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Arts

Rambo Revealed — The Slow Life of Fort Worth’s Scratchy-Minded Photographer

This True Texas Character Tours With Leon Bridges, Throws Winter Formals and Takes Pictures of a Better World

BY Lisa Shaddock // 09.11.19
photography Rambo

Rambo Elliot is waiting for me on the front porch of her 1950s home in University West — her choppy, bleached-blonde bob jutting out from behind a book: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Herb and vegetable gardens surround the house, masquerading as landscaping.

“Lately my husband has been heating olives with rosemary from the garden and salt,” she says. “We sit on the porch and spit the pits out. We live really slowly. Being a scratchy-minded person, when I can live slow, I think it’s wise. Just to sit on the porch and try to read Charles Dickens and pet my dog and eat olives, I don’t know.”

Rambo herself appears as a character from a novel — her unfiltered, narrative-like manner of speech reveals pieces of her story like breadcrumbs. Her dog Layla, registered as an emotional support animal, has a similarly bedhead-ish coat of white fur and follows closely at our heels as Rambo (as she is commonly known) gives me a tour of her home.

Every inch is decorated with found treasures in artistic vignettes, pulled together with the same eye with which she’s built a career as an acclaimed photographer and art director. Her work has been featured in GQ and Rolling Stone, among others.

A glimmer catches my eye as we circle back toward the front door. As if part of an art installation, a row of antique telephones  hang along the far wall of the entry, each one perfectly spaced from the next. Reams of gold streamers that could be New Year’s Eve decorations drape over them, enveloping the hallway like festive wrapping paper.

“These were from one of my winter formals,” Rambo explains. “It was just too sad to take them down.”

The winter formal is an annual party she throws around the holidays, with over-the-top dress required. For friends who say they have nothing to wear, Rambo is happy to help.

“I find all these things at estate sales and just ask, ‘Do you want to look like Judy Garland dressed up? Or, do you want to look like Beyoncé dressed up?’” she says with a laugh. “I think it’s fun to dress up and be in costumes and, I don’t know, remember to be alive a little bit.”

Rambo Elliott (Photo by Rambo )
Rambo Elliott (Photo by Rambo )

As we comb through the racks of secondhand taffeta, lace and sequined dresses in her closet, Rambo recalls playing dress-up at an early age with her sisters in their rural hometown in Arkansas — a place where getting out, she says, requires joining either the military or a gang. She, however, got out by way of moving to Fort Worth, where she spent her middle and high school years before attending The University of Oklahoma.

She’s now channeled her love of clothes into her career, styling her own high-fashion shoots when she’s not working for clients like Stetson and the Fort Worth Visitors Bureau.

“I know a lot of our neighbors and they’re used to me asking things like, ‘If I need to park a cool convertible out here and take pictures of someone in a bikini, will you let me? I need to capture some ’90s Naomi Campbell vibes.’ ”

The Leon Bridges Connection

Rambo’s rapid rise to success in the photography industry was initially jump-started in part due to her well-known friendship with Grammy Award–winning singer/songwriter Leon Bridges, a Fort Worth native whom she met around the same time she began dabbling in photography, and just eight months before Bridges signed with Columbia Records, while he was still washing dishes at Del Frisco’s Grille and singing at open-mic nights.

“We both were super-isolated religious kids. We met and immediately clicked,” says Rambo, who toured with Bridges as his personal photographer in 2015 and for most of 2016. “We both love fashion; we both love dancing. So we would go through vintage stores all day, find outfits, take pictures, and dance all night. That’s our friendship.”

But what first got Rambo behind the lens was a need for self-expression that went beyond a creative outlet

“I got started because I had, we’ll call it a no good, rotten, bad day, which is the closest I would like to get to it,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what happened that caused it, it just matters that it happened. I got to where I didn’t know what to say to humans anymore.

“How do you have this happen, and then just go to the grocery store? So I started taking pictures all the time. I wanted to show the world how I felt, or at least build a better one, visually.”

Mental Health and a Movie

After chatting in Rambo’s living room for the better portion of an afternoon, a certain literary figure begins to come to mind: Holly Golightly. Like Truman Capote’s heroine, Rambo escaped an oppressive small town and gave herself a new name. She adores nothing more than a glamorous party and casually refers to her mental-health struggles in conversation as “bad days” and having “scratchy brain,” as though they were Holly’s mean reds — something to be alleviated by a trip to Tiffany’s.

While these may be some of her tactics at keeping the bad days at bay, Rambo takes the topic of mental illness seriously and has found purpose in using her art as a means to further the surrounding conversation and incite change. Last year, she partnered with local real estate firm M2G Ventures to write and direct a short film to raise awareness of the country’s mental-health crisis. The film, titled The Bridge, was previewed at SXSW and screenings are in the works as part of a fundraising initiative later this year.

“Do you want to watch it?” Rambo asks. “A lot of people cry, just so you know. I always do.”

With this preface, we sit in silence in front of her desktop computer as she presses play. The film is a visual immersion into her own complex and tormenting experiences with anxiety and depression, depicted in an abstractly conceptual way that is meant to give viewers a deeper understanding — and for some, a feeling of being understood.

“That’s what I wanted for the film in general,” she says. “I just want there to be a better vocabulary for people like me.”

Despite my best efforts to heed Rambo’s warning, neither of us can hold back tears during a scene in which a woman, buried deep in dirt, musters the strength to dig herself out, not knowing what would be waiting for her on the surface or just deep down she really was.

In all, it is heart-wrenching, brave, and profoundly beautiful.

When others see a home,
We see a Work of Art
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