I believe that the projects and things in life that turn out to be successful are those that appeal to our guts. I wanted to start this piece by sharing this personal reflection that has rounded my feelings since the moment I learned that we were going to have the opportunity of interviewing Ryan Muirhead, one of the most talented and inspiring film photographers nowadays.
The first thing that got me thinking is related to the definition of success, which I’m sure is different for every person. Some weeks ago I read about this quote that goes, “Success is being able to enjoy the process,” and I completely related to it. If you think about it, it’s quite a scary thing. It includes uncertainty, ups and downs, mistakes, discomfort zones… and pretty much all the things that society tells us to avoid.
Then, there’s the not-so-easy task of dealing with visceral feelings — those raw emotions that, while not always pleasant, are the ones that make us feel alive. They could sometimes be painful yet healing for others, but nevertheless, they are always attached to who we truly are.
Is this applicable to art? We believe so, and Ryan Muirhead is, to our eyes, one of the best examples of how fighting to show that an intimate and honest view of life through photography has connected with thousands of people around the world.
Challenges in achieving meaningful art, finding the balance between technicalities and artistry, being brave and daring to taking the hard paths towards a creative life — these are some of the themes we discussed with him. We invite you to read on and share this little journey with us.
You have recently moved to Portland, a city which has a strong cultural environment.
Do you have any new projects which you started in this city?
Can you tell us about it?
Right now, I’ve only been here for about two weeks so I’m still kind of just getting settled. Something that I have noticed though is that, it’s easier to talk to people you don’t know here. I’ve been doing little walks every morning with my new twin lens reflex camera and a couple of point and shoots, and some people have already stopped me to talk about the cameras. Just because I’m not that outgoing, I don’t really stop strangers to talk to them, but I’ve made some portraits of those who stopped me, and I like that.
Why do you think this is?
I don’t know, I guess it’s just a little bit different of an area; people here are a little bit more conversational to strangers. America is weird in that way; everywhere you go it’s like a different country. I like that element of it here in Portland, and it’s so crazy beautiful, nature-wise, that I might try to do a couple of landscape shots. I’m not good at it at all – if I don’t have people in my photos it’s really hard for me to know what I’m doing. For example, yesterday, we were up so high in the mountains that you could see the four volcanoes all at the same time. I was like “Holy cow, it‘s so beautiful!” Then, I held my camera up, and I thought, “Oh, it looks like a worse version of what I’m seeing with my eyes.” People who can do landscape photography amaze me because you have to bring something else out in the picture, and mine always just look worse than what it looked like to be there. But I might still try some more landscape stuff and hopefully get more courage to take some more photos of strangers. I guess that’s what I’m hoping to be working on.
ON MAKING CONNECTIONS WITH TANGIBLE ART
Right now you have this interesting project called “1 for You, 1 for Me” where you display some of your photographs and share them with different people all over the world. I think there is one side of the project that leans towards the lack of “tangible” art nowadays, but I would like to focus more on the connection you create with the person who purchases the piece. What do you feel about it? Is it a necessity of yours?
I’d love to talk about that. It’s kind of complicated, but also goes back to a lot of my thoughts on social media. It’s so amazing because it lets you connect with all these people that you would have never had the chance to meet otherwise. But, the downside of that is that it can turn it into like a competition or a popularity contest. It becomes a way to rank how well you’re doing and I don’t believe in that is helpful or accurate. I want to have more followers because I want to share my art with as many people as possible, but you can’t get sucked into thinking that a number has anything to do with your happiness or personal worth because it just doesn’t. It doesn’t affect it at all.
So, the whole point of the project for me is that I react differently to a print than to a photo online. But, it’s just not feasible to try and show your printed work to everybody you’re connected with because they’re all over the world. But then, I thought, if I could get one print of an image out there to somebody, that would mean something to me, because holding that print in your hand is much more of a completion of a work of art, as opposed to “Here it is, a hundred thousand people can see it, a couple of people will like it, a couple of people will comment on it, a few people will share it. The end.” That really is the end because three days later, you don’t go back and look at everybody’s photos.
But, if they buy that print, it’s probably going to outlive me, and it could also outlive them. It’s a little bit cheesy, but it’s more meaningful to me and it does create that very specific connection with that person. I love that, and I love to have that little connection with a lot of different people.
I guess it’s a more intimate step up from social media, maybe?
Yes, it’s kind of the same thing but also one step more personal to me. I try to price them cheap. I know money is different to everybody; what is expensive to someone isn’t to another. I wanted it to be priced cheap enough that someone could conceivably get it, almost no matter who they are. I wanted them to be accessible and available.
