Ryan Pfluger visited by Nick Naber

Ryan and I met about a year ago through a mutual friend at a party. Ryan was smart sarcastic and funny, pretty much the best attributes a person could have. Over the ensuing year we would see one another, and our conversations were always lively and fun. Ryan and I finally decided it would be a good idea to have a studio visit. We met in late August in Ryan's Bushwick studio for a frank and honest conversation about his practice. 

While looking at your website, I found it hard to distinguish your personal work from your professional work. Can you clarify how you make this distinction, if at all?

That’s pretty much what my battle is all the time. Going to grad school thinking that I was going to only make my own work. Then having my mentor be the photo director of The New York Times Magazine, which was one of the few publications that I thought, “anyone will shoot for them, even if they don't do editorial work.” After hours and hours of meetings and conversations I became pretty aware it was the best route for me to make a living while making my own work. I had maybe done one magazine job at the point that we had this conversation during the second semester of my thesis year.  She hired me right when I graduated and I always say that it was a double edged sword because shooting right off the bat for one of the best, gave me a little bit of a diluted idea of what that part of my life would be. It was toward the end of when magazine money was good. It was a job where there was basically no rules. They basically said, “We want you to do what you do, in a certain context.” I thought to myself, “This is great, why did I not want to do this?” My first story for the New York Times Magazine was a cover story; I thought of course I’ll get more work after this. For the next two or three months I lived off the rest of my student loans and didn’t really work for anyone. 

Since then, which has been almost 10 years. I wasn't doing many longterm projects for myself. I was shooting for myself to keep people interested in what I was doing. I didn't have the time or the money to invest in something, where I was like, “this is what I’m doing for the next 2 years.” 

I had a solo show right after grad school. There was no financial pay off whatsoever. It was so much time and energy, for a reclusive person like me, that vibe just wasn’t me.

You mean in like the gallery system, the whole idea of schmoozing with art world types?

I left my own opening, because I couldn't handle it. I quickly saw that being an artist was just as much about being a persona, for the majority of cases. People want the artist to be just as interesting as their work. 

When make work that is of this world, people want to know what is happening behind the camera and the story that leads to making that image.

Right, it’s all about the lifestyle. If you look at any contemporary photographer that is well regarded within the “fine art world.” The amount of interviews, photo shoots, and public appearances by an artist becomes almost more of a conversation than the work itself, or more interesting than the work itself. 

You sort of chose to remove yourself from a “fine art” context in a way?

I chose to remove myself in terms of…most of the artists and photographers I was inspired by were the ones that weren't famous during their lifetime, but they knew everyone that was. For someone who has a specific aesthetic, there have been plenty of times over the past 10 years that I actively could've chose to make a certain kind of work that people would have been interested in within that context.  In terms, of “that’s cool, or that will sell.” 

My decision-making during this time was to make myself known in the editorial world, and as a very specific photographer. I never ever wanted to make or do anything that didn't look like the work I would make for myself.  With a lot of editorial photographers you look at their personal work compared to their editorial work and it’s night and day.  I only want to work for publications that are going to match me with a subject or subject matter that reflects what I do. Even with celebrity stuff, I don't ever want to make something that just makes someone look good.  I don't care about that. 

George Takei

It’s not real.

It’s not real, and it’s also what everyone else does.  It’s not to say that they don't look good in what I do, but it’s not about that.  I’m not about selling anything. 

I wanted to have security financially, so that I can work on significant projects and take weeks away and work on it and not have to worry about anything. That’s what ended up happening. At the same time though, coming from a fine art background, working for a specific news and critically acclaimed publications it allowed there to be an understanding that I make my own work, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. 

4 or 5 years ago is when I started substantial personal projects again, they each have resonated off of the last work that I did in a subtle way. I wasn't pushing them out to galleries; I wasn't pushing it out as trying to sell myself in that way. I think because I’ve always had a presence, and I’m always making work that I still end up doing group shows, asking to be in books, occasionally bought by collectors. I’m not in any rush, in so many other aspects of my life I have diminished myself to make something happen.  My art is the only context that I don’t do that. 

The art is always there.

It is what it is. Yes, of course I take constructive criticism, and the whole art school mentality but I’ve never ever tried to gear my work into something that it isn’t.  

