View Finder is a series in which we talk to artists about how they got started, what their experiences in their field have been like and get some stories behind some of their works. This month, we spoke with Ryan Walter Wagner, a Vancouver, BC-based photographer and musician who I’ve been lucky to call a friend for close to a decade.
Who are you?
I am Ryan Walter Wagner, an artist/photographer & musician living and traveling from Vancouver, BC.
How did you first get interested in photography?
I feel like I’ve always had an interest in capturing images, I just never really realized it until my 20’s. When I was a kid, I was always the one in our family with a camera or video camera, capturing everything my family did and later on what my friends were doing.
So, I don’t have a defining moment, it’s more that I’ve just always had it in me to create images.
How long have you been doing photography professionally? What was your first gig?
I’m trying to remember the first time someone paid me to take a photo…hmm…probably around the time I was in school learning photography, so maybe around 2007 or so. I can’t remember the exact shoot, though. It was probably the kitchen design company I was working for at the time. The GM could tell I was bored with my design job, so he hired me to photograph a bunch of installed kitchens.
Now that I think about it, I think that I sold a print before I was ever paid to take a photo.
What equipment do you use?
I have a big selection of old cameras, some of them even work. But I really like to play around and see what cameras fit my style. In my free time I’ll usually pack a camera or two in my pocket or bag and just wander the city, so I like to have a camera that is as ready as I am to take a photo at a moment’s notice.
What has been your best experience as a photographer?
I never really pick favorites, but some things I like about being a photographer, portraits in particular, is just hanging out and talking with people. I like spending an afternoon with a band or a single person and just talking, getting to know a little bit about each other. It’s also fun to become preoccupied with conversation while taking photos, the results are always more honest.
I also like just wandering with my camera. I like to pick a different area of the city to walk towards and spend a day just meandering and photographing as I go. It’s fun for me to just get lost looking for images to make.
What was your worst?
Sometimes you fuck up a job.
Your photos frequently show off unexpected angles of life in Vancouver, from a BC Ferries graveyard to glamour shots on Main & Hastings. As someone who has documented the city for a while, what do you hope people discover about Vancouver from your photos?
Hmm, that’s tricky because I’ve never intentionally tried to portray Vancouver in my photos. For me it’s more about that particular spot you are photographing, not as a town or district or city.
But really, I’ve always thought, if you’re coming to visit Vancouver you should get on the #16 bus and ride it from east to west and just stare out the window. I think you’d get a pretty good idea of the differences in Vancouver and Vancouverites. As with most cities, it’s very diverse culturally and financially.
You’re also deeply connected to the city’s music scene and many of your photos feature Vancouver musicians. Do you think being a musician yourself allows you to more effectively capture the personality of musicians in your photos?
Music has definitely been a big part of my photography, especially early on. I feel like the connection between music & photography, for me, is that when I’m photographing live music I know to take a photo on the one, because bands will usually do something a little more interesting. Even if it’s a quiet, slow band, you know they’ll at least give a little nod or little headbang on the one. I’ve also ended up taking a lot of ‘band photos’ over the years, mainly because when I started taking more photos, I knew bands that needed them and it just went on from there. I love spending an afternoon with a band hanging out and photographing them.
Something I’ve always been drawn to in your photos is how well you utilize stark, minimalist backgrounds, whether it’s all the negative space in your Portraits 1 series or the near sterile, Cronenbergian environment in +15. How did that element of your style develop? Did it grow out of your commercial background?
I like simplicity. If I have the option, I will almost always go with a simple, almost ‘non’ background. To me it just looks better. I like a clean, simple look, with portraits especially.
For the +15 series, I had the intention of walking through that system, hoping I would see some interesting spots. It turned out that the design of a lot of them offered up great lines on a sunny day and helped create a lot of contrast.
But even as a little kid, I remember taking some photos at my dads wedding. The photographer they had (who was a relative) put an album together and I noticed that the cover was a photo I took. It was just a really simple composition lit by a candle. So, I guess that style has always been there for me and it’s only developed the more I compose images.
So much of your work captures what appear to be spontaneous, intimate moments. What’s your secret to catching people off guard? How important is surprise to your work?
It’s hard, because sometimes you want to photograph a moment, but if you pull out a camera it’s going to change that moment or someone will act differently if they think you’re going to take a photo of them. It’s more important to me to capture that ‘real’ moment than it is to capture a posed moment and catching people acting natural is a difficult thing.
I wouldn’t say I have a secret on how to get those images, it’s just trying to find the right time to take a photo, and sometimes you just have to leave your camera in your bag, so you don’t ruin the moment. Plus it’s nice to just enjoy what’s happening and not have to photograph every single thing that happens.
But really, if you always have a camera with you, you’ll find the right moments to capture.
I’ve noticed that even your nature-based work often uses people, usually to provide a sense of scale or to communicate a kind of solitude– many of your nature photos feature people in the distance, small in comparison to their surroundings or seemingly isolated. Is that conscious commentary on our place in nature?
Having people appear in the distance is probably the most deliberate part of my photography. I find the distance between strangers to be very fascinating and am often curious about a strangers life and my life’s paths coming so close to intersecting and then never seeing that person again in my life. I have a series called (a)lone that is entirely based on that idea. It’s an ongoing series, that I will probably work on until I’m gone. So even if I’m wandering the streets with no idea of what I’m going to photograph, I will always see some lone figure in the distance somewhere that I will never ever meet and want to capture that image and that moment and that feeling. The first ever photos I took in my high school photography class was of people sitting on benches, alone. It’s just the distance between everyone that I find so interesting.
What are you working on now? What’s on your plate for the rest of 2014?
I’m working on a number of projects and photo series, as always. At the end of last year I started a project I’m calling “Scans of Turin,” where I am using my flatbed scanner to create portraits of people. I’m hoping to have a showing of them sometime before the year is over.
I’ve also been documenting the street I live on, in a series of ongoing street photography images. When I can find time, I like to paint. I’m fairly new at it and started a series of painted portraits last year, that I will continue and hope to have a showing of sometime this year.
Those are a few that I can think of off the top of my head, but really I’m always coming up with new things to work on, so I have a much bigger list or lists of projects somewhere in my office that will help remind me one day.
To contact Ryan for prints, commissions or just to talk, go to his Cargo Collective page. You can also listen to Ryan’s new musical projects The Greater Wall and Poor Baby on Bandcamp.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.