Do you have an idea of how long you wish to continue with this project?
It’s hard to say; you never know what’s going to happen. I do want to move into more fine art print sales and more expensive, nicer prints because you can print really large and on very expensive papers, something which I would like to do because it’s beautiful. But, I always want to have some kind of very accessible print prices out there.
Do you own prints from any of the artists you admire, for example, Jan (Scholz)?
No, I don’t yet and we talk about that (laughs). You see, that is just a reminder of that I need to do better at that. I’m still moving a lot and I don’t really have my own place, so it’s hard to start collecting art because every time, I think, “What do I do with this?” I have a folder of art, tangible stuff which I love and right now it’s just packed up at my parents’ house but it’s still very important to me.
MAKE IT REAL AND MEANINGFUL
MAKE IT REAL AND MEANINGFUL
So speaking about connection, we would like to explore a little bit the way you explore your subjects when you work together. Some people work in a more manipulative way but your scenes give off intimacy and the wild essence of the “untouched.” How do you normally perform with them?
I love that people say the images feel intimate and real, and thats the simple answer to the question, I try to make the shoot feel that way. I try not to force my idea of what the work should look like on my subjects. I want it to be real to them. I’m trying to explore a little further than beauty for beauty’s sake.
So, it’s a lot of talking about what we are trying to create, a lot of being there, a lot of sharing stuff that I’m going through. I need it to have an extra level of meaning for my subjects, and not just say “I’m good at taking pictures, I’ll take a good picture of you.” It also involves asking my subjects why they want to make these pictures, why they said yes to being photographed, what they hope these pictures will say when we are done, what would make them happy as a result of us working together, or if it would be a disappointment.
I don’t do any tricks, it’s all natural light, and I don’t use assistants. I don’t even use reflectors or bounce cards or lights or anything. I just get in a place with light that I enjoy, and then I’m just there. Sometimes, it doesn’t go exactly the way I wanted it to. There is no easy answer to it, it’s just a combination of who I am and what I think about and how I talk to people and the kind of people I attract into my life and the kind of people I don’t attract into my life.
There’s a famous quote that says: “Every photograph we take is a self-portrait” and, as a person who struggles constantly with life and reflects about its paths, does your work scare you at any time?
Oh yeah, all the time. I, mean, it’s cliché and cheesy to say – but photography really is my journal and I’ll go through old photos and just remember. I’ll see it in the images like how I was feeling at the time. It’s great to say that because it sounds like a really positive way of dealing with it. I put all this emotion into my work but it doesn’t fix anything. So it is scary sometimes because I see… hard stuff in my life that isn’t fixed and I’m still going through. So, to answer that question, yes, for sure.
BALANCE BETWEEN ARTISTRY AND TECHNICALITIES OF PHOTOGRAPHY
We have noticed that, in the photography world, the technical side of the craft is getting most of the attention from the community. Everyone wants to know how to get the sharpest images, which lenses give the best performance. Meanwhile the artistic side of it is often left behind. Why do you think this is happening? Do you see any way of bringing the balance back?
There’s a positive and a negative side to technical talk getting most of the attention. To look at it from a positive side, it’s because that is the common denominator for all of us. When you get into the artistic side, you think, “I’m really depressed, so I want to work like this.” But then, someone can also come up and say, “Well, I’m not, I‘m really happy.” The artistic (side) is based on personal circumstances, but gear seems like the one thing everybody can talk about, because we’re all using cameras.
But, another reason that the personal side doesn’t get talked about is because it’s scary. It’s because talking about the personal side of it means you have to say something like, “I’m going through a divorce and my husband left me and it makes me feel worthless.” Those difficult emotions is where my desire to create this stuff comes from.
To talk about the artistic side, even the happy, joyful, creative stuff, you have to put yourself out there. You have to open up to something that might not even work out. You might have to put it out there to say “I hope I can save this marriage” and then you didn’t. Or, “I hope this person gets better” and then they didn’t. You have to open yourself up to where you are coming from and admit that it might not even work out. To make yourself that vulnerable to strangers on the internet, or just to a mass of people, or even the people close to you who don’t even know you’re going through that stuff – that’s scary.
Everybody who’s an artist wants to do better. We’re all dying to make better work. On one hand you could say “I have to be more honest with myself, work harder, give up these (other) things that I’m doing”. Or to distract yourself from that you could be thinking, “Maybe I can just get a 70-200 lens or get a bigger sensor and all my pictures will look better.” That is the way easier draw, but it’s all just a trick. You can tell yourself it will make your work better. I’ve done it countless times and said “I just need Leica,” “I just need faster lenses,” or “I just need to shoot large format, and then it will be there.”
