The Photographic Journal

Floating World

Essay 554 • May 12th 2024

After 40 years in nursing, my wife’s idea of a well-deserved retirement is kicking back on a cruise ship and being pampered. For years, I only picked up a camera at exotic ports. The ships were just the vehicle—too cluttered and garish for FINE ART. But I’m a maker, so finally I began to photograph my fellow guests on board and ashore, the hard-working crew, the specialized architecture and outlandish decor.

Sometimes a photograph reveals something beyond my seeing. That’s the lightning-in-a-bottle that drives my work in this modern version of Japan’s Edo-period “Floating World,” where pleasure and diversion were exactly the point.

As I explored this place more deeply, I felt the tension between the dream and the reality—the blurred border that separates my mundane, daily life from this carefully packaged fantasy world. Behind it all is desire—our need to be indulged, to feel blessed and to get that affirming selfie.

Who are we becoming in this age of distraction, when phones are pulled out during a ship’s theater performance? As both an observer and a participant with a drink in my hand, I’m questioning, seduced and conflicted.


Russell C. Banks (b. 1951) is an American artist who is drawn to the humor and ironies of life, the ambiguous moments, and how we pursue our fantasies and pleasures. He looks for scenes that invite viewers to wonder and perhaps imagine a story as they absorb the details. Coming from a documentary tradition, he believes the real world can furnish material far more compelling than anything he could make up on his own. Inspired by both the great street photographers (Winogrand, Friedlander) and the masters of precise, large-format work (Strand, Weston), in his images the carefully composed structures and details surrounding the people are much more than the “background“—they’re vital characters in the narrative.

He earned a photojournalism degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974, then moved to El Paso to work at the UT El Paso campus news bureau. Outside of work, he often carried a 4×5 field camera into the deserts and mountains of the Southwest, and brought that large-format sensibility to his Infant Series project, shot in 35mm and published in the second edition of the Time-Life Library of Photography book, “Photographing Children.”

In 1986, he started a long career at Portland Community College in Oregon, directing marketing and public relations, before moving to northern Colorado to concentrate on his photographic art in 2016.

Today, most of his attention goes to the Floating World project, where he explores the the fantasy world of giant cruise ships. Recently, his work has been accepted for juried exhibitions at the Fitchburg Museum of Art in Massachusetts; PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont; Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver; the SE Center for Photography in Greenville, South Carolina; A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas; Texas Photographic Society; Emerald Art Center in Springfield, Oregon; Marin Society of Artists, California; and Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, New York. In October 2020, he was the featured artist in F-STOP Magazine’s “Documentary 2020” edition, and in March 2022, he was selected as one of 30 artists in the “30 Over 50” exhibition at the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. In summer 2022, the project was featured in Float Photo Magazine. In 2023, his work was selected by David Campany for the Der Greif Guest Room (Munich), and for the “Portals” show at the A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas.

He’s scheduled solo shows at the Viewpoint Photographic Center in Sacramento, California (2024) and the Foothills Art Center in Golden, Colorado (2025).

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