INTERVIEW // RYAN MUIRHEAD
We’ve been waiting to do this interview for a while and we’re so honoured to have an artist like Ryan Muirhead on ARC. This interview, took place over Skype and was an hour long conversation. A real and in depth discussion. We hope you enjoy it.
Thank you again Ryan, for joining us at ARC and we can’t wait to hear your presentation ‘Emotional Portraiture’ at The Experience in Vancouver next week.
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
Thank you for joining us Ryan. When did you know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I think I knew really shortly after I look my first picture, to be kind of cliché. It was such an out of the blue experience; I had never done anything artistic before. I was going through a really hard time and a friend asked me to take a photo for them and I just did it, and a whole bunch of emotional content I hadn’t seen coming out worked its way into the picture.
I think my friend recognized it before I did because she had it printed out and started showing it to people and saying ‘Ryan made this.’ I was on the set of a movie, and the director of photography saw it said that it felt like something. As though I was communicating something. I can honestly say that that wasn’t even my intention. Just from that kind of feedback it hit me really fast like ‘You do have something to get out that you haven’t had the means to get out before’ and I think it just snowballed.
I shot something later that day and the next day. I ordered a DSLR a few days after that and honestly it hasn’t been more than a couple of days that I have gone without shooting since that happened about 8 years ago.
Where is home for you and where do you work?
Home for me is Portland, Oregon. I moved there from Utah about two years ago. And work is a really funny definition. Work would be where I shoot from. I don’t really take any shoots for money. All my money is from teaching and print sales. So where I work is my everyday life wherever I end up, either teaching or traveling, so work is kind of everywhere. There is no start and no stop to it I guess.
If the majority of income comes from teaching and prints, is there a business side of you that is very on top of print sales?
I’m not sure I’m on top of anything. Everyone is so nice about it. Even on print sales I put a two-month turnaround because I am gone for blocks of more than one month at a time. I am always traveling. I’ve liked to sign all of my prints up to this point. It’s kind of like I have to get home to order a print, sign it and get it out. Sometimes that takes 6 weeks to get to where I can do all of those things in one time.
To be honest, I don’t make very much money at all. I have a very simple life. I don’t like stuff. I like cameras and I like plane tickets but beyond that, I am not very interested in collecting material possessions.
I make a little bit, I spend a little bit and I spend a lot of my time traveling and shooting.
was there a conscious decision to move TO PORTLAND? You previously said that you were from Utah, whAT MADE YOU move to Portland?
It would be to do with running away from Mormon culture. That’s a really simplified answer but it’s the truth. I grew up in Utah, I grew up Mormon. It is an extremely conservative place, it’s a very ‘set in its ways’ religion and that was a really bad fit for me. I didn’t want to live anywhere specific because I don’t work from home, I just travel and make stuff. At some point, I needed a liberal location to be based at for a while. I didn’t want to think about everything in religious terms and that is always present in Utah because such a gigantic percentage of the population is one race and one religion and for me, personally, I needed to not interact with that and picked somewhere close enough that I could still see my family, still be super beautiful, and it was just Portland. I picked it for no reason almost.
you travel a lot for work or when shooting. How does location influence the work that you create?
There’s both answers to that question. In Iceland, when I went there with my friends it played a huge role. It was like being in Iceland, using the amazing landscape and being inspired by the vibe of the place. But all the time I’ll take photos I love just in a room. In Rome, it doesn’t look any different than a room in Utah. I feel actually notorious for that, being somewhere amazing and shooting in a room against a wall or on bed or somewhere that shows nothing about the location. Just images I made in a place.
So if the location would be the room, then it’s about the subject and your connection with them?
It always, always, always starts there. I’m tired of collecting people and places because they are people and places.
I want an emotional connection way more that I want to show off anything else. I just had a shoot like that yesterday that was a perfect example. It was with a model from Belgium who has about 600,000 instagram followers. We’ve interacted for years and we’re in Los Angeles with all this stuff around and we had a chance to shoot twice and probably spent 80% of the time we had together just talking and sharing what was going on. Then we got to make a few photos from being together, in rather simple circumstances, and didn’t focus on the ‘This our last chance to shoot’, or ‘This is the place we have to shoot in.’ We just got to know each other and got some photos from it. I guarantee they will mean a lot more to me than if we had tried to maximize our time with the shoot.
