There’s no way of knowing when you’ll wake up in life, or if you ever will. Only after getting down the track a ways do you realize you were in fact asleep when you thought you had things figured out. And this thought scares the shit out of you.
Because those times when you were certain, it turns out you knew nothing. So what does that say about what you think you know right now? Your stomach turns, the world shifts a bit, and you stand at the vertiginous edge: you’re presented with the opportunity to discover who you really are. You then either cling to what you’ve always clung to—to what others say you should cling to—or you step off into the abyss.
Muirhead is a 32-year-old Utah native who discovered photography just before turning 27. Since then, Ryan has attracted a community of creatives who share in his photographic journey. He primarily shoots film and experiments with his ever-growing collection of analog cameras. But we didn’t discuss equipment or technique. We talked process: What does it mean to engage the creative life, and how does it change you? For navigating the unknown, Muirhead has a surprisingly clear view of things.
A lot of people with a talent for photography harness that towards a business in shooting for clients. Why haven’t you done that?
When I started shooting I was miserable. I was suicidal. I hated everything about my life. I was going through tons of stuff that I had no outlet for. When I found photography it became my outlet. Soon after, I grasped the concept that you can use art to express something that is going on personally, and that other people will relate. That’s like Art 101. But I never knew that before, because I wasn’t an artistic kid at all. I wasn’t always making stuff. I didn’t know I would be a creative.
I assumed you had been shooting since you were a kid.
I took my first photo ever when I was almost 27. It came from that place of turmoil. Once I found it, I didn’t want to do anything else. It was such a revelation. And for about three years, doing something with it never crossed my mind. It was just this compulsion. I had found this thing and was compelled to do it over and over and over and over. And the attention and the social media following was an accident. I was just shooting and making stuff and then I thought, what do I do with all these pictures? A friend told me to start sharing them online, and things developed from there.
“If you have the best damn life, create from that space, and it’ll be honest. And if your life’s total shit, stop pretending that it’s perfect. Create out of the shit that’s going on.”
But ultimately I think that life is circumstantial. Your ability to control what happens to you is negligible at best; your ability to control your perspective and attitude is everything. To say you need to be in some ‘angsty’ space to create? It can’t be, because you don’t control your biology, nor the events that are going to happen to you. What’s more important is being present, being aware, and being honest about it, and then creating from that space. If you have the best damn life, create from that space, and it’ll be honest. And if your life’s total shit, stop pretending that it’s perfect. Create out of the shit that’s going on. I don’t think you need to be in a certain space to make honest work, you just need to be honest, and do so from wherever you are. That’s your unique story. Just make it sincere.
Do you know where you’re going with your art?
Zero. No. Not in any capacity.
Does that scare you or excite you?
Both. It has only recently started to excite me. For the longest time it was just terror. I grew up with structure, and expectations, and plans of how things should go. So up until I was like 30, things not going as planned scared the hell out of me. And I’ve just started to have this little switch. With art, it’s like sure, nothing is right, but you start having meaningful experiences that reveal who you really are, instead of who you thought you were going to be or who you were expected to be. All of a sudden, you think maybe this is exactly the life you wanted. Maybe you didn’t want to know any of that before. But now it makes sense to just go out and connect with people, or do things that are personally meaningful, or travel and not have a plan.
“If you really, really commit to something, someone will hate you for it.”
When I reflect on that, I kinda love it. So, no, I have no clue where I’m going. But I’m trying to focus on doing honest work and eliminating things that aren’t meaningful to me and trusting that putting that energy out into the world will come back somehow. So far that’s been going splendidly. Not splendidly financially , but I’ve shot the album cover for my favorite band (The Used), and I tour with them. And I teach in foreign countries and work with other artists who are on the same page. So in that sense not knowing where I’m going has been amazing.
How has your art been received in your community? Do you have any detractors?
