Ryan Muirhead: Creating Images as Song Lyrics

Ryan Muirhead grew up around film of a different sort; his father worked as a camera operator on movies and TV shows when Ryan was growing up and he himself worked as a camera assistant for a while. However, it wasn’t until he took his first picture in 2006 that the creative spark was lit and he has been shooting ever since. He made a complete switch entirely to film in January 2010 and he says he’s never been happier. In fact, Kodak used his work to advertise their Portra 400 and 160 film stocks. Born and raised in Utah, Ryan went on to study photography at Utah Valley University, which he describes as both a blessing and a curse. When asked about the genre of his work he replied as such, “I shoot almost exclusively people, but I’ve never really felt a part of the specific genres of beauty or fashion. I have also recently started exploring documentary photography.” Here is our interview with Ryan about his passion for photography and love of film.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I shoot with a Leica MP, a Contax 645, a Rolleiflex and various other film cameras.

Q: What are you trying to achieve with your photography?

A: I have always wanted it to feel like song lyrics — relatable yet unspecific.

Q: Would you describe yourself more as a serious enthusiast or professional photographer?

A: I guess a serious enthusiast is still what I am. Though I make all of my money from photography, it isn’t very much. I have been so obsessed with shooting that I have really neglected business, to a fault. I just love shooting personal work too much.

Q: When did you first discover your passion for photography?

A: My father was a camera operator on movies and TV shows as I was growing up. I worked for a few years as a camera assistant in Utah and California, but never in a creative capacity. I took my first creative picture ever in 2006 on the set of a movie during lunch. About a month after that photography was consuming all of my free time.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I was asked to shoot a military funeral for a Korean War POW whose body was being returned to his family after more than 50 years. I really needed a camera that would let me shoot in tight spaces yet still be discreet. A Leica seemed the natural choice.

Q: Can you tell us something about that experience, including which Leica camera, lens and film you used, and how you saw your mission?

A: I had the great honor to cover the funeral proceedings for Lt. Jack Saunders who died in the Korean War, but whose body was only recently returned to his family. I met the body flying in from Hawaii to Salt Lake City and then travelled with the procession to the cemetery. I covered the event with a Leica M9 on loan and my Leica MP. The lenses used were a 28mm Elmarit ASPH, a 35mm VC f/1.4 and a 50mm Summicron Version III. I saw the Leica cameras as essential to properly cover the event. I was only feet away from the military escort, the grieving family and the casket. The discretion afforded to me by the rangefinder cameras was invaluable. I was able to shoot quietly and effectively in very close quarters.

Q: What special characteristics do you think your Leica MP has (aside from size and film format) that differentiates it from your Contax 645 and Rolleiflex? What attracts you to the Leica and what do you think it does best?

A: The discretion is certainly its greatest appeal — all black, minimal markings, quiet and efficient. No excess knobs or menus to fiddle with. It gets out of the way and lets me shoot. Of course, it is king of the documentary and street shooting genres, but I really like trying to incorporate it into my “fashion” work.

Q: Which lenses do you use on your Leica MP. Do you believe, as many have asserted, that Leica lenses have a certain identifiable character in the images they capture?

A: I currently use a 21mm VC f/4, a 35mm VC f/1.4, a 50mm Summicron, a 58mm f/1 Noctilux Canada and a 90mm Summicron. The look of the lenses has been detailed far above my poor power to add or detract. I look forward to the day I can upgrade my VC lenses to Leica glass. I would especially love a 35mm Summilux.

Q: How was your experience shooting with the M9, which many experienced pros have described as “the Leica M experience in digital form?”

A: I shot for several months with the M9 that Leica was kind enough to loan me. While its quality and convenience are clear, it simply was not for me. My heart belongs to silver.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: I try to shoot as much as I can. I think it’s the only way to have a personal style. To shoot so often and in enough varied circumstances so that your style has a chance to find you.

Q: That’s a very intriguing comment. Can you say something more about how that process of self-discovery seems to be working out for you?

A: I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Photography is so dependent on science that there seems to be two different halves to the experience, the gear side and the expressive side. So much is said back and forth about how much the gear you are using matters and it is, of course, all-important and not at all important. If we didnʼt have cameras we would make no pictures, but when we worry exclusively about what our gear can do we lose what we are bringing to the table. This is the most attractive element of film and Leica to me. I load the camera with a specific film type and then I can set my aperture and shutter speed and that is it. Everything else that comes to the image must come from me. I love forcing myself into that minimalism so that what I am feeling has the best chance to incorporate itself into the image. Finding that this was the best way for me to shoot was not always clear to me. None of us begin shooting knowing what the best way for us to express ourselves will be. I think that is the greatest drawback to the DSLR revolution. Millions of unique and nuanced artists are shooting on the exact same camera with the same three zoom lenses. Many of them produce amazing work, but I wonder how their vision might change if they picked up a field camera, a TLR, a rangefinder, a Polaroid camera. Filmʼs greatest strength seems to be that there are so many ways of arriving at an image.

