The photograph hangs unassumingly on a white wall, as if it doesn’t portray celebrated photographer Ansel Adams carefully setting up and examining his tripod. The exact tripod, Spencer Hughes explained proudly, stands just below the image, alongside a handful of other wooden tripods.
But the setting is no photography museum. Rather, it is the small lobby in a modest, one-story building on a nondescript street corner a mile from downtown Bremerton. And Hughes, rather than a curator, is the co-owner of Ries Tripod, which has made wooden tripods for more than eight decades.
Adams, the venerable nature photographer from the middle decades of the 20th century, helped elevate Ries products by not only using them for his famous images, but by regularly photographing his setup.
And after nearly a century of interrupted production, Adams still looms large over the business.
“We lightheartedly joke that Ansel Adams is our No. 1 salesman to this day,” said Hughes, pointing to another Adams tripod. “He has been dead for decades … but the iconic photographs of him with his equipment, not just the photographs he took, sells us all the time.”
The company, however, claims far more selling points than one famous connection. Wooden tripods are far from ubiquitous — Hughes said Ries’ biggest competition comes from knockoff models on eBay — yet differ from carbon fiber models across the board.
Large-format photographers flock to Ries because wood dampens vibration in ways other materials don’t, according to Hughes, and many appreciate the all-weather nature of the tripod, which is undamaged by standing water, rain, or extreme temperatures.
Wood has other advantages. Ries products are lighter than competitors’; emit less carbon; and rely on sustainable, plantation-raised wood. But just as important are elements completely separate from the timber.
Ries tripods feature a multi-axis head, patented in 1950, which allows for easy movement. They also have innovative legs that could be set at any angle — an ability, Hughes explained, that remains virtually unheard of today.
Those were among the many innovations of the Ries brothers — Park, Paul, Irving, and Ray — who squeezed out lives in Hollywood a century ago, then opened a photography store. In 1936, they produced tripods that caught on, modernizing Hollywood film and attracting clients from movie photographers to aircraft radio operators.
As camera operators themselves, the Ries brothers understood the importance of angles and easy movement, so they invented the multi-axis head. In other words, they pioneered developments in the 1930s that would be impressive if they hit the market today.
“A lot of the stuff that they used, we take for granted to this day,” said Hughes, who acquired the business with his wife — then a company employee — in 2012. “If you look at every patent that goes onto every head, the patents that they put still list Ries Brothers to this day.”
With few children, the Ries brothers eventually passed the business through employees, a tradition that has remained. After moving across Los Angeles, the company relocated to Bainbridge Island in the 1970s, then settled in its unobtrusive Bremerton headquarters six years ago.
Despite the changes in leadership and scenery, the company retains many of its original qualities. The multi-axis head and any-angle legs remain. The company’s lifetime warranty — introduced by the Ries brothers and untouched over decades — product quality, and personalized customer service continue to attract customers. Adams’ tripods are displayed alongside models from this year. The two are virtually indistinguishable to the amateur eye.
Not everything, however, remains the same. The Ries brothers’ exquisite, hand-drawn renderings have shifted to computer-aided design, a more efficient if less nostalgic method. Automation went from a futuristic concept to a useful component of production. The company name is now affixed with a laser.
Out went cast aluminum parts, plastic molding accessories, and other items still stamped “HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA.” In came hydroelectric extrusions and parts made from three-dimensional printers.
“When we took over the company, the most modern machine was from, like, 1958,” Hughes explained. “We completely redesigned the product without changing the identity. … There’s nothing made the way it used to be made. It’s completely different.”
In some ways, the company doesn’t look like one that would thrive in 2019. It devoted a microscopic $200 of its budget last year to advertising, according to Hughes. He doesn’t bother with search engine optimization. He briefly participated on forums and blogs for large-format photographers, but gave up after six weeks.
Instead, Ries Tripod takes advantage of the free advertising it receives. As the co-owner said, “Everybody already talks about it. … You go into (a) blog and it’s like, there’s a hundred pages on Ries Tripod.” And the company’s finely tuned niche pays dividends on search engines, as it rises to the top on searches like “wood tripod” and “tripod Ansel Adams used.”
Back on the ground, Hughes; his wife, Debby; and one other employee produce and assemble everything themselves; nothing is outsourced. One corner of the facility is dedicated to woodshop equipment. The so-called warehouse could barely fit a desk and office chair.
“(The factory) shocks most people. There are no forklifts. There’s no (grand) warehouse,” Hughes said. “We only make the parts to be assembled as they’re ordered. And then (they’re) put into a box and shipped directly to the customer.”
Not unlike, it seems, how Adams got his hands on the many Ries tripods he used. And there were many.
“Back in the day, he would break a tripod. Lifetime warranty, he’d send it back,” Hughes said. With a laugh, he added, “We just traded with him.”
Today, there are no customers as well-known as Adams. Though many own several styles and purchase updated models, according to Hughes, few likely approach the sheer number Adams worked with. Business, nevertheless, remains strong. Both photographers and nonphotographers, including scientific researchers and weapons testers, continue to buy. And the flimsy, short-lived competitors have far from the track record of Ries Tripod.
It’s a track record, cultivated over decades and across states, making one very specific type of product, that Hughes remembers often.
“I think of Irving and Paul Ries literally every day, especially if I’m working on something that’s for our product,” Hughes said. “It’s inspiring. Plus, at the end of the day, you have a piece of artwork, and you know where it came from. If you just make something utility, it loses its pizazz.”