What do you feel so far has been the most defining moment in your career IN the last 8 years?
Career is a very funny word. I’m not on a progression of accomplishments or money. Sometimes I wish it was, but right now I’m not. I would say that the defining moment in a weird way was getting to meet my two biggest artistic inspirations, and what I took away from that.
I got to meet the Director of Photography of most of my favorite movies,Emmanuel Lubezki, and spend a day with him watching him work. I also got to do the same with Rob McCracken, the lead singer of The Used who made the art that made me want to be an artist.
To get to be around them and see that neither of them have any magic answers. It was more of ‘This is just the stuff I care about, this is the way I am and I try really hard to put it into my work’. It was the exact same thing that I cared about in the beginning, wanting to make something meaningful and personal.
The takeaway is that there isn’t a magic breaking point where you are full of knowing you can do it and how to do it.
You keep being you, you keep being introspective, you keep working hard, you keep trying to be kind and you just keep doing it over and over. That is where “achievement” comes from, that’s where personal style comes from, that’s where meaningful work comes from.
It’s like committing to that there is no answer, and trying to be the best version of you, that you can.
You put achievement in quotation marks.
Yes, I put achievement in air quotes because the things that are meaningful to you is what you say is meaningful.
I’m not saying that chasing things is stupid because pursuing them is a beautiful feeling, but there is no external factor or motivation so profound that you do it and that it erases self doubt, or instills your actions with inherent value.
You have to give the things meaning that you want to have meaning.
Did you have questions for these two artists before you met up with them, that you were burning to ask, or did it fade away and you dived in?
It does fade away, and it’s funny because I get to see a little bit of the other side of it, when people ask me questions or when I get to be on panels.
It’s quite funny the questions people ask, you can see them coming. I’m sure I had the same kind of questions for them. Eventually you just try to be open-minded and trying to soak it all in.
The bigger takeaway is they are human beings full of skills and complexities and personalities, that are making their way sincerely, hopefully in creating something, and that the takeaway is .. ‘so are you’.
I think these questions allow us to then reflect on where we are, and it takes us to the same place. You either resonate with certain things or you don’t, but the things you do resonate with allow you to then come from a place where you know what you need to do. You see their path and their journey, and it grounds you a bit. It’s interesting to see other people’s stories and perspectives, but IS IT really about our own and taking it from there?
I think the answers to big beautiful questions end up being simple and similar.
Usually revolving around that you have to find your own way. I think not-beautiful questions are ‘What kind of gear do you use?’ ‘how do you edit your photos?’ etc. I get why people ask, and it’s fun to interact with someone and have one of your personal questions answered.
I’ve had the chance to ask Rob some questions that were really personally significant to me. I said : ‘Something you made really altered the course of my mind, heart and life. It really did. How does it feel to look at what you’ve made and then see such a tangible influence? Something you went through with this gigantic group of people?’
His answer was beautiful, and this was just two or three days ago. He said something like ‘We’re lucky to get to be a part of this, we’re a part of art, we’re just participating in this human event, and I feel lucky and blessed that something I made propelled like this and connected to so many people. But that’s almost as far as you should look into it.
You can just say I’m a person and I’m going to keep going and keep having experiences and keep trying. If you look into it more than that, like ‘I’m a genius’ or ‘I tapped into something no one else can’ or ‘I figured this out in a way other people haven’t,’ all this leads to is ego and self-importance when really you are just a complex human being involved in a beautiful project and you can give it your best, most sincere, beautiful, honest, kind effort. And beyond that, what can you control except your attitude? Life is insanely complicated and random. Be grateful for the good things, work through the bad things.’
I need to point out I’m massively paraphrasing what he said. Those weren’t his exact words but that was the message and the takeaway on it. It’s a really important reminder.
That’s what resonated the most with you? how you paraphrased IT, Did you completely agree with what he said?
Yeah, I think people paying attention to you is beautiful in the way you have connected with someone, and dangerous in the way of ‘oh you are winning at this,’ when all there is just sincere expression and effort. There is no winning at it, but there are lots of small factors that can make you feel like you are winning or losing, and that’s really not the story.
