Imagine being able to travel all over the world doing something you love. This is a reality for Ron Behrmann. His job as a photographer has given him the opportunity to visit exotic places and recapture those memories through pictures.
As a balloonist and photographer, he has mixed with royalty, competed with top balloonists and attended around-the-world balloon events. Behrmann, known simply as “The Balloon Photographer,” will attend his 27th Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta this year. Originally from Utah, he moved to Albuquerque in 1976 and began covering the balloon fiesta the following year.
I had the opportunity to speak with Behrmann on the phone while he was doing a photo shoot for the Wine and Food Festival in Aspen, Colo.
Why did you choose this as your career?
Basically, when I sold my waterbed and furniture store in the '80s, my wife decided that I was very good at photography and decided that's what I should be doing. It took me a couple of years to discover my wife was right.
Never doubt a woman, huh?
What sparked your interest in photographing balloons?
Prior to moving to Albuquerque, I photographed for Skiing magazine and Powder. I also did a lot of drag racing photos. In New Mexico there was very little drag racing. Ballooning is a big sport in Albuquerque. I'd flown balloons prior to that when I lived in Utah. That's what piqued my interest. When we moved to Albuquerque, it was kind of natural to go check it out. Once we checked it out, we discovered the beauty of balloons. We bought our first balloon in 1992.
Tell me about your balloon, “A Little Exposure.”
Trish [Behrmann's wife] got the bug and decided to buy a balloon. She found the balloon she liked the best and we came up with the design. We felt it was very photogenic. It's been in a lot of calendars and on the cover. The balloon itself is blue, yellow, pink and turquoise—very New Mexican.
Is it the balloons themselves that you enjoy photographing, or is it more the scenery?
It's a combination of everything. So much of my work is more scenic.
Do you already know what you want to photograph beforehand, or do you take the more spontaneous approach?
How did you earn the name “The Balloon Photographer”?
It's a moniker that people have used for a long, long time and because of its continued use the name stuck. But I am not the only one. There are at least 10 photographers that make a decent living from balloons throughout the world.
The photos you take are put into calendars. How many calendars do you provide photos for?
The calendar that features all my photos is A Beautiful Year in Ballooning. I've also supplied photos for 10 other calendars.
What are some beautiful scenes you've encountered in photographing balloons in New Mexico?
The Red Rock in Gallup, Albuquerque over the river and balloons over White Sands. It's like flying over the snow, but it's not cold.
Are there any characteristics you incorporate in your photos that are different from other photographer's photos?
Not consciously. I have a lot of clarity in my shots and work with blue skies, and a lot of patterns. It's interesting that folks will say, “That's got to be a Ron Behrmann photograph.” Sometimes it is and sometimes it's not. There's a lot of great balloon photographers out there. I am just one of the few that does balloon photography so intently.
Which photographs do you consider your signature photographs?
There are about 25 or 30 images that I could probably pull out.
How do the publishers choose which photos will be in the calendar, and do the photos differ from your personal preference?
A lot of times publishers pick out 12 photographs (from 100). At least 50 percent of the time they pick my secondary photographs rather than my prime. They choose the photos based on their color scheme. You can have five professionals judging one thing and they'll have different perspectives on what is good or bad.
What is one of the most exciting things about your job?
The most exciting thing about balloon photography is the recognition I get from my peers. I consider myself more of a balloonist than a photographer. It is rewarding that people love my work. To me, that is more important than the money.
Your job takes you all over the world. What are some of the most incredible places you have been?
I've been to Morocco, Jordan, France, Switzerland, Canada and all over the U.S.
Do you ever find yourself out of work or is there always something to photograph?
After balloon season, I photograph things that are not balloon oriented.
You have been to balloon festivals around the world. What makes them different?
Some of them are in exotic locations and some are one-time events. One event I attended was King Hussein's [bin Tabal] birthday party in Jordan. In Morocco, I attended an around-the-world balloon event. Some of them are exclusive events that just kind of happen. There was a private event at the Forbe's Chateau [in France]. There was an event in St. Nicholas, Belgium of the top 50 balloonists in the world. We [Behrmann and his wife] were invited because of my photography. Oh yeah. The opportunity and the experiences we've had are immeasurable.
How popular is hot air ballooning all over the country and all over the world?
People love balloons. It's very rare to find someone who hates them. There are roughly 4,500 in the whole country and there are roughly 10,000 worldwide. When we're flying, we're very visible and uplifting. People enjoy seeing balloons. When I tell people I'm a balloon pilot and photographer, they get excited.