Probably, one of the first words that anyone ever says to me is “simple.” Years ago I used to get frustrated by that, and now it’s the ultimate compliment to me. Simple is the hardest thing to do. 

Yea, there is so much background. 

Yes, especially when you are using reality. In a culture that no longer actually respects the idea of image making anymore. That’s an even harder thing to get people interested in. My craft hasn't changed that much, it’s just that I am much better at exactly what I was doing. Now, the idea that people want something that is nuanced and not necessarily on base level, “oh, that’s really interesting.” Especially with photography since the boom of digital, it’s all about making work that’s about photography and doing things that aren't traditionally what you are supposed to be doing. Whether, it’s aesthetics or color, black and white, whatever it is it’s flipping what photography is or making things that don't look like photography. 

I’m based in humanity and reality. I want people to care about tangible photographs. 

You work with real film; you are using tangible media to make your work.

Still, even for jobs 90% of what I do is on film.  Everything I do for myself is on film. It’s the process, there’s a thoughtfulness that goes into; not knowing what you have, not being able to have as much, it’s so much more labor intensive. It’s like when you look at a nice chair and then you look at an IKEA chair, and they can look from a distance like the exact same thing.  When you get close you appreciate the craftsmanship and say, “this is a really fucking nice chair.”  That’s what I’m always am trying to reach. Where it’s not about changing what I do but making it the best possible version. The only thing that has changed is the subject matter.  For the most part I am a portrait-based photographer. Most of my personal work has other stuff thrown in that’s not people, but it’s still portraits to me. 

Looking at your work and a few specific projects, “The Passage,” and “Time Stood Still” these things are mixed in there. In your work I feel a sense of longing or a sense of loneliness, not in a sad way or a nostalgic way, it’s hard to put my finger on it. There is this thread, where some photos have these themes more than others but as a group there is this overarching feeling.

That’s 100%, and my work is about quantity. My work ethic plays into the work I make, because it’s how I deal with my obsessiveness. Those projects, “The Passage” is literally from photos every single time I’ve traveled for a job. It’s exactly that, it’s a sense of trying to feel present in a place that’s not mine and is transient. I’m always by myself when I’m on these jobs. Over time, I deliberately make photos that don’t involve humans and involve the longing for humans to be there. 

Even if they are there they are so distant and unrecognizable.

Besides simple, that’s the other thing people say. I get people that email me and say, “Why do you take such sad photos.” 

They aren’t sad. 

They are definitely not sad to me.  

It’s reality; it’s the world you're in. You’re conscious of noticing these everyday things. 

Right, again that’s the difficulty with me in standing at a definitive crossroads between the work I make for myself and the editorial work. I say for each of them it’s a tough sell since day one. Generally magazines don’t necessarily want to see reality, when it comes to seeing things that are “sad” people don't want to see “the guy next door sad.”  They want to see something exotic or different from their lives. That’s the thing that I’ve always fought, it’s what I wrote about in my thesis. The idea that with portraiture being based in reality we are reliant on textual context. That’s part of why I did the “Portraits in the Park” where I took photos of over 300 people over the course of one month here in New York. There is no text that goes with this project, other than the title. People always ask, “well why?” I say, “you tell me why.” I could say these are 300 people that have cancer and you're automatically going to feel completely differently about the work. Humans are so visceral it’s different than an abstract artist saying, “This is the work I made when I was going through chemotherapy,” or “when my mother died.” It’s like when you read any artist statement you think, “oh that was a really tumultuous time for them and look at what they were able to create.”  Who gives a fuck? I don’t care; I don’t care for you to know what I’m feeling about my work, because those are my feelings. What I want you to do is to reflect on your own feelings, by looking at the work that I make. 

That’s the conversation that most artists do get, but many want to control the entire conversation about their work. After it’s done it’s not yours anymore, it’s part of the world and you can’t control what the audience sees or thinks. It’s interesting that in the editorial work they are telling you what to make, but you are subverting it in some ways because you’re sticking to what you do. How do you reconcile that?