With your large following on Facebook and Instagram, there are a lot of people who resonate and connect with you and your words, but there is also your own story and everything you are going through. You’re regularly hearing other people’s stories and everything that they are going through. How do you cope AND MANAGE it all, AND what do you take away from it?
That’s a fantastic question and something that comes up a lot.
When I speak at events or when I do interviews, I really try to skip the mindset of ‘This will be impressive, or cohesive, or digestible’ which is a lot of the reason why I do my last preparations the night before I speak. I want to really get out there and speak from what is actually happening to me.
What that is, is gratitude for a little bit of “success” in pursuing something that is meaningful to me. I recognize that a lot of people don’t get a chance to do that. Then it’s mixed with heartbreak and depression and anxiety and feeling lost. I try to say a lot of that as honestly as I can, and the reactions from people are really kind, but also heavy. I think that a lot of people that I speak to don’t have that person in their life to say all of that stuff to. When they hear me say things you don’t usually share with strangers, I can become the person they can say it to. A lot of people come up to me after and tell me things, sometimes they write me emails or handwritten letters to my house afterwards. A lot of it is really heavy stuff and that gets really complicated.
What is my responsibility to interact with this very personal and unique thing I’ve been told ? On a practical scale I can’t even do it all. It’s gotten to a number where I can’t even have a conversation about it with every person who writes me.
The beautiful takeaway is, my responsibility is to treasure that connection and to put that back into the work I make next, bring this energy and connection and sincerity and vulnerability and dealing with difficult stuff and trying to get something beautiful out of it. Putting that into the next thing I make.
From the time between your last shoot with the girl from Belgium, until your next shoot, how do you process the things that people have shared with you before the next shoot. Is there a process, or does it just happen?
No, there isn’t a process. It’s a weird mix. When I lose those people… We spent two intense incredible days together and now I probably won’t see her again for 6 months… It’s like a mini death.
To go through something so intense and then lose them, I cope with it in opposite ways. I scroll Instagram when I shouldn’t and play games on my phone. Then I’ll try to stay involved in beautiful activities that will keep me open to this sort of stuff. I try to go to yoga every day now. Right before you called I was reading. I try to stay involved in meaningful literature and things like that. Then, you get distracted and tune out like everybody does, and then have to give myself things to pursue. Because it’s hard, I don’t have a boss or any structure. I have to keep figuring it out over and over and over, and I struggle with it a lot.
what motivates you and inspires you to create? I could probably guess from your last answer but …
I can answer that.
The two things that inspire me to create is one, the more I pay attention, the more amazing beauty there is in tiny details. When I sit and talk with someone for two hours, just the way people hold themselves, their hands, how they talk, the way their expressions change, I am honestly in love with that. I fall in love with that and that is what I want to start shooting. It’s always born out of how we are sitting talking, which is so beautiful it makes me want to start shooting, and leads to something.
The other thing is art that makes me feel understood and less alone. I read ‘’Infinite Jest’’ by David Foster Wallace and it fucking blew my mind, of his death, and depression, and sadness, and understanding and perspective.
I got a tattoo when I finished the book.
I want to remember that art can so affect me, that I would want change my body from having found it. The music from The Used, the books from David Foster Wallace or seeing Les Miserables in London. Experiences of art that went through my whole body, I want to do that for somebody. I want to do that for me. I want to make someone feel like that. That propels me.
I adore that answer and I’m glad you stopped me TO answer the question. That was fantastic.
Is the tattoo that you mentioned the one that you posted recently that said ‘I am in here’ ?
Is there anything else that you want to share around that tattoo and that experience?
I’m not one to accomplish difficult tasks very often. I heard about the book (Infinite Jest) from Rob. He has read what seems like every book ever written and I asked him what his favorite book was. This goes back to conversations with people I admire. I got the book and it is overwhelming. It’s 1100 pages, and it’s not in chronological order. There are 300 pages of footnotes. He’s an absolute literary genius. I couldn’t read more than half an hour without getting exhausted, and 150 pages in I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. From reading about him, and hearing some of his interviews and smaller things from him I knew that I wanted to have read it in my life. It took me 9 months to read. I just slowly powered through and I felt really accomplished and connected at the end. It was so beautiful and challenging.
SO THE TATTOO IS a reminder, the takeaway from the book?
