Eye on Artists
Ryan Summerlin August 8, 2006
City/hometown: I grew up in California, spent six years in Oregon, and have been in the Roaring Fork Valley for the past nine years.Background/education: I have worked for the past seven years in large-format fine art photography. I am constantly working on new projects – in the studio, landscape, or out on the road – mostly around the western U.S. and abroad. I received a bachelor’s of arts in mass communications with an emphasis on photography in 2001 from Principia College in Elsah, Ill.
Preferred subject to photograph: People, but in nontraditional contexts, such as a figure wrapped in the torn and weathered wallpaper of an abandoned house, or someone wrapped in white in the hollow of a burned-out redwood. I can make portraits of people that are quite successful, but the strength of my work seems to be in capturing the portraits of ideas and spiritual ideals, using people as the medium to convey them.What’s the inspiration behind your photography? Revealing the source of life as not material, but spiritual. Showing that the core of people is always good; that truth conquers what is untrue, and that while we each have individual senses of what truth is, there are also higher, more absolute senses of truth that perhaps connect us all. Basically, my inspiration is to show the parts of life that can’t be seen with the eye, to uplift and to challenge thought, and to visually contemplate the individual yet universal challenges we find in life as well as possibilities for overcoming them. If I have made someone stop and think, or even just appreciate something more than they did before, then my work has succeeded.Where’s the most breathtaking place in the world you’ve shot? This sounds like the place where a photographer would reply “New Zealand” or “Siberia.” Some of the small towns in Tuscany, like Sienna and Pitigliano, are pretty amazing in terms of character, as well as parts of the Oregon coast and the Olympic Peninsula for dramatic beauty. But the places that are the most breathtaking to me are some of the most undesirable, run-down, burned-out, mice-infested structures imaginable. They are places of amazing natural abstracts, rich with texture, light and shadow, and of course strange odors. I was on the California coast this summer, and remember peering into a burned-out farmhouse, seeing a baby doll on charred black stairs leading up to the attic. Visually, that is what I find breathtaking. It’s something you couldn’t effectively contrive, and it’s that much more interesting to contrast at times with something like the human form. New and old, light and dark, smooth and worn, life and barren places. My work is very much about contrasting elements.If you could only have one piece of art hanging in your living room, what would it be? Isn’t it great that’s a scenario we never have to contemplate? Could it be a monster-sized collage including an O’Keeffe flower abstract, a Brett Weston underwater nude, one of my wife’s watercolors that I refer to as “the burning bush,” and Wynn Bullock’s “Navigation by Numbers”? If not, I think I would have to go with either a blank canvas (so I can imagine what could be there) or a room-size acrylic abstract done in different shades of blue by my wife.Digital or film? I enjoy working with large format film (4-inch-by-5-inch negatives). It captures a depth and charisma that digital cameras haven’t been able to achieve yet. It is expensive and extremely time consuming (I work traditionally in a darkroom, and just developing the negatives takes an hour-and-a-half for every 10 images I make) but I am interested in the highest quality, and don’t mind spending more time to get what I am after.Biggest influence: Some of my favorite artists, as well as influences in my work could be narrowed down to perhaps four photographers. Alfred Stieglitz, Wynn Bullock, and Edward and Brett Weston. Alfred and Edward worked in the early to mid 1900s, when photography was gaining status as an art form (thanks in part to their work). Stieglitz (who was married to Georgia O’Keeffe – which parallels my marriage to Lili Belmont, an equally talented and expressive painter) has influenced my sense of strong composition and clarity of purpose. Edward Weston has influenced my work with the figure and appreciation for boldly capturing life and spirit in the work. His son, Brett Weston, was perhaps the best printer ever to live (possibly even better than Ansel Adams). I am in awe of his prints and they inspire me to print with rich tonality and contrast. And finally Wynn Bullock, who had a great ability to capture spiritual qualities in his work – which is my primary pursuit.
FavoritesColor: BluePlace to shoot in Garfield County: Glenwood Canyon, though most the images taken are mental snapshotsFood: Mexican
Book: “Science and Health” by Mary Baker EddyPoet: e.e. Cummings lately. Otherwise, Jim Morrison or Robert Frost.Song: That’s as hard as one piece of art. “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd, “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, or “Claire de Lune” by Debussy. I guess this defeats the point of having a favorite.Instrument: Guitar for playing, piano for composing, cello for listeningMovie: “Monty Python’s The Holy Grail”Famous photograph: I should say something like “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” but I would have to go with either Edward Weston’s portrait of a glistening white porcelain toilet, or one of Alfred Stieglitz’s portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands. Actually, Ansel did one of a rose on driftwood that’s quite elegant and moderately known. I don’t think any of my favorite photographs would be considered famous.