Ryan Mah: The Intersection Between Data and Everyday Life

Ryan is co-founder of Black Rhino Creative, an award winning film production firm dedicated to sharing authentic, intimate and engaging stories. A skilled photographer, graphic designer and passionate story teller, Ryan’s rich background in the creative field led him to film making. His talent for reaching the heart of a brand and translating these needs into a solid concept allows Black Rhino Creative to connect audiences with truly engaging and meaningful experiences. Below he talks about the video he created focusing on software artist, writer and educator Jer Thorp that takes a look at how Thorp creates beautiful data visualizations that puts abstract data into a human context

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I aim to capture the everyday around me. As much as I love to explore remote regions and exotic locations, I tend to photograph my everyday life, friends and loved ones.

Q: Can you tell us about this project? What was the inspiration, how did it come about, and what did you set out to achieve?

A: A few years ago, I attended a conference and heard Jer Thorp speaking about his passion for data visualization. His uncanny ability to humanize complex (and a pretty dry subject matter) really struck a chord with me. It’s part science, part art and part magic. As storytellers at Black Rhino Creative, we are always searching for the most effective way to express stories and create something truly authentic and inspiring. Seeing Jer speak at the conference, I saw a parallel in what we both do and was instantly drawn to document his thoughts on the intersections between data and everyday life. We were fortunate enough to spend time with Jer in New York City. We chose to film on the streets of New York to emphasize the concept that whether we realize it or not, we are all constantly creating data.

Q: Do you feel like you achieved what you set out to do?

A: Absolutely! When we embarked on this project we had a strong vision of the outcome and we’re really happy with what we achieved. Jer was incredibly generous with his time and I believe we captured an intimate glimpse into his mindset. And we had a blast doing it!

Q: What equipment did you use?

A: We used two Leica M ( Typ 240)s and four lenses. A 21 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH FLE, 50 mm f/1.0 Noctilux and a 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Q: What made this the ideal equipment for this project?

A: One of the things I love about Leica lenses are their extremely small footprint. Their compact size meant that we could fit the entire system into a medium sized camera bag, which was crucial in spending long days navigating the streets of New York. The size also allows for a certain intimacy with the subject matter which was essential in shooting a portrait of this nature.

Q: You mentioned that you love the way Leica lenses create a cinematic feel – can you expand on this?

A: At Black Rhino Creative we exclusively use Leica lenses because we know the exact feel we can achieve. For a clean, contemporary look we use Leica aspherical lenses. For a more atmospheric look we use Leica pre-aspherical lenses, in particular those produced during the 1960’s and 1970s. Our very early Leica lenses from the 1930’s and 1940’s lend character and produce sharp yet low contrast images. Although, traditionally used for still photography, we feel that Leica lenses enhance our film work with their excellent mix of clarity and character.

Q: With Black Rhino Creative, you use Leica M Glass exclusively for all your productions and use a Leica Monochrom for all your behind the scenes / production stills – why did you decide to shoot all of your behind-the-scenes stills in black and white?

A: Truthfully, it’s because that’s the aesthetic we find most compelling and consistent with the films we produce. In my personal life, I shoot almost exclusively in black and white too, if I could view the world in black and white, I would!

Q: You mentioned in the behind-the-scenes video that the M is the ultimate storytelling tool. Can you expand on this?

A: Going through art school, I saved up my summer paycheques for my first Leica, an M3. I still use it to this day. I love composing with a rangefinder and the inclusion of a video mode was a perfect match that I don’t believe you can find in any other camera.

Q: How was using the new M in regard to switching between photo and video?

A: Switching between photo mode to video mode in the new M is simple. My honest feedback would be that there’s still room for improvement in the controls and usability compared to cameras dedicated to creating motion picture. That said, in its first iteration, I am happy that Leica has taken the leap and included this feature in a camera that predominantly caters to still photographers. Hopefully the new M will give photographers the opportunity to explore motion picture. We’re also eager to try the new Leica S2 and its 4K video capability!