Yes, it’s actually on the first page of the book. I struggle with feeling connected to my body and a permanent reminder of “I am in here” seemed appropriate. For a long time I had an existence that was about 90% mental and 5% spiritual and physical. That is part of going to yoga, doing stuff like that. I’m trying to get better. I was seeing my body as some machine that walked around with my stressed-out brain, and I’m trying to get to more of a sense of like ‘No, I’ve got this existence inside this really weird flesh machine’. I want to interact with that part of it too.
I want physical experiences. That’s the ‘I am in here.’ You identify a couple of inches behind your eyes as this thing but defining what that thing is and what you are doing is really personal and complicated and I want to understand and interact with all of it.
Moving back to creativity and actually creating, Do you do any creative training outside of your work?
That is such an interesting question because photography is almost like the thing that you can’t practice. If you go and do it, you do it. You are not training. You made photos ; that is a finished product. We don’t have practice photography.
For me, my creative training is interacting with other art that isn’t photography.
I couldn’t be more confused than trying to get inspired from photos. I don’t want to recreate, I want to make something original. I don’t mean this in a snide way but I don’t love photography, and I’m comfortable with that.
I do photography, and I love the connections I make from it and that someone who cannot draw or sculpt can get involved in art and make something beautiful. I love that it exists but my place to go to be inspired and connected to something is rarely photos.
I guess that’s really important for photographers to hear. speaking for myself, sometimes I would see a trend and it’s easy to want to replicate something for our clients that someone has already nailed. Whereas if I went to an art gallery, or read a book, or connected with my subject and created something that reflected them, or myself, it would be more impactful and meaningful for me and my subject, rather that trying TO REPLICATE a technique.
I’ve got to say, in addition to that, I think it gives it you sustainability. If you have to do what’s being done you will always be behind. If you invest that energy into what you care about, all you have to do is be a good version of you for the rest of your life.
I think it’s scarier and maybe more work up front. I can’t imagine more than 5 years of trying to keep up with trends. That makes me feel like I want to blow my brains out.
when you are with a subject or creating an image, you may get stuck creatively. what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
Is there a period when you are with a subject and .. nothing is happening?
I want to be upfront, I understand that I have a huge luxury that some people don’t have; no one is paying me to make my images.
I don’t have ‘I gave you 1000 dollars, deliver this before you are done’.
I also have the luxury of choosing who I work with. The more work I make and the more words I put out, the more the people I work with in the future are exactly who I am trying to interact with.
When I am not inspired, I stop. I am inspired that I met this person who through internet and airplane travel I get to be in the same room as. I am inspired that we get to talk and I am inspired by how their voice sounds, how they hold themselves and how they react to the things we experience together.
If it gets to a point where we nailed it and I get to the end of my trail of thought, I just stop. That’s what happened yesterday. My new friend Marisa came over and we shot, shot, and shot. We got something beautiful, and we stopped. We started talking and something happened, we shot and then we stopped. Then we went to dinner and had an amazing conversation with some big revelations and bizarre connections, and we left dinner early because it was so powerful and there was so much emotion. We were right back to the house and shot again.
I try to have the sincerity of as soon as I feel like I’m faking it, to stop. To go back to watching and waiting and feeling and being.
So, in a nutshell when you get stuck creatively, you stop and then converse. I’m interested in the chronology of this shoot with marisa.
The funny thing, and I’m not saying that this is how it always works, but what changed was distance. The first set of shots I took from 10 feet away, almost across the room in a corner. The second set, we were in a hallway together much closer, and the third set of images, I was only a few inches away, almost face to face for an extended period of time, extremely intimately from almost no distance.
We know you shoot film AND there is the whole process of sending the rolLs of film off and getting the scans back for you to review. Are all of these images in your head AS YOU WAIT FOR THEM? It sounds like you pretty much know the rolls that you shoot.
Is the hope THEREFORE that they come back how you envisioned and the feeling is right ?
The true beauty of my work flow for me is what everyone else thinks is a problem. They wonder how I can wait three weeks to see my images. I think that it gives my work a dimension that some people haven’t even experienced.
I tend to let the shoot go afterwards, I won’t spend the next three weeks thinking about what I shot with her and that is almost on purpose.
