It was 2008 and the U.S. was entering a full-blown economic recession. The housing market was teetering on the brink of collapse and with it, Randy Ruby’s livelihood. Ruby had it made – cars, disposable income, and multiple properties in Redondo Beach. He had done well enough as a real estate agent to remain planted in the affluent community of his youth – his father had been a teacher at Meadow Park and Calle Mayor Elementary School in the 1960s, so Ruby grew up in Redondo Beach – and he was eyeing retirement. But almost overnight, everything changed. “I lost a lot,” Ruby said. “I was bummed out. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like I had to get out of here.” Without making any kind of long-term plan, he moved to Kona – he had lived in O’ahu with a local family for his last year of high school, and the islands felt familiar – but before long realized Hawai’i couldn’t solve his problems. Only he could. “I realized within a few months I hadn’t needed to get out of Redondo; I just wasn’t smelling the roses,” Ruby says now, looking appreciatively at a glimmering ocean on a hot Redondo Beach afternoon. So Ruby moved home. His savings were dwindling, but he was taking time to gather his thoughts, count his blessings, and smell the roses. He spent time watching the waves. He kayaked with the whales; hiked the rolling hills of Palos Verdes; surfed Burnout. Things that had taken a backseat to his real estate career –surfing and hiking and appreciating the great outdoors – shifted into the foreground. “I just really became aware of the natural beauty around me that I think for a long time I took for granted,” Ruby said. With an inexpensive camera, he started to document the things that people love about Redondo Beach – waves, dolphins, sunsets, surfers – and post them to his Facebook page.
The social media community’s response took him completely by surprise. His photographs struck a resounding chord: for people who had moved away from Redondo Beach, they were sentimental; for Redondo Beach residents they were a reminder that this piece of California coast is a blessing. Redondo Beach resident Collen Cox says Ruby’s photos especially resonated with her parents, both lifelong South Bay residents. “Randy Ruby’s photos have meant a lot to my parents,” she wrote in an email. “They both grew up in the South Bay and love the beach. Before my mom started her chemo treatment (she has been too sick for most of the last nine months to walk on the beach) they would go every morning and collect shells, swim, and enjoy what our beaches have to offer. “They would run into Randy all the time. We started buying his photos and they always encouraged my mom as she has continued her treatment. He is a great guy who captures what we love about living in the South Bay!” Kimberly Coulson Lowery was born and raised in Redondo Beach but lives on the East Coast and just this summer dipped her toes into the Pacific Ocean at Avenue C for the first time in 30 years. “Your images make me feel as if I am right there, able to feel the salt air and ocean breeze on my skin, smell and taste it, feel the ‘vibe’ of the beach lifestyle I so long for, and bring me so much joy it’s impossible for me to explain… California dreamin’, indeed,” she told Ruby via Facebook. She has never met him.
A new direction
The social media community’s response energized Ruby. “I felt like I was being led to do something, which sounds corny but I don’t mean it to,” he said. “The notes I would get on Facebook would just blow me away. Before, I was a property manager and Realtor and I dealt with people’s problems. I wasn’t used to such happy feedback.” He started to contemplate a career in photography – something he had never considered prior. Browsing displays at the Hermosa Fair, it struck Ruby that most local photographers were chronicling Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. Images of Redondo Beach had a lesser presence. “I realized there might be a market for what I was doing and I was like, ‘Let’s give it a try.’” So he did. He scrapped his plan to apply for a job at Trader Joe’s, and devoted his time to watching the sea, waiting for the winning shot. “I was down at the beach all the time, walking around, ready for the rainbows,” he said. “I was in my kayak and hiking around, observing for a living. Never in my wildest dreams would I have pictured myself taking pictures. But it just felt right.” By 2012 he had a full-fledged photography business and nearly 5,000 followers on his photography business’ Facebook page. But later that year, hiking along the Palos Verdes cliffs in pursuit of the perfect shot, he fell when the soil underfoot crumbled under the weight of heavy rain. He shattered the bones in his leg and for two hours he was stranded, immobile, but managed to call his friend Mary Larson, who contacted emergency services. Ruby was picked up by a rescue helicopter and taken to the hospital. Forced into a wheelchair, Ruby couldn’t kayak or hike for months, but he could brainstorm, and he used that time to figure out how to make a website and connect with retailers. Life had again complicated his career plan, but Ruby knew the drill: be positive and count your blessings, and the kinks will work themselves out.