Now more so than say 5 or 6 years ago, I'm definitely not as malleable as I used to be. I don’t have the patience that I used to have for experiences that I’m not getting anything out of just so I can get a paycheck. That’s why I don’t do ad work, that’s why I don’t do true commercial work. The few times that I have it’s made me question everything about myself. The editorial world in itself is interesting because there is 20% that really have specific voices they do things outside of what they make for other people. There is a sense of care, where it’s not just “oh, that’s a really cool person.” Who cares? That’s the subversive thing for me; I love photographing celebrities not because they are celebrities. I give an experience that I can pretty definitively say they probably haven't experienced before at least within the last 20 years. We’re so used to the banality of pretty much experiencing the same thing when it comes to image creating and looking at images. Unless you're an artist who’s making 10 images a year, you don't put it online and it's about going into a room an experiencing this work. 

When I show up to someone’s house the first 15 minutes is me wanting to get to know them as a human, not as a persona for whatever creative field they are in or political structure, whatever it is. Once I start shooting I don’t say anything. The simplicity of my work is the silence of the work. That’s very much part of the process. Allowing people to exist with a stranger and to not say anything. Especially, when it’s someone who is used to being told what to do all the time. They can talk to me if they want to, I want them to be present in the moment and not be doing something else. Whether that’s you thinking about what you have to do for the next 10 hours, fine. They are giving themselves the time to be doing that. As an image-maker it becomes all about having those moments of not being performative for a camera. That’s part of why I’ve stayed with shooting film, even with the editorial work. That experience of people not being able to ask to see the image, it’s a laborious process because I try not to have an assistant, I try not to have a lot of equipment, I will use one back to my camera so they have to sit and wait for me to change each roll of film and watch that process. That slowing down of time changes the way the final image looks. That’s how I treat everything I do, it has nothing to do with someone hiring me to do it. 

Years ago I had a website that was split, “these are all of my personal projects, and these are my commercial projects.” Over time there has been a deliberate interweaving of the two, it’s a disservice to the work to separate it. I don’t feel the need to present myself as someone who is superior, “I work within fine art.” Quite honestly there is no difference, the context is what the difference is. You'll see things in personal zines, in a magazine, or in someone’s apartment that has never been shown anywhere, or someone that just does it as a hobby that’s 10 times more interesting than something you'd see on a gallery wall or something you'd see at MoMa or The New Museum. When you're not making tangible objects that need to exist within a certain kind of space, I find no need to separate. I find it more interesting when people don’t know [what the photo is for].

The explanation makes sense. You treat the people you shot in the park the same way you would shoot a celebrity or a stranger. The overlap is that they are people.

I’d say the closest people to me I never photograph. 99% of the time the first time I shoot someone is the first time I meet him or her. That’s also deliberate. The closer I get to someone, the less likely I’ll photograph them (with a few exceptions here and there)

Is there an issue with the intimacy of knowing someone and photographing them that you don’t like? 

When someone really knows me and my work, there can be preconceived notions of what is going to transpire. Since the process while shooting is one of the most important things, anything that is slightly jarring to that really takes a lot of effort on my part to reel it back to a place. Photography for me is similar to going to a new therapist, where you have your guard up but at the same time there is a willingness to want to open yourself up in a way that you don't do with someone you might know. When it’s someone who knows me it changes that dynamic. While as laid back and quiet and open as I am when I’m shooting it’s still a power dynamic of completely controlling that experience. When there is a sense of real intimacy in people knowing me as a human outside of my work it’s a bit more challenging for me to want to create. I relish in those relationships. My time photographing is my way of dealing with being a recluse and not wanting to deal with people. It’s my best self, and outside of that situation I don't know how to act sometimes. 

I don’t think I have ever photographed someone that I was close with since the work I made with my dad. That project was pretty much the crux of what started the way that I work.  When what is supposed to be on of your closest relationships isn’t at all, I used photography as a means to facilitate a relationship that did not exist. I don't think there is anything that I can do that can top that on a personal level; I could keep doing that work with my dad. That history and baggage, no matter how close we are there is always that awkwardness that will exist between the two of us in the way we communicate. That’s why making images was successful with him, because it was the one thing where he would do whatever I asked. It was that power dynamic, and again even with that work I don't write anything about it.  The title gives anything that you need to take away from it. My experience of whether or not I was close with my dad or not and why I was doing it doesn't matter. What matters is that I want people to see both the extremes of what intimacy and masculinity look like in that relationship. Also, the absurdity of what we consider what a father son dynamic should be and how engrained it is in us that by simply making 10 or 12 self portraits with my dad it’s what people would say, “oh that was what it was like with my dad when I between the ages of 5 and 15.” For Westerners it’s completely accessible and every single one of those photos was neither something I was ever interested in doing nor something that I did. That’s why the relationship itself doesn't actually matter. It changed my craft in knowing how powerful a stupid box (a camera) changes communication and changes the way that we look at each other. I don’t ever need to do that again with someone that I’m close with. 