When I get film back, I get to see my work as a viewer. Almost nobody nowadays gets that. They take it and judge it one second later. They show the person they shot the photo and immediately change the dynamic of what was there in the first place. The entire experience of trying to feel something, make something, let it change you, happens in three seconds. I’m not sure how beautiful that is for me.
For me, I put all my energy and focus into having an experience with someone. Seeing my images on the back of a screen would be like pulling out our cellphones every 10 seconds.
I send my film away and try not to think about it. When I get it back I’m not looking for ‘the shot where we were in the hallway and her face changed and it was so beautiful. I know the one on the bed was insane, let’s get to it.’ I go through it and sometimes the moments I knew are like ‘Oh my god, there it is. It’s amazing’ and sometimes a complete throwaway moment becomes my favorite thing of the entire shoot.
I feel like I get to react to my own work as someone seeing it for the first time without the pressure of being there making it. I would not trade that for immediacy.
I quickly wrote down one of the things that you said which was ‘Feel something, make something, let it change you’. If you’re a digital photographer that happens in a few seconds because you can see the image and then it’s easy to just move on .. whereas this .. you can hold onto that feeling, and then let it flow from there.
Of course, I am only speaking for me and I am not trying to give advice but I would say it’s like ‘Oh, I’m going to have an emotional experience of watching hobbits going to throw a ring in a volcano and I watched a 3 minute synopsis on Youtube, vs. I sat down and watched one movie a week for 3 weeks and they were 4 hours long so I had to space it out over a month.’ It’s a different experience.
It’s become a valuable thing to eliminate time in between experiences. For me, two weeks to turn into a person again who isn’t wrapped up in how happy or sad or scared or confused I was feeling when I made my images, to distance myself from that and see it with different eyes is invaluable into what I end up sharing, what I say, how I work next time. For me there is no way I feel like I could make the same work digitally. A screen on the back of the camera would be like both of us texting through the whole shoot.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no extra work? When did you know when to end that shoot with Marisa?
I do not have a plan. I mean, I don’t have a composition in mind. I don’t have a lens in mind. I don’t have a pose in mind. I don’t have a place in mine. It just gets to that stage of ‘Oh, there it is’. It’s always these magical little realizations.
I’m like that with my editing too. On my first pass through my images I go quickly and I stop when I think ‘Oh my god, what was that?’ – I want it to hit me that much.
But then three days later, I go through them much slower, and think what changed from one thing to another, what does one show that the other doesn’t. I get into it in a different way and finish another set. Six months later or so I go back and see what’s changed and what I see then about the experience I couldn’t see with even three weeks distance, because it changes. I usually finish a third set of images from a shoot. I know that it isn’t an editing question but it’s the same concept to go through something and when it feels done, it is.
moving on to publishing or putting your images out there on the internet- Instagram, Facebook, etc. How does that process work? How do you then come up with the words to share or express? Does it come naturally to you?
Right before I post. Lots of them are song lyrics and I never plan it. I open my phone and look at what I want to share, if it’s song lyrics I post, and sometimes It’s only been two days since I posted the exact same lyrics, but I do it again. I like keeping the whole process about what I’m feeling when I look at it. If I look at it and feel like I want to share something about me or this image. I don’t plan out the text.
Everything that I share word wise is always an immediate process. I don’t overthink that at all.
Are there any key lessons in the last 8 years that you would like to share or is there a best piece of work advice that you have?
I couldn’t say the key moment -I think if you ask anyone, commercial photographer, advertising, fine art, anything, like ‘What do you want your work to do?’ I swear the answer for almost everyone is to produce an emotional reaction. Whether it makes them love you, or hate you, or buy your product, or book your services, or laugh or cry, the goal always seems to be to produce an emotional reaction. I just think that most of us, including me, are approaching it so backwards.
“I want an emotional reaction.”
“What are you going to spend your time on?”
“Cameras, lenses, SEO, learning what poses work, browsing Pinterest, browsing Tumblr…”
“Why? Make me cry describing your emotional attachment to those things.”
“Oh no, that’s not really it.. it’s that I lost my Mum to cancer, I’m scared to grow up without her.”
It’s that “I just got married and I’m so excited to join my life to someone and see how that changes it.”
