Ryan Weiss’s Surreal Photos Balance Darkness and Light

All images by Ryan Weiss. Used with permission.

Photographer Ryan J. Weiss was born and raised in a small, once flourishing, coal town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. His surreal images are very influenced by this landscape as he captures scenes against the bleak town as it decays. In fact, a lot of it resembles what you’d find in movies, video games, etc.

Like many other surreal photographers, Ryan creates his images by photographing all elements separately, and then compositing them together in Adobe Photoshop. And in line with those thoughts, he tends to keep his gear setup very simple.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Ryan: I began to explore photography because I felt like I was failing with my attempts to make short films. I’ve always admired large scale movie productions with dramatic lighting and sets, and when I received my first video camera in 2008 I felt like I couldn’t create anything nearly as “cinematic” with my lack of resources. I stumbled on to some of the more well known photographers who make cinema inspired images (Greg Crewdson, Del Philip-Lorca diCorcia etc) and I was pretty blown away. Around that time, I sold all my video equipment and got a DSLR, while simultaneously attempting to figure out how Photoshop worked.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into conceptual photography?

Ryan: I began making what I would call “Conceptual Cinema” images because of my original desire to tell stories through motion pictures. Conceptual photography seemed like a very similar medium to film, almost as though the photos were pulled from a movie reel, I really admired that.

Some photographers are amazing at conveying stories and emotion through portraiture or more subject based images. I, myself found that I needed a bigger canvas with more elements to tell a story, one that didn’t necessarily rely on the subjects alone to tell a narrative. Conceptual photography gave me the ability to tell a story that utilized location, light, props and subjects to collaboratively tell the viewer a story.

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Phoblographer: Your work has an incredible amount of symbolism. There’s a consistent balance between the light and the dark if not in color then in elements. What motivates this creative vision?

Ryan: When I initially began formulating a style for my photos, I always wanted them to look like an old family photograph or a snippet out of a past era movie, but one that was slightly “off” and felt like it was trying to tell you more. I’ve found that many simple ideas about life, love and loss could be represented by characters in a scene that might initially come across as totally unrelated.

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Phoblographer: What’s your thought process like when you go about creating these images and interpreting the creative vision to become manifest? Is there story boarding involved?

Ryan: My thought process consists of trying to wrangle all the fragments of ideas I get on a daily basis, analyze which one’s are most achievable with my current resources and then make a mental attempt to flesh them out in regards to talent, props and locations. Some ideas strike me in a clear and complete form as others will leave me with pieces of a bigger photo that I have yet to fully realize.

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One thing that I really love about making photo composites, is it allows me to create part of an image, say a background plate that I can walk away from and slowly complete over time as I find suitable elements to compliment it. For example, the image I’m about to release has major elements that were created nearly two years ago, which at the time I could not find the exact props and characters I wanted, but since have.

Phoblographer: Your work is obviously unique. But what about your work do you feel makes it a signature of yours?

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Ryan: I would say most people would recognize my photos because of their use of cinema inspired lighting, and large widescreen type composition. I always thought that a location can say just as much as a subject and most would probably recognize my work by it’s balance between subject and location. As with many types of photography, the image revolves around the subject, but I like to have an equal portrayal of all elements.

Phoblographer: Lots and lots of conceptual shooters tend to say that many of their ideas come from insomnia. Do you think the same? It seems like a lot of the work is influenced by video games, graphic novels, etc.

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Ryan: A lot of the ideas I get, I’m not quite sure where I’m drawing from. I seem to have ideas for recurring concepts that focus on loss, grieving and regret- though I’ve personally have had very little adversity in my life. I have always admired dark, atmospheric movies, music and video games and I feel that my images are a collaboration of the media I’ve consumed at one time of another.

Phoblographer: What gear do you use? What about your editing process?

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Ryan: I’ve got a simple setup of a Nikon D5300 + 18-55 VRII. My lighting equipment consists of 2x Nikon SB-28 speedlights and an Alienbees B400 monolight. Modifier wise I do have an umbrella or two, but I almost exclusively use bounced light to illuminate my subjects. Before getting into photography I spent a great deal of time mimicking the lighting created by famous cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Harris Savides and Darius Khondji. Deakins uses tons of bounced light sources and I found that I love the look it gives. Like I mentioned before, the “stars” of my photos aren’t necessarily the subjects, so illuminating the subjects with bounced light, rather than soft boxes or the like, is a way to give a more broad and natural light quality that seamlessly integrates into the scene.

My editing process is very straight forward. I do so small tweaks on each image in Adobe Bridge before bringing them into Photoshop to do the majority of the edits. As for editing once in Photoshop, it’s pretty basic- curves, levels, hue and saturation adjustments. I try to get as much correct in camera lighting, angle and color wise so a lot of the image elements require very little tweaking.

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Phoblographer: Where do you see your photography and art in one year and how do you plan on getting it there?

Ryan: In one year, I’d like to have more diversity in my images from both a concept and talent perspective. Since starting out I’ve solely relied on myself and some friends to play the roles of each character in my photos. In the near future I’d like to branch out more and connect with actors and actresses to bring more life to some of the characters. Also, I’d like to showcase the creative process and production in a video format for others to see.

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