My shoot off from that was figuring out how I fit into a queer space. The issues that I deal with being a queer artist and working with conservative publications that still want to be relevant and cool, and at the same time stereotype and assign things based on, “oh, you're a component photographer that people like, and we have this minority and you'll totally relate to them because you're a minority too.” That’s the way the world works, and that’s also how the fine art world works. 

Do you feel like you get pigeonholed?

That’s why I started making photos of men. There is such a weighted history of gay photographers that were critically acclaimed. The idea of the male gaze and the male nude, I don’t want my work to have anything to do with that. I want to do that same subject matter, that’s why when anyone ever says, “you must have a lot of fun photographing naked dudes,” or like, “I’m worried you’re going to sexualize the subject.” What I’m doing is the opposite of that. When you look at that work as a whole it has nothing to do with nudity, sexuality, it has to do with a sense of uncomfortableness and not belonging. I’m looking for people that aesthetically look like me because that is what my community is supposed to be. By continually doing that throughout my career it’s helped shape an aesthetic and a point of view to work with other subject matter. That’s part of why I’ve started doing my studio work here, and why I’m doing the refugee work that I’m doing. These two things are polar opposites. One is a sterile space that’s mine, and talking about how artist spaces become part of the work just as much as anything else.  In the last year, I got this space. The light is the same no matter what time of day it is or the weather. For someone who is obsessive it’s pretty perfect. 

Within this studio work, I haven’t curated who it is that I am photographing. Anyone who asks me, or emails me, and they say, “yes” I’ll ask them to come in. That will be the only textual context that I’ll give the work, because there is an interesting conversation to be had about all the people that aren’t photographed and has nothing to do with me. The majority of people say “no” to me, the majority of women say no to me or just don't answer, the majority of people who are overweight say no to me, the majority of people who have really good bodies say no to me. It’s a specific person who wants to feel safe. It may not be the most attractive person, it may not be the skinniest person, but it is the person who deep down knows that there is something interesting about themselves and they haven't found it yet. I always say, “I’m humbled when people ask me.” I know people are not coming to me to get a pretty portrait of themselves. Most of the time, after the fact subjects will say to me, “thank you for allowing me to exist in a space that what I was insecure about is what you made beautiful.” My whole job is reading people; I know what people don't like about themselves. It’s my job to highlight that thing in a way where I don’t want you to be insecure about this, because it’s the thing that I am drawn to about you. Not in a way that’s sensationalizing, sexualizing, or making it something that it isn’t. The amount of people that have come in becomes a weird archetype of person that doesn't fall into a category. I’ve had the privilege to photograph many types of people, ones that I would want to and those who I wouldn’t. No one is more special than anyone else; I don’t want to do something that is about sensationalizing a specific community of people. 

Well then, can you talk about this refugee project?

This is the kind of work that I’ve wanted to do since I picked up my camera, but I didn’t feel that I was emotionally, intellectually, and contextually capable in facilitating it properly.  The thing about work like this in general is that it’s easy to immerse yourself in an experience and do it for a week or two, be really competent at what you do and come back and say, “people are really going to be interested in this.” Historically that happens all the time. 

There are very few gay or queer photojournalists in general because of access and accountability of your person and how people look at you. Often queer artists stay within spaces that are either comfortable or a reflection of their own experiences and history.  I want that to be part of the experience and part of the context of the work but not what the work was about. I wanted to take the over arching theme of the work I make…I’m not feeling bad for these people, not feeling anger for them, not doing any of that. I wanted to be one human to another and relate and work with a specific…it’s difficult for me to use the right words in talking about it. I’m working with someone who did their dissertation on how male refugees are portrayed by NGOs; he was with me the entire time on our first trip and could not have started this without him. I want to be deliberate in how I talk about this but it’s also difficult to talk about during the process.  I have a lot more to experience, learn and educate myself on. Basically, male refugees (especially single ones) are not the refugee people care about or see visually.