“I just had a son, I’m worried I won’t be a good enough father but so excited to have made the most beautiful thing possible.’’ Or, ‘’I loved music so much it made me want to be a photographer.’’ Or, ‘’Art connected me to people in ways I never dreamed was possible and I want to pass that on to other people but I’m scared that I am not good enough to do it.”
There’s an emotional connection and it’s the absolute last thing that we want to lay bare because it is scary and complicated but we also want the fruits of its result, we also want that result. I’m trying to be brave enough to say ‘This is me, who are you?’ If we have an hour together, I am fine spending 50 minutes of it telling you things I am scared to admit and hearing those from you, and take a portrait at the last second. That will be a more valuable picture and experience to me than spending the hour going through the 50 posing tips I learned. It works.
For me, I have more emotional pictures and experiences from that than I ever did from 95% of the things I’ve heard about getting better at photography.
How do you get someone who has never dived into that emotional space themselves to do that in their next shoot with their next subject?
If you want something from somebody and you are not willing to be it or show it you are exploitative. Even in a kind of small you-don’t-realize-that-you-are way. I say that all the time. I am not trying to tell people how to live or be; I can barely figure that out on my own.
When I answer these questions I’m talking to myself, trying to remind myself. To me, emotional work is a bit like a bullshit cop-out in photography. In the end you say, ‘you do something vulnerable and emotional and I’m gonna stand here behind a machine that hides my face from 10 feet away and I won’t have to do it. You do and that is so much easier’.
I start with the energy and the information and the kind of experience I want. I will give that first. I’ll be scared first. I’ll be vulnerable first. I’ll say what it is that’s fucking me up at the time before I ask them to show me any of that. I don’t expect anything, I really don’t. I don’t come in with a ‘This will happen or this shoot will be a failure’.
If I get a chance to say something that is hard for me to say to strangers, even to spend some awkward time together, not really open up about anything, and make an honest portrait – ‘we sat here, talked here and this is how it looked at the end of it’ – that can be a success for me.
How did you get to that process? Why is that the way you do things?
Because I heard an album by The Used in 2002 that honestly moved me from ‘no one understands what I am going through’ to ‘someone does’, from ‘I don’t like being alive’ to ‘neither does this person’ and they output something so incredibly beautiful about it that connected me to them physically.
Wanting to reproduce that experience and trying to stay in perspective about the way we go about things influences that, and the jump-offs were so scary. It was scary to be like, ‘If I have 12 lenses and 50 buttons on my camera, this will always be an excuse for me to change something’ instead of being like, ‘I am here and I am scared to try and take these photos and I don’t know how to do it.’ But eventually I knew, ‘that’s what you want,’ and I got a basic film camera and I set the aperture and shutter speed and I shot in natural light in a simple room and thought ‘’There is nothing left. If you are going to pull this out of you it’s going to be real and scary and now you have to do it because there is nothing else to fidget with.’
The jump-offs are always really hard but I’m trying to get to ‘this work is about me and who I am, the stuff I love and the stuff I’m scared of’.
That’s why I have a heart and a skull in the text of everything I share. It’s a reminder of the things you love that are propelling you forward, and the things that are killing you and the things you are scared of. They are both going into everything you are making and I don’t want to hide those in the process. I want to be immersed in those.
I’m glad you mentioned that as I ‘ve wondered about the reasoning behind those images in the text. I had my own ideas about it so I’m glad that this was shared.
Is there a photograph that is burned into your memory that you never took but you wish that you had?
There are thousands. That’s one of my human misery experiences.
It’s always of people I don’t know because I am still so fucking shy but the people I know, they know I’m going to go for it.
When I walk by and see something in a stranger but I don’t want to bother them, I see something happen that I really emotionally react to but I’m too scared to do, that happens all the time. I don’t have a specific answer right now, but constantly.
Is there an image that you are particularly proud of that you have taken recently and would like to tell the story?
It would be the shoot with Marisa yesterday for sure.
She has an Instagram vibe that isn’t very similar to my own work but I just have this radar for people who I think are putting out something personal, who are working on something more than attention and money or reasons that I can see, that something inside them is driving them to be who they are putting out. I had that vibe from her without even talking, just from the internet, and we finally met up. I knew it was coming. I didn’t know how but I just knew. We shot really beautiful stuff and over dinner it just happened. We both got to share some really personal things that had just happened. It’s not my place to share any of her stuff but it just led to that.
