory of Frank Ruggles, please click here.

All photos in this post were taken by Frank Ruggles, except for the one at Harper’s Ferry by Jeff Riegel, and all of the photos from the Valley of Dreams, courtesy of one of my group members.

3 thoughts on “The Frank I Knew: A Tribute to Frank Lee Ruggles

  1. Brad Kaufman

    Anne, thank you so very much for writing about my friend and fellow photographer, Frank. I am his friend in the blue shirt and Paul is the other friend. We shared in his passion but we didnt have his knowledge. He didnt care, he groomed us and taught us well. And clearly he did the same with you, thousands of others and anyone who would listen or just admire his work, his passion or his life.

    Sadly, Frank leaves a huge void in our hearts but I know he is now the Official Photographer for Heaven. God is pleased! Rest easy Frank, we will take it from here.

    ‘Til Valhalla

  2. Anne

    Brad, That’s who Frank was: Never selfish about his knowledge or skill. I’m so blessed to have known him, and while we will all miss him, the skills he left with us will live on. I remember you and Paul; even if you didn’t have the technical skill that Frank possessed, you still impressed (and continue to impress!) me with your own photography. He must have taught you well!

  3. Peter Laitin

    Meeting Frank was a long-lasting experience and he was selfless regarding his time for questions – I will miss our exchanges and I am now a voice for the parks and local sanctuaries that Frank held as a priority to keep this world where it needs to be. His passion transferred to me and it has not stopped since the day we met years ago.

    Frank was the real deal and I have no idea how he made time for ALL his projects…the only man I know that could scale his capabilities and that is insane! He will be very missed and I will carry on his message just like everyone else who knew him.

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