Do you have a lot of competition?
There are other balloon photographers out there and on certain occasions we compete to get a photo in a magazine. For the most part, there aren't many photographers doing it. We try not to step on each other's toes. It's like what we call … um …
Yeah, a courtesy.
Does it ever get mundane photographing balloons all the time?
I am constantly photographing new things and it becomes more and more of a challenge all the time. At this point in time I'm still doing 20 to 25 events a year and I haven't gotten bored yet. I've been photographing balloons actively since 1977.
How do you make it more exciting?
I mentally try to come up with my own challenge. I try to experiment with different things and manipulate situations. I can't come up with a perfect balloon photo because I haven't been able to produce it or say, “This is the perfect one.”
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
Very much so. I'm never quite satisfied. That's good. If you are too satisfied, you get complacent. If you don't have challenges, it becomes boring.
What are some of the most unique types of photos you've taken?
I've done a lot of work with extreme wide angles. Such as from inside the basket. From inside the basket you can get a view from the inside showing the burning system and the inside of the balloon. The publisher [of the calendar] thinks they are neat, but not sellable. The standard balloon shot is the nice scenery that gives you scale, color and background. For the most part people want to see hundreds of balloons in Albuquerque [in photos].
Do your own private likes and dislikes conflict with public demand?
I'll get complaints from balloonists when I don't get their balloon in the calendar. But rarely will I have people tell me, “That photo really sucked.”
You teach a class on photographing balloons. Tell me a little about it.
Yes, every so often we have seminars on how to photograph balloons.
Can anybody attend?
Have you held any classes here in New Mexico?
We've only done private seminars. We've thought about [having classes].
I bet you'd have a pretty good turnout.
That may be an angle we're going to pursue. We are always so busy for the balloon fiesta. Sometimes it's hard to change your scope of work. We need to devote more time to teaching people.
Tell me what other professions you've held in the balloon business.
I've been a contributing editor and staff photographer for Ballooning magazine.
How has the balloon fiesta changed since the first time you attended?
A big difference is the size. It outgrew itself. Back then there were about 200 balloons now there are about 700 to 750.
Do you think the commercialization of the event has interfered with its overall beauty?
I don't think you can diminish the overall beauty of the event. The commercialization was necessary to keep the balloon fiesta as big as it is.
What are some of the most beautiful balloons you've seen in Albuquerque?
That's a tough one. Even more mundane balloons have a certain beauty about them. The ones that get the most attention are the special shape balloons. With the right lighting and background, you can make any balloon look good. Probably 90 percent of the photos we sell are of standard balloons. We usually have to have one or two calendars with special shape balloons in them.
On average, how many calendars do you sell a year?
Anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 a year. The best we've sold is in the range of 50,000.
What is one of the most exciting ventures you've been on through your job?
I did an Australian balloon race. It took two weeks to complete.
Tell me about the book Hot Air Ballooning.
It features all of my photography and I wrote the book itself. The content is mostly pictures and rudimentary information on ballooning and balloon events.
How has your wife and business partner Trish been an influence in your work?
She keeps me grounded.
Ha! How so?
Since she's not in the middle of all the time, she has an outsider's view. She directs me.
Are there ever times when you look at the beautiful scenery and are not able to get to your camera on time?
I am hardly ever without my camera. But the most scenic moments are in my head.
Are your pictures in color or in black and white? What is the importance of having them one way or the other?
They are in color. Ballooning is such a colorful sport. I have not found a way to pull off black and white photography in ballooning. It is a visual genre.
Has there ever been a time when you said, “I don't want to do this anymore.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your job?
The advantage is that I am doing something I love. The disadvantage is the amount of travel that's involved. We average 90 days out on the road.
What are your future plans?
Well, I can't imagine myself not taking photos. I think over the next few years, I'll start doing my photography digitally. All the photography in my calendars is not digital. It doesn't produce the quality I want yet.
Describe to me a day in the life of a balloon photographer.
We get up way too early at 4 a.m. We get prepped and go to the field and wait for a pilot briefing—which basically says which direction the winds will be and explains weather conditions. Then we decide where we need to go. We're finished by the time a lot of people go to work.
What do you love about New Mexico?
The spirit of the state itself and the people.
Do you plan to cover this year's balloon fiesta?
Absolutely. I'll be there all 10 days.