Born and raised in Queens, NY, Ryan Pfluger now resides in Brooklyn. He received his MFA from SVA in 2007. Captivated by nostalgia, his personal work often deals with recreating memories, memorializing objects and how sexuality influences image making. Exploring what portraiture means presently in our culture, his photographs deal with the subtlety of body posture, the gaze and the role of self-portraiture.
1. What do you do before and during the shoot to cultivate the kind of intimacy your shoots clearly enjoy? Even in the celebrity portraits, it looks like your subjects are inviting you in for a closer, more revealing look.
I try and approach both my personal work and editorial work in the same exact way. At times it can be difficult when shooting celebrities or personalities due to the short time frames and often excessive amount of people on location. Shooting one-on-one is always ideal. While I do make very formal portraits, my photographic process is always about letting things flow naturally. I often refer to my camera as a therapist, making my sessions a meditative process. Often my subjects will tell me stories, and I’ll just listen. I rarely make photographs during this time. It brings about a sense of ease and I always want my subjects to know I am sincerely interested in them as individuals, not just bodies to make interesting images. Even with celebrities, while often brief, I hope to make it an intimate moment they can remember. While I don’t think it’s talked about enough, a photographer’s outward personality plays an integral role to the work they create. For me, I’m pretty introverted and often enjoy existing in silence with my subjects.
2. Because some of your work seems so introspective in nature, can you talk about maybe how you’ve learned about yourself through photography? What I mean is, do you feel like your photography has had a role in shaping how you see yourself? Or do you feel like your personal work is maybe more about expressing what you already know, and putting it out into the world. We are often used to seeing photographers tell the stories of other people through their eyes, so It’s always interesting to see artists who bring up their own stories and their identities in their work because that requires such a level of openness and vulnerability, and I’ve wondered how that affects you after the work is done, and it is out there.
I knew when I began using photography as my means of creative output, that I wouldn’t be able to detach myself from the work I created. I can talk about portraiture for days on end, but in short, all portraiture to me is an extension of self-portraiture. As photographers, we are choosing to capture certain moments, we edit out what it is we want the world to see etc… Because of that, photography has definitely made me very self-aware of my strengths and weaknesses. I’m sentimental and nostalgic and have a constant need to make portraits to feel as if I have something to hold onto, regardless of whether the person stays in my life. Being open about my life and identity, and keeping myself vulnerable is the only way I can continue making work. I don’t necessarily need people to understand my story, but hope that through the work people can reflect on their own lives and relationships. It’s very freeing the put it all out there, and I never have any qualms about that.
3. Can you talk a bit about the role that sexuality plays in your personal work? Do you feel like the work that gets at this more explicitly (Men I’ve Met, Studio Boys) has had an impact on your commissioned work in any way?
Even if I tried, I don’t think I could pull sexuality out of my work. While it’s more explicitly referenced in some work, it’s definitely an undertone in many of my projects, solely because it’s just an aspect of me and my viewpoint. Even the work Memento is very deeply rooted in my sexuality, however it’s not about sex. I think that’s the one distinction as a gay artist that I often am very vocal about. Memento is objects I’ve held onto since a child that informed my sexuality and what I found solace in, Men I’ve Met are men who I feel I should have a connection with, inside of my community, that I can’t seem to ever be a part of etc.. It’s a constant search for a community, and often I just create it through photographs. I can say without any doubt that a lot of that work such as Men I’ve Met and Studio Boys, even my own self-portraits, has gotten me work with some of my more prestigious clients. Often there are photographs from those projects in particular that are used as reference for what my clients want for assignments. Again the work is formal, but intimate, meditative and unguarded, and that’s usually the kind of work my clients want from me in the first place. Nudity for me is never about sexualizing, but about stripping away literally what we cover ourselves in, that we believe creates our identity.
4. Looking at where you are at in your career right now, what do you think are some of the decisions you made that were most important in getting you here? For students who are intensely interested in pursuing portraiture as an artistic practice but also as an income can you look at your path and give any advice?
I hate to sound like everyone else, but handwork and dedication really do payoff. If photography, whether it be documentary, portraiture, diaristic etc.. is what you really love doing, you need to be all in. To make it a career you have to be ready for major sacrifices. I often talk about my first few years out of grad school, and how I was barely making enough money to pay my rent. Like any artistic profession, there are the lucky few who get a big break, come from money, or are just in the right place at the right time. For the majority of us though, making it what you live and breathe at first is what really makes our breaks you. At this point in my career I can choose to take down-time, or turn down a job etc. In a world that is now so saturated with images, you need to stand by your craft and your voice. Don’t ever make images because you think it’s what people want to see, or what seems to be trending. You’ll eventually get lost and never realize what your true voice is.
5. I’ve noticed that your most recent project steps away from traditional portraiture more and is more of a personal document, which you seem to have done a bit of - but there’s a certain lightness to Time Stood Still - I don’t want to project, but it seems that you’re pointing your lens outward rather than inward. Vestige/Memento and Bits and Pieces both come across as more introspective. Do you see a difference in the approach between the works? Can you talk a bit about how it felt to make Time Stood Still and how you think it might impact your work going forward?
No projecting at all. Time Stood Still was a very freeing body of work for me. It was a landscape that was completely unfamiliar to me and I didn’t have any personal attachment to the culture. I felt like an outsider, but I wanted to make a body of work that truly paid homage to the landscape. It has helped me have a new perspective visually on the work I make going forward. While I will probably still focus my photography on things introspectively, it has given me a new viewpoint and openness but not being so self-aware.
(Once again, thanks for an awesome 5 Questions, Peter Hoffman.)
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