The way this project came about, my friend Benjamin Rasmussen went to Jordan a few years ago and did a project on Syrian refugees.  He’s one of the most self-reflective people that I know, and he approached me and said he was interested in flipping the idea of what so and so artist would be hired to do. To basically band together 5 diverse photographers to all take their different take on one situation.  The idea of having a queer photographer from New York going to photograph male Syrian refugees is a tough sell. Every NGO immediately said “no.” I knew that was what I was going to face, and that’s the reason I’m doing it. That’s exactly what refugees are facing but we would never ever associate the two things together. Yes, we can say the Middle East in general doesn’t understand Queer people but we would never say people fleeing the Middle East have a similar experience to any minority living in the United States.  It’s one of those news things that we read about, that everyone who is slightly liberal says, “We should be taking in the refugees, that’s awful.”

To say it was a life changing experience for me and how I deal with life and contextually how I think about things is a complete understatement. I’ve dealt with some terrible shit in my life and this has been one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences I’ve had.  I sat with each man I photographed for between 2 and 4 hours of interviewing, listening, asking questions and engaging with someone who unless I was doing this project I would never cross paths with.  That’s exactly what the problem is, being in Berlin and realizing the state of Berlin took in over 1 million refugees alone not to mention what the rest of Germany has taken in. It’s like it doesn't exist, it’s not like you walk down the street and think, “oh man, there is a really bad refugee problem here.” You could live your life as we all do and know that its there and that it’s not part of your life. It took on a life of it’s own when I got there. I had all of these thoughts and idea as to what this project was going to be. Within 3 days I knew that this was something I needed to do for at least the next year.  I had plans to go other places but now I think I will stay in Germany. It’s not like there is a lack of material there. The problem with getting funding or a grant for any kind of project is that you have deadlines; I started to have the conversation that I can’t with any respect for myself or my subjects, do a disservice to this. This is so not about me. I hate when I see any kind of project like this where, “I’m giving these people a voice.” I’m not fucking doing anything but facilitating what’s already there and making people look at it. I wouldn’t even care if my name was on it.  That in the end is what my work is about. I want there to be a reflection on humanity and dealing with a subject matter. The conversation can easily go to, “really that’s what you’re doing? You’re the gay dude who photographs refugees and then you want everyone to think that that’s really cool?” That’s the kind of conversation I’ve faced from the start.  I’m not trying to be relevant and I don't care if I am.  I do these things because I care about humans. I care more that the 4 hours that I spent meant something to that person. They wanted someone to tell their personal story to. With most of them I didn't want to take their fucking photograph. I wanted to walk down the street chug a beer and cry to myself.  This is an experience that no one is hearing about. What does the 15 fucking guys that I have photographed so far, what is that actually doing for anyone? I want to find out what that means, and I want to keep doing to find out if it actually means something. It’s not only about this refugee experience but also about perception. Male refugees, Arab men equals terrorist equals aggressor equals a completely different definition of what masculinity is. It’s like meeting a stranger here, the only difference being talking through a translator.  

Every single interaction I treated the same way. I’m making a photo of you after you told me this story that you haven't been able to say to anyone else because you don't trust anyone or just no one is actually asking.  I think it’s hard for people to individualize something that is seen as such a broad experience.  As soon as other people were no longer telling me what to do or what I couldn't do, the amount of willingness and sincere gratitude of just us listening and not making it about, “I’m doing this project and so on.” Fuck that, I would put on my website the name of the project and no photos.  However, the photos are interesting and different and important, they examine the idea of what we as Westerners consider what a Middle Eastern man looks like. None of them are what we would stereotypically think. Over half of them don’t want to show their faces because of fear for their families. There is so much criticism that is placed on Middle Eastern women that they are being forced to cover themselves up because they are Muslim, which leads to a certain perception.  We would never perceive men with the same uncomfortableness or insecurity or fear of people knowing who they are. The photographs with no faces seen, those are the most interesting and revealing, more so than the straight portraits.

For more on Ryan check out his website, or his instagram.

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