Q:  As a photographer who came of age in the digital era what particularly attracted you to film and why do you shoot it exclusively? Why do you favor Kodak Portra 400 and 160, and what other color films do you like? How about black-and-white?

A: I love film both for the look of it and for how it makes me shoot. Portraits are all about connection with the subject and I find all the menu items, buttons and, of course, the screen to be a distraction. I like everything stripped down: minimal lighting, simple settings, honest moments. I want this to apply to my cameras too — an aperture setting and a shutter speed setting is enough for me. As far as color negative films go, my favorites are Portra 160, Portra 800 and BW400CN (though this has been discontinued in medium format). The new Portra films are styled after the Kodak cinema films that I grew up around. I love the latitude, the fine grain, the performance under mixed light, everything.

Q: Several of your images can be described as fashion portraits. What has drawn you to that genre which you say youʼve “never felt a part of” and what is motivating you to explore documentary photography?

A: I really struggle to place myself within a genre. I shoot a lot of models and work with a lot of stylists, but I have never felt my work really fit into the fashion or editorial genres. Fashion photography is inherently about the clothes and my work is inherently about the face. Everything I love about photography is in capturing the human face. It is endlessly diverse and expressive. I love the challenge that documentary photography presents. One of my favorite ways to practice or learn is to limit the amount of control I have. To shoot one camera, or one film, or one lens; to try and take away all the options we are constantly presented with and make my mind the only variable. With documentary photography you traditionally have very little control over many of the elements and you really have to assert yourself to make it your photograph.

Q: How do you think the courses in your photography program have influenced your work? Have you been exposed to any photographic work that you see as a source of inspiration, or you deem worthy of emulation in terms of developing your own style?

A: School has been a blessing and a curse to me. I love the exposure to other artists and professors and how it forces you to work, but I have never performed well in a structured environment. I was constantly shooting what I wanted and trying to bend the assignments to fit what I was going to shoot anyway. One of the best things about school was being exposed to the work of the masters. Seeing and studying Avedonʼs “In the American West” has been the single most influential moment of my photographic life. It embodied everything I wanted my work to be.

Q: Do you believe that your father’s work as a camera operator on movies and TV shows, or your own experience as a camera assistant, has motivated you in any way or influenced your decision to pursue photography so passionately?

A: This is probably not the answer you would expect, but no. I grew up around film and movies and even started working as a camera assistant, but I really had no interest in it. It was just a way to make money. I really had no budding interest at all. One day a friend who was getting married asked me to take a picture of her in her dress because my dad owned a camera. It was really the first time I had attempted to take an artistically minded photograph. It went really well and within a little over a month photography became an outlet that consumed my life. I have since done little else besides shoot.

Q: You stated that you shoot “people almost exclusively.” What is it about photographing people that you find especially compelling and satisfying? Do you think that the discipline of shooting abstract compositions, nature subjects, scenic vistas, etc. can be helpful in developing techniques for shooting better people pictures?

A: The human form and more specifically the human face is the ultimate subject.

Hamlet put it best:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world …”

I am constantly and consistently drawn to the face. I love the connection that happens when I try to express something I am feeling via another person. The connection and validation experienced at its most successful is unsurpassed.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving in the immediate future and over the next few years?

A: I am hoping to do more documentary and large format work in the coming months. After that, I plan on moving to the Los Angeles area and trying to make something of myself financially.

Q: Do you think it will be possible to earn enough money with photography to support yourself as a professional photographer after you graduate? Do you have any other plans for integrating your passion for photography into your life if this is not possible, and what would constitute your dream job?

A: I really have no idea and to be honest this terrifies me. I have such a powerful connection to my work that it can be very hard to envision creating for money. My dream job would be to be able to sell enough work after it was created to support myself as a fine artist.

Thank you Ryan!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Ryan’s work on his website, www.ryanmuirhead.com and blog, http://ryanmuirhead.tumblr.com. You can also connect with Ryan on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ryanmuirheadphotography and follow him on Twitter @rnmphotography.