The truth is that almost every amazing image that’s ever changed anybody’s life or history or anything was made on gear that isn’t impressive to us (now). I went to a show, and all these images from history – like, half of them – were shot on a Canon AE-1 that you could get for forty dollars now. You don’t need better gear, you just need to be more honest. You need to work harder.
Talking about it is fun because you know they’re toys, and they are cool toys, and I get that. I do it too, I still do, I’m all into gear, and I sell it, buy it, and try it. It’s fine to find gear that helps you match your vision but to think that the gear is going to improve your vision is probably not true.
BE BRAVE, BE YOURSELF, SEE THE LIGHT
We know you started shooting for the first time when you were 27, which means your learning process is still pretty fresh. Could you tell us about your artistic failures? Those shots that got away… When do you consider that an image is not successful? Are those the moments where you learnt the most from?
My biggest failure right now is that I walk around and I see images of strangers that I want to make, and that I’m not brave enough to ask. It comes from this place of not wanting to offend them, not wanting them to think that I’m taking advantage of them because cameras are everywhere now and people assume it’s predatory if you’re talking their photo. I struggle with that because I know the images would be beautiful. The worst thing they could do is get mad at me and say “Get out of here!” and I should be able to deal with that. But, I still have a hard time with that so my biggest failure now is seeing beautiful photos that I’m not brave enough to ask to make.
In the past, a lot of it was working towards honesty. When I started out I was doing the “beauty, fashion-y” type of stuff and I wasn’t even brave enough to say that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I still like that style but I knew I wanted to understand and connect with people, express something, and to make something more fine art. But, I just kept making these beauty shots and people just assumed that was what I was trying to work on. So, it took me a while to say I don’t want to shoot that.
Sometimes people can say self-reflection can be too dark at times.
What do you think of this comment?
Yesterday, I posted a picture with some song lyrics and someone just wrote me, “You really need to lighten up” But I don’t really care, because what are you going to do? Change who you are because of one person that you’ve never met, ten thousand miles away? You don’t know why they wrote that, or if they had a bad day. They could be just lashing out, and now you’re going to change the direction of your work for that? I just do my best to try and look at my work frequently and see where I want to go. If people love it, it’s amazing; if they hate it, whatever. At least this way it will stay meaningful to me.
You have always said that one of the best advices you can give is to learn how to see the light. Which qualities would you say you appreciate to define that?
The guy who told me that is Julio Macat, he’s from Argentina and he’s a director of photography. I love him. I think what his point was is that everybody sees the beautiful light; everyone is amazed by the golden hour of sunrise and sunset. The next step for a photographer is to realize that beautiful light is everywhere all the time, and that you don’t need to get stuck to only shooting obviously beautiful light. Once you start paying attention, the next part is to see like a camera. If there’s darkness and light in the same scene, your eyes try to just bring it to the middle so that you can have a visual experience that’s easy for your brain. But with a camera, you can see it way darker, you can see it way brighter, just by changing the settings. That’s learning to see light to me.
You are recently starting to travel the world in order to share your experiences in art with people that have a very different cultural background. How do you think this change of environment is affecting your perspective?
So, this came up huge when I was going to Spain because the story that I have to tell about the past few years is a hard, personal one: death of family members, family tragedies, medical problems, anxiety problems, depression. That’s the real story. You know, I can get up and just tell the good parts and make a very fun presentation about how photography makes your life way cooler, and wouldn’t it be fun to be me, and maybe you can be, and so buy this… But, that’s not really true, and that’s not my experience.
But, I also had some people be like, “That’s fine in America” where you can just be loud and whatever, but that doesn’t go over as well in Europe. You just can’t get up there and talk about this. That will not play as well to this crowd. But what’s the value of me trying to be somebody else when they paid to come see me? It’s so dishonest. I won’t say I was super brave about it. I mean up until ten minutes before I went on I was very apprehensive about having to do it. I was very scared of doing it, but wouldn’t it be so much better to get up there and be yourself and fail, than get up there and try to be what people want you to be and succeed? I have to say that the response I got was very positive. So, it reinforced in me that cultures are different and you want to be respectful and not just barge in there and be like, “Do this my way, because this is how it works and if you’re not doing it like this, you’re doing it wrong!” But you have got to stay authentic, because what’s the point of getting up and not being yourself.
Be respectful but be yourself.
INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION
INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION
When we speak about inspiration, we think we could split it into things that are related to photography and those that are not. Let’s say we have one picture that catches your attention and a song that moves you. How different would you say these two things can inspire you?
This is personal opinion but I almost feel like that it’s true. I think when you are working with a medium the worst kind of inspiration is the stuff in the same medium. If I want to look at photography I want to look at the works of masters who spent their lives learning and failing, and working to see the culmination of that process, to see their work reach a level of mastery. When you look at your contemporaries, especially the people doing the same kind of work you’re doing, you’re going to judge yourself against them, which pollutes the work you’re doing. You’re going to compare yourself and you’re going to pollute your inspiration. So stop looking at that, and if you do the exact same work as someone else without knowing, fine because there are 7.2 billion people and you’re probably going to be making the exact same photos as some kid in India anyway, so just do it.
Look at the masters and look at all the other arts. Look at paintings, read books, get into cinema, listen to song lyrics, write your own poetry, and do whatever it is you need to do. It also helps get you interconnected, keeps you off of this one track thing, and helps you be open to be inspired by other stuff. It’s more fun to be into other arts and put it into your thing, Be into life and be into art and then do your thing.
I have to say, I’m not perfect at this. All this stuff I say, I’m still doing it wrong every day. I am never more depressed about photography than when I get sucked into looking at Tumblr for two hours. All this work being done in places I wish I had visited and models I wish I could work with, bands I wish I could photograph, and cameras I wish I had. At the end of that, I don’t even want to shoot anymore. But, if I’m just reading Kerouac, I’m reading On The Road right now, or poetry or song lyrics, or looking at paintings, all of a sudden I want to go shoot. That’s the proof for me, get inspired and go make your work. Don’t look at all the other work wishing it was yours.
ON FILM PHOTOGRAPHY, ITS COMMUNITY, AND ITS FUTURE
Whattaroll is a virtual platform where Film Photography is the guiding thread of all our actions. We would like to know how you feel about this community of people shooting film. Are there strong ties amongst them and you?
I have to give the disclaimer that I don’t care about the film versus digital fight. I have made so many of my best friends from people that shoot film. It’s not exclusive and it’s not magic but I found that people who shoot film in this day and age will share a lot of personality traits. It’s like, “It’s a little bit harder, it takes more effort, you have to slow down, you have to be thinking more, and you have to be a little bit more conscious of this.” Also, there is a “way” to do things and you’re doing it a different way, and those are my kind of people anyway.
You have a good working relationship with companies such as Kodak and Indie Film Lab, which to many photographers is a dream come true. How did you forge such connections, do you believe you create your own luck?
I can say what I think happened but I can’t say what works for anyone else. That is so personal, so I can answer that question but I can’t answer that as advice.
I’ve found that I am pursuing things that are very, personally significant to me, even without knowing how or why or it’s going to work. Things have happened to me to enable me to stay on that path. When I wanted to shoot personally significant stories, they came into my life. When I wanted to shoot film but didn’t have enough money to do so, something worked out for me. When I had enough film but didn’t have a way to pay for all the stuff associated with it, stuff happened. When I wanted to shoot a couple kinds of cameras for my niece being born and didn’t have them, two different people donated the cameras. You know, I’m not naïve, all that comes from my social media following and my work being known, I get that.
I get that have a lot of followers, and that if I put something out there, the odds that someone is going to help me with that is bigger. But, I also think that something is what you make it. I’ve tried to make my social media an outlet where I talk about the stuff I really care about, where I look for ways to do the things that are meaningful to me. It has also helped people who are at that level of sincerity, and those wanting to help or work on something similar be able to find me. I think it’s about being sincere, honest, and making an effort to pursue something you care about, even without the knowledge of how you’re going to make that work.
You’ve got to put yourself out there in a way where you might fail.
Are you optimistic on the future of the Film Photography Industry?
Wow, that’s a hefty one, too. Sure, absolutely. Why should I not be? Maybe it won’t work out, then we’ll deal with that, but right now I see a lot of people who are completely living digital lives. They have online friends and online phones, and everything they make is on the internet, and film is a little bit of a step back from that, you know. The computer element is there, but you touch more stuff, you get something back, there are chemicals, there are smells, there’s surprise, there’s serendipity. I see a lot of people connecting to that element of shooting film and from what I understand, even if it’s way less than it used to be, film is still a small growing segment and I hope someone will just be committed to providing that for people or that want to try using it.
Discover more of Ryan’s work at http://www.ryanmuirhead.com