Oh, yeah. That comes up all the time. If you really, really commit to something, someone will hate you for it. And that’s ok. But the further you pursue your art, and the more you come to understand that it’s coming from who you are, the less that stuff gets to you. When you reach that point and put your work out there, and somebody hates it, what are your options? Are you gonna move forward or completely realign your work? Somebody will always be there to tell you they don’t like what you’re doing. To do work that pleases people is a constant investment in gauging trends and evaluating opinions and measuring yourself against them. If you align to what’s popular, and then in two years everyone hates it, you have to completely change who you are. But if you just figure out who you are and how you want to work, all you have to do is commit to that the rest of your life. People’s reactions might change, but you won’t have to. You’ll be doing something you care about, whether people like it or not.
I’ve been following your work since 2009 and I’ve always felt that you were playing with shooting nudes, but that you were hesitant. In the past few weeks, though, you’ve shared some nudes. Tell me about it.
There’s a stigma with that which I sorta care about. Ultimately, I’m fine with doing nudes, but they have to be done right. And I’d rather take my time in figuring that out, than mess it up. Our culture is saturated with sex and nudity and I have no desire to participate in that. But if I’m going to make raw, powerful, storytelling images, nudes are an honest way to do that. So I’ve started shooting and showing more of those recently and I love them. I’m proud of them.
What inspires you? What do you turn to for renewal?
I turn only to other things. I do not turn to photography for inspiration. Rarely do I even look at photography. When I do, I only look to the masters—the great photographers whose images have withstood time. I don’t look into what other people are doing, because that’ll just pollute your unique voice. Anything else is game. Song lyrics, that’s my number one source of inspiration. Song lyrics. Poetry. Then cinema, music, sculpture, painting, acting, anything that isn’t photography. Other art sources make me feel the creative drive, and then I want to go express that through photography.
What have you learned about yourself through this love affair with photography?
Everything. It’s completely revealed to me who I really am. I guess I didn’t know before, or I was too scared to admit it. A lot of this has been retrospective though. It has occurred through coming to terms with my anxiety or depression, or better understanding my worldview or religious outlook or views on humanity and then looking back and realizing I was so anxious because I thought my view was incorrect or damaged. In reality, those ‘damaged’ views were what I really believed at a deeper level but had not come to terms with yet. I’ve experienced so many insights like that through art. And it happens more every day.
What would you say to the person who is just starting on a creative endeavor? Or what would you say to the person who maybe feels hopeless or lost that wants to explore creative work but doesn’t know where to start?
I would point out that creative endeavors are not start-stop endeavors. It’s a lifestyle. And that’s the only way it can be. With photography, I don’t think, “I’m gonna go take a picture today.” I’m asking myself all the time, “What do you see? How would you tell this? How would you say this differently? What could you say with one image about where you’re at right now?” And I’m doing that nonstop, even when I’m not shooting. I can’t stop. It’s a perspective shift.
“In the end, it’s about honesty. It’s about the willingness to face really, really shitty questions about yourself and not lie. Maybe you don’t start out being honest to the entire world, but at least don’t lie to yourself.”
For example, its not like great authors or philosophers were normal and then they would do their philosophizing. They were seeing the world differently. And not because of ability, but by intent. Great art asks great questions, but it also causes the artist to ask great questions of him or herself. Why are you depressed? Why does creativity seem like a great idea? Who are you really? What are you afraid of? What do you hope for? That stuff’s fucking scary. But until you start asking those questions and putting it back into your work, then you’re just taking pictures of flowers or just learning how the camera works or wishing you had better oil paints or more expensive canvas or that big zoom lens or the newest Nikon camera.
In the end, it’s about honesty. It’s about the willingness to face really, really shitty questions about yourself and not lie. Maybe you don’t start out being honest to the entire world, but at least don’t lie to yourself. And that is so hard. That’s the journey. That’s why it turns into a lifelong thing. That’s where good art comes from, and if you’re gonna do that, it’s gonna set you on a completely different path.
This article originally appeared on the extraordinary blog, This is Imperfect.
If you found this interview to be deeply stirring and wish to delve deeper into the themes discussed here, then Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is for you. It tells the story of Frankl’s time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust and explains his influential theories of how humans can derive a sense of meaning even in the darkest of hours.