People learn tips and tricks for taking emotional photos, but the incredible emotional art was there just being one foot away from each other. She said ‘You want to capture this, don’t you?’ and I answered ‘I do.’ She said ‘It’s fine, you can shoot anything.’ I didn’t take many photos of the most meaningful part of the whole shoot. I think I only took eight. Over an hour and a half it was very much as though the thing was really happening.
We had that experience together and it was extremely relevant and honest and intimate. We were almost sharing the same physical space.
And these were the images that you mentioned before?
Yes, it was all about expression and the energy of what was happening.
We were both laying down together on our sides, facing each other.
GOING back to the process behind this, is the camera very close to you then, as though you were wearing glasses or..?
It was right to my side. I just had it right next to me and it was a great balance.
There was an hour and a half of beautiful moments. I just photographed the few times when I knew it was right.
I didn’t change a single thing. I focused very quickly and snapped it and put the camera immediately behind my back until the next time.
[editors note: The above 3 photos are from the shoot with Marisa.]
I hope in my life time I will be able to take portraits like that.
I feel really blessed. I’ve had that experience a number of times.
There are times where I have wanted to capture that moment, or that feeling and express it. I have them burned into my memory. I’d love to get to a place like that with a person where I would be able to do this.
It’s incredible that this is the type of photography that you do, and the type of relationships that you have with people which allows you to do this.
You know, it wasn’t a thing I was born with. It was a progression and changing things that I had to change to create those situations and life experiences. I wasn’t born into it. I left a job where I was making plenty of money to make zero money and move back into my parent’s house. I sold all of my possessions to keep going. I wanted to see where I could get to with 5 years of trying to take pictures exactly how I wanted to.
It was full of hard work and sacrifices to even make that kind of circumstance.
What do you hope to be doing in 5 or 10 years from now?
Nothing. I have zero answer to that. I hope it progresses in this way. I hope it gets more personal and leads to more meaningful connections and photos. I hope that every time I hit the shutter for the next 10 years I care about taking the image. I have zero idea where it is going. It would be presumptuous for me to weigh where it was going.
I hope I get healthy and happy and have a life full of meaningful experiences and love and friends.
Beyond that, I would be an idiot to say that I know what I want because some of my hardest experiences led to the qualities that make the work I do. It would be stupid to say that I don’t want any of those.
I have zero answer to that.
What are the three most important things in your life?
Friends, family and art.
Can you share a bit about your daily schedule and routines if you have them?
It doesn’t exist, and I mean that in a very sincere way. On the road I will wake up at 4am, book two shoots and work all day. On other days I will take 3 baths in one day like I did when I stayed at Phil and Sara’s house when they were out of town, or I will not even leave the house. There is nothing. That’s probably why I am trying to go to yoga every day. I do not have it.
I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have a pet, I don’t have a job. I don’t have a schedule.
Do you want routine and structure? Do you want a girlfriend ? Do you want a pet?
I want a girlfriend. I don’t want a job. I don’t want a pet.
I want to go to yoga every day and I want to be in love.
Which person do you respect the most in your life?
I don’t have an overall answer. I think everybody’s human and flawed and going through stuff that we don’t even know they’re going through and have flaws that we don’t think they have.
I would probably say my Dad because he came from some childhood circumstances that were bad and he could have easily passed those along to us just from having gone through them, but he didn’t. That is pretty amazing to me.
The power of one human who got hurt and influenced by all this stuff. This became the definition of a good person to me. Everyone goes through horrible stuff so you are either going to pass that on or you are not going to do this to anyone else. He did that in a major way. I tremendously respect that.
Thank you for sharing.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
Are there any mantras that you live by?
I don’t have a specific one. I am making a new website and when I was looking for text about what describes me the first lines ended up being the lyrics to my favorite song ‘Blue and Yellow’ by The Used. The first lines are ‘And it’s all in how you mix the two and it starts just where the lights exists. It’s a feeling that you cannot miss and it burns a hole through everyone who feels it’.
It sounds like it’s about the photography I want to make.
Have you ever spoken to them about those lyrics?
