Photographer Ryan Muirhead Talks Depression, Creativity, and What It Means to Be Human

(Reading time: 15 minutes)

Ryan Muirhead by B3njamin Photography

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.

Five years ago photographer Ryan Muirhead (websiteFacebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram) took that step and is now traversing the void.  He recently sat down with me to describe the landscape.

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.

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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.

Everything’s just a game and you set your own rules.

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But I started doing this for me—as a type of journal.  And I haven’t dropped that.  All my work is still so personal to me, and I’m always putting what I’m going through into the work that I’m doing.  It's like, how do you sell that?  That sounds like the cliché "artist selling out" trope, and I don’t even believe in that.  Everything's just a game and you set your own rules.  But it is really hard for me to sell this.  I’d rather teach it or tutor or speak about it and try to show why I'm doing it.  But to commercialize it, not only does that feel weird, I'm not even sure it's possible.  What I'm doing isn't task oriented.  It's more like, “I feel like shit today,” or “I feel like I can make it now,” and that’s where the images are coming from.

Speaking of teaching, you've done a few training events recently.  How are those working out?

I love those!  It makes me a little nervous because I think, oh man, people have no idea what they are signing up for and somebody’s gonna be pissed.  But we get there and I explain that I can teach about proper exposure, or shutter speed, or other technicalities, but all of that can be googled.  Why would you pay money for something you can find on Google?  The truth is that the breakthroughs people need to make are always personal.  Technical stuff takes a day on Google and a month of practice.  The real breakthroughs come when you explore questions like what do you really wish your life looked like?  What are you terrified of?  What do you wish you had the means to resolve in your life but are too afraid to admit?  Once you hit that stuff, that’s when the images get amazing.  So the workshops always turn it back on the artist.  Why is this your work?  What are your pictures saying, and is that what you want them to be saying?  Defend it.

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Where do you think the artistic compulsion comes from?

Why art?  I think it's because we are living and existing in a sphere where complete answers are impossible.  Where, despite everything we’ve received from science, religion, or life experience, you will run into something where the only available answer is “we don’t know.”  And you’ll encounter that all the time.  Art so aggressively addresses that, either directly or indirectly.  It's like this mountain is beautiful, this polluted lake is ugly, this person is in love, that is a tragedy.  And you take these abstract attacks at it.  Why do we make art?  Because we don’t have the answers, and art is abstract enough to not say "this is the answer."  It honors the questions.  Art with answers??  Great art explores the questions.  Like, why do we keep trying?  

So in some way art has to do with hope?

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Yeah, I mean it would have to be hope, to me, because it is continued exploration.  It's addressing something that in however many thousands or millions of years we still don’t have an answer for, but we wont give up on addressing it.  For me, that’s hope.

Have you ever wondered why it is that we have a sense of the beautiful at all?

Because something is going on, because I can think things, because I have a brain.  And apart from any explanation, it has instincts.  We can get metaphysical real fast, but I say I like my red sweater and you say you don’t.  And there’s no basis for that judgment.  But in a technical sense I think there is beauty found in the principles surrounding rule of thirds, composition, contrast, etcetera.  Those structural principles of art are very true, but they just add layers to it.  If you’re missing the core, if you're missing the emotion, if you're missing personal value judgments in your work, then the structure is just structure.  But when it's those rules mixed with “I feel this” or “I think this,” that's where the beauty comes in for me.

You seem to be an artist that has some angst.  What are you thoughts on art and suffering?

(Ryan laughs.)  We just went from a 30-minute interview to a two-hour interview.

Umm, I think about this all the time, because all my favorite artists are tortured.  And how can they not be?  How is the best art not gonna come from that place?  Because the more tortured you are, I mean, if you're close to taking your own life, what are the things going through your head?  What are the things worth saying if you feel your time is almost done?  It ups the ante on art.

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.

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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 expecations, 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.

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.

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Is there anything specific you're exploring artistically right now?

Yes.  It’s not very specific, but I started out doing this kinda fashion photography almost by accident.  It was by circumstance, not by some deep passion.  And then through school and other projects I realized that I also loved documentary work—stuff that was telling a more honest and timeless story.  I don’t want to give up pretty pictures, but I want to merge these two components.

If you really, really commit to something, someone will hate you for it.

I want my images to highlight what's going on with my subjects, even if they’re pretty pictures.  I don’t want completely manufactured portraits, but want to show who these people are.  So although social media wont care two days from now, in five years my subjects can look back and recognize themselves in that photo.  I’m really searching for authenticity and longevity in the photos I'm taking right now.

What about new projects?

Yeah, I really want to focus on getting my work printed.  I want something tangible.  It's funny I haven't done this already, but unless I have something forcing me, I typically get distracted.  That's actually how I got into shooting film.  I wanted fewer distractions.  I wanted to slow down, but I couldn't make myself with a digital camera.  There are too many buttons to distract me.  So I started shooting film and have grown to love it for its tactile nature, for the fact that you're touching your art, that you're physically making something.  But then I've been content to let digital delivery be the end product of my work.  It's the last thing people see.

So, to counter that, I'm starting a new project called One For You, One For Me.  Any time I get an image that I feel is especially worthy of putting out there, I'm gonna order two 8x10s of it.  They'll both become signature pieces of this special project.  One image will be made available online for purchase, and the other will go into an ongoing portfolio I keep for myself.  But I'm gonna sell each shot for less than I do my other prints.  It's more about producing something tangible, and connecting.  They'll be like "sister images."  I want it to be personal, like "our thing" between myself and whoever ends up with the other copy.

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.

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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.

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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 conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length.