A tough lesson
It was a lesson he first learned at the age of 21, when he was a new sales hire. He was proud of his three-piece suit and his company car, and the future was looking bright. But one night, he awoke in his Torrance apartment to the smell of something burning. Blinded by dense clouds of smoke, he made his way to a window, through which he jumped to the street two floors below. Critically burnt over 35 percent of his body, he was rushed to the burn unit at Torrance Memorial Hospital by an off-duty fireman who happened to be at the scene. Tragically, his best friend didn’t survive the fire. For six years Ruby would be in and out of surgeries and skin graft treatments. He was ordered to stay out of the sun – to an avid surfer, a devastating prescription. “They told me I’d have very limited use of my hands, fingers, and arms for the rest of my life,” Ruby said. But instead of lamenting the end of his sales career, he used his time in the hospital to study for the Realtors’ exam, and by the age of 25 he was certified to sell property. When he was well enough, he went to the beach and into the ocean to find healing and peace. “You just learn that you’ve got to go with the flow and you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” Ruby says now. “That’s just the way it goes. You don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring, so you have to be grateful for what you have today.” Presently he is preparing to donate his images to the Torrance Memorial burn unit and local fire departments as a way to thank them for saving his life.
Mayor of the Esplanade
Now, almost fully recovered from last year’s leg injury, Ruby paddles out daily to shoot dolphins, whales, surfers, paddlers, and sailboats. He walks the Esplanade at all hours, documenting sunsets, rainbows, bicyclists, joggers, kids playing in the waves, Church on the Beach, the street after the rain. Mayor Steve Aspel calls him the “unofficial mayor of the Esplanade.” “He’s an icon on the Esplanade,” Aspel said. “Even when he tore up his leg and he was in a wheelchair, you’d see him out there every day rolling around. I don’t know how he did it. He did his leg trying to get that great shot.” “He goes above and beyond to capture really amazing dolphin pictures swimming in the surf,” said DeeDee Schiller, one of Ruby’s Facebook followers. “Rain or shine you can always count on Randy to be out on the beach with his camera. He deserves a lot of recognition for truly beautiful pieces of art.” Aspel says it is this persistence, dedication, and commitment to his niche that set Ruby apart as a photographer. “He’s a local guy and he’s been here his whole life, and he’s just always out there,” he said. “People who go down to the Esplanade see him every day… He’s like the unofficial mayor… of the Esplanade.” District 1 councilmember Jeff Ginsburg says Ruby has managed to carve out a place for himself in South Redondo Beach culture. “Randy gets all the wonderful sunsets, the dolphins, the surfers,” Ginsburg said. “If it has anything to do with the beach or the ocean in Redondo, Randy Ruby’s probably got a photo of it… He does a great job and he’s great for the area and neighborhood.” With Larson’s help, Ruby makes prints and greeting cards featuring his photos, which are available for purchase in establishments like Casa Playa, Party House, Card de A, The Avenue, and Beach Hut. Terranea Resort’s gift shop, Point Discovery, sells his cards. His photos are being exhibited for six weeks at Trump National Golf Course in Palos Verdes, and King Harbor Yacht Club is displaying an exhibition of his photographs through Nov. 7.
A surfer first
So what’s his secret? Why has he gained such widespread recognition? The answer is not his equipment. On land, he shoots with high-grade gear – a Canon EOS 60D and a Canon EOS Rebel T3i – but when he’s in his kayak, Ruby uses a waterproof, point-and-shoot camera. He gets the shot because he is patient, and because he engages with marine life. “I shoot from a kayak because you can go where a boat can’t and you’re not scaring dolphins or whales,” he said. “I don’t chase them. I go out there and sit and hope they get curious and come to me. Most of the time the dolphins will join me and stay with me. I’ve really learned the dolphins. I’ve learned how they play.” A longtime surfer, he is comfortable with the ocean and respectful of its inhabitants. Often he labels his photos on Facebook with the tagline, “It’s their ocean; I am just a guest.”
He also knows to respect the privacy of a wave. “I think the surfers appreciate how I shoot it without giving away where it is,” he said. There are some within the surfing community who bristle at the idea that Ruby’s photos are selling out relatively undiscovered local breaks, but there are others who appreciate what he’s doing. “You know, some people are mad that he’s taking pictures of breaks but I say it’s great,” said local surfer Michael Newton. “There’s no one else who’s able to be down there all day, every day, getting pictures of all the local kids. Randy’s down there taking pictures of everybody and really stoking out all the local groms and local surfer guys and they’re getting pictures they wouldn’t normally get because usually photographers are only getting pictures of [sponsored] surfers with a sticker on their board.” Redondo Beach resident Robert Tomlinson says that Ruby knows how to shoot waves because he surfs them. “Randy Ruby is a surfer first and foremost, and his eye for rare instants of beauty is trained from his many years of surfing waves, surrounded by the unique and ever changing beauty of our coastline,” Tomlinson wrote in a Facebook message.
Ruby says he doesn’t feel the urge to expand into new beach territory, as he is committed to shooting the South Bay. “I’m a local guy, there’s no doubt about it. People have asked me to come down and shoot La Jolla or something but I’m like, ‘I got so much here,’” he said, nodding at the sea from a bench on the Esplanade. “I just want to bring smiles to people. I don’t have any kids and I’m not married, so at least I’ll be leaving something behind.” To see Ruby’s work, visit www.randyruby.com, call him at (310) 748-2094, or find him on Facebook (Randy Ruby or Randy Ruby Beach Photography). To stock his greeting cards in your store or small business, give him a call.