Yes. He’s one of my best friends now. I did the “sappy, reveal everything I love about him and his work” many times. It’s fun to embarrass yourself.
If you were no longer to use a camera, how would you express yourself?
It would have to be writing but I’m not good at it yet. It would be heartbreaking and terrifying to start over like that. I have no ability like drawing, sculpting, 3D design, graphic design… I’m the worst at all of those.
You think that you are not a good writer?
That’s what I would go for. I’d dive in. I’d have to record myself talking and then try to write some of it down.
Have you ever tried to do that?
No. I should.
Well, that’s not true. That is what I’m doing right now. If you had asked for these answers in text you would have the worst answers. I can say it, but when I have to write it, it’s a mess.
If you could change one aspect of society through your work what would it be?
That’s a really interesting question. Obviously I want world peace, but on what I feel I have access to, it’s gender and sexuality issues.
From what I grew up as and the issues I had coming out of it, it would be like a being comfortable in your physical body issues and using physicality to express emotion and constantly just speaking up for things like gay rights.
My work isn’t about that at all. But I’m fine to post images of mine and write about gender equality or gay rights. I just think it’s insane that we are in 2016 and not there.
If you want 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
Photographing the people closest to me for sure. Trying to have a conversation about having 24 hours to live. I would like to interact with the circumstances. I would take portraits of people I love, for sure.
If I was going to die, I would like to get that shot too. If there was a countdown timer I would set up the timer for sure; photographing myself dying, I would like to do that for sure. That would definitely creep into my mind.
Is there a question that I haven’t asked but I should have or anything you would like to share with anyone reading this?
My favorite question is
‘When is the last time you cried?’
It’s an event that overtakes you. It’s an emotional event that changes your physical and emotional state. I love knowing the last time a person cried.
The last time I cried an actual tear was the morning I woke up and found out that they had discontinued Fuji 100C, that pack film was completely dead. Because some of the most meaningful images and experiences of creating something physical and sharing a product with someone in front of you and both touching something you’ve made has been so powerful to me. In a year, I won’t do that again in this way. I was like ‘Why? I don’t want that to happen.’ I got really emotional.
ACTUALLY, this is my last question.
Who is Ryan Muirhead?
He is a very confused, sincere, trying-to-be-kind human who has no answers and no plans but is determined to leave something honest and beautiful behind from that mess.
Thank you so much Ryan. I really appreciate this time spent together asking you questions. I am so excited for you to come to Vancouver for THE EXPERIENCE.
Thank you for agreeing to being a part of this and for sharing, helping others and connecting.
JOIN US AT THE EXPERIENCE // ARC
Are you a wedding or portrait photographer looking for an edge?
We’ve just raised the bar..
This is NOT your typical photography seminar.
Welcome to The Experience // ARC, a one-of-a-kind event for passionate photographers and creatives.
We’ll have 10 speakers from all over the world joining us over 3 days.
It’s time to find your voice, challenge your perspective, refine your vision and become a better artist and entrepreneur.
You’ll experience expert training, creative challenges, bold new techniques, powerful connections, amazing adventures and have a hell of a good time, all in one of the most breathtaking cities in the world as our backdrop, Vancouver, BC.
Learn more by visiting our new site for The Experience.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS WITH RYAN MUIRHEAD
Your favourite podcast(s)
Revisionist History, This American Life
The Used, AFI, The National, Ace of Base
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
The Tree of Life
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading
A website you regularly follow?
I don’t follow any.
Last place you travelled?
New York City
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Mary Ellen Mark
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
It’s all in how you mix the two
and it starts just where the light exists
it’s a feeling that you cannot miss
and it burns a hole
through everyone who feels it
blue and yellow | the used
Single Malt Scotch
Favourite TED talk
Graham Hancock | the war on consciousness
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
The Met in NYC
Your favourite photography book
Exposure by Mary Ellen Mark
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
Links to your personal work // projects
Can you share a short assignment / project that has benefited you in the past OR create / describe an assignment that you feel can help those reading this interview?
To learn to see interesting light everywhere. To make a good photo in any given light at any given time.
THANK YOU RYAN!
You can see more of Ryan’s work here // Web
UP NEXT …
Stay tuned for an interview with Australian Wedding Photographer, Kelly Tunney
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