Q: You mentioned in the behind-the-scenes video that you took a rangefinder approach to shooting the movie series. What were you able to do with the M that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?

A: Traditionally using a rangefinder has allowed photographers to be stealthy and unobtrusive which is crucial in documentary style portraits or street photography. We took that same methodology of the unobtrusive street photographer and applied that in creating our film. The difference being a street photographer is capturing slices of life at 1/1000th of a second and we were capturing 30 second at a time. Being stealthy when shooting video is a real challenge but using the Leica M rangefinder meant that we weren’t weighed down by lots of equipment, we had a small footprint which really allowed us to immerse ourselves in Jer’s story and the characters on the street.

Q:  Does your video work also inform your approach to photography in any way?

A: It most certainly does. When I photograph I am telling a story, much in the same way as a film. Typically I set an establishing shot and emphasize certain details to ensure I have captured a complete story. Photography also informs the way my business partner and I create films, making sure that each frame is filled with the details that bring the story to life and enhance the overall character of the film.

Q: Since the topic was on data visualization, which is a very visual art form, why did you decide to shoot all of the episodes in black and white? Was it a purposeful contrast, more of a stylistic choice, or something else?

A: In many of Jer Thorp’s data visualizations, he uses just a little color and essential shapes to explain complex patterns. For us, we decided to shoot in black and white because we felt that it fit with his ethos and enhanced the essential shape and form of people on the street, who are ultimately creating the data.

Q: Jer Thorp wants to get more of the tech elite excited about the possibilities of how data can be put to use. It’s a very timely and compelling topic. Where else is your series going to be shown to help his mission?

A: Right now we are exploring opportunities to share this series at film festivals, as well as online. In future we’d like to expand upon this film, who knows, it may be the beginnings of a series of shorts.

Q: What draws you to black and white videography and photography?

A: We love black and white photography and film because we believe it distills form and shape the best. Not that we don’t love to use colour, but sometimes colour can distract. We believe there’s a reason some photographers have spent their lives mastering black and white. Black and white photography and film have a certain soul and depth to them that isn’t always captured with colour.

Q: It looks like there were some aerial shots – how did you capture those?

A: The aerial shots were actually shot on the Roosevelt tram! We managed to stabilize our shots on the busy tram using a monopod, filming through the window. We we’re really happy they turned out.

Q: There is a growing blurred line between still and moving images. Where do you see this trend going?

A: There’s definitely a growing blurred line between still and moving images. A big part of this is the amazing images we now have the capability to take with our phones. We’re slowly seeing people sharing moving images because of the incredible HD video (and in some instances 4K video) in their pockets. I think apps like Vine have taught the everyday person how to make the most of 6 seconds, how to edit on the fly and create the greatest impact in the least amount of time. I see this trend continuing with the ever evolving technology.

Q: You started out as a photographer. What draws you to shoot video too?

A: The principals of photography are very similar to creating a film. Setting establishing shots, capturing important details and making sure you have a complete story. For me, making the decision to transition into filmmaking was easy. The thing that draws me to video is simple. A good story.

Q: You mentioned that you are a lifelong Leica user starting with your Leica M3. How were you first introduced to Leica?

A: I was first introduced to the Leica back in art school. Someone brought one into the dark room and it caught my eye. Without sounding overly sentimental, a classic Leica has a certain aura, and all it took was to hold one in my hand and I was hooked. That was 15 years ago and I’ve been shooting with Leica cameras ever since. Cartier-Bresson captured this best when he said: “Shooting with a Leica is like a long tender kiss, like firing an automatic pistol, like an hour on the analyst’s couch.”

Q: Why is the Noctilux your favorite lens to shoot with?

A: The Noctilux is my all time favorite lens. I’ve used too many 50s to list, from Canon to Zeiss and the Noctilux has a cinematic feel like no other. I’m currently using the classic f/1 version, and maybe someday the f/ 0.95.

Thank you for your time, Ryan!

– Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Ryan and Black Rhino Creative on their website, Twitter and Instagram.

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