So, in early October, I found myself on a train on my way to meet my favorite living photographer in Glasgow. It was a city I’d never been to in a country I’d only been in for about a month at the time. This was the most out of my comfort zone I had ever been. Sitting on that train watching countless sheep whiz by outside of the window, a foreign feeling came over me. Was it excitement? Dread? Did I need to throw up? Probably all three and more. These are the circumstances in which I met Ryan Muirhead.
Before I get to that, I have to share the fortuitous circumstances that led me to that point. A few months before Lindsey and I were to leave for Scotland, I saw that Ryan Muirhead was going to be having a workshop in Glasgow about a month after we were to arrive in Scotland. Glasgow is only about an hour bus/train ride from Edinburgh. A thought came over me, “This is the closest I will probably ever be to my favorite photographer.” So, like a good husband, I proposed the idea to my wife. “That’s awesome but we have to make sure we can pay for our visas first,” she replied. You see, it wasn’t just an opportunity to meet him, it was for a workshop that he was hosting; I would essentially be his student for a day. A good education is never cheap, a concept which held true in this case. I understood that we weren’t exactly flush with cash so I let the idea go dormant in the back of my mind so as to not get my hopes up. Getting to Scotland and not going broke while there is obviously the top priority.
A few weeks go by and I’m at my day job, going through the motions of a typical day at work when my phone buzzes in my pocket. I pull it halfway out of my pocket, just enough to see the screen and my phone lights up revealing the notification: Ryan Muirhead has sent you a friend request. What? WHAT?! Why has my favorite photographer, who I had never met, sent me a friend request? Logic surpasses surprise and I quickly text Lindsey, “WHAT DID YOU DO”. The only response I get? “Hehe”. I would later find out that she signed me up for the workshop as a surprise.
Flash forward a few months and Glasgow comes into view. “Oh,” I think to myself. “Glasgow is a bit different than Edinburgh.” I get off the train and allow the GPS on my phone to guide me to the Airbnb where I will be staying for the night. Glasgow has a totally different vibe than Edinburgh and for those of you who do not know, there is an intense rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh. I shall not be going into detail about their differences so I don’t offend anyone, but Edinburgh is TOTALLY better than Glasgow.
Anyway, for these workshops, Ryan likes to have everyone meet up the night before the actual workshop at a local pub in leu of a meet and greet the day of. None of the obligatory pleasantries of “Hi, my name is this. I’m from here and I do this thing.” Socialization in a group of strangers is much easier when everyone has a drink in their hand. So I arrive at the pub to find that only Ryan, two of his friends and his model for the workshop are the present. So much for fashionably late. We talk briefly and then the rest of my fellow workshop goers begin to arrive. I expected to be an outlier as an American among a group of UK natives but I was very mistaken. We had about a dozen attendees from Romania, Switzerland, Spain, England and Scotland. To my surprise, there were even two girls from Michigan. We all chatted amongst ourselves and exchanged social media information while Ryan made his way around to meet everyone. We all just kinda hung out and it was great. It definitely relieved a good bit of the social pressures for all of us, Ryan included. I knew I had to walk close to an hour back to my Airbnb on the other side of town, at night, in the rain so after I felt I had adequately made my presence known, I packed up my things, shook Ryan’s hand and said, “See you in the morning!”
Oh that next morning was quite a morning. The kind of morning that sticks to the forefront of your memories and becomes the standard for comparison amongst all other bad mornings, so you can say to yourself, “yeah, this is a bad morning but at least it wasn’t as bad as THAT morning.” Have I used the word morning enough? Probably. Morning. I may be about to divulge too much information here so bare with me and I will be as delicate as possible. You know how when you move to a new place and your body isn’t quite used to the drinking water so you have a fairly violent adjustment period? Well, after a month of living in Scotland without any adverse effects, my body felt it appropriate to choose THIS morning to deal with the drinking water dilemma. I was sick for the rest of the week. But it gets worse. At some point between the morning when I got dressed and the meeting at the pub the night before, I had torn a very large hole in the crotch of the only pair of trousers that I had brought with me. So after a delicate morning spent in the bathroom of a stranger’s home, I no longer had enough time to go find and buy a new pair of trousers before the workshop. So, let’s recap: new country, new city, spending time with an artist who I greatly admire, sick while wearing torn trousers. You can’t make this stuff up.
I packed up my things and walked (carefully) to the apartment where the workshop was being held. Luckily, the majority of the workshop would be spent sitting down so I, in turn, spend the majority of the workshop with my legs crossed. The building in which the workshop was being held appeared to be very sketchy on the outside. It was very run down in not-the-nicest neighborhood but once inside I realized why Ryan had chosen this place. It was beautiful inside with amazing window light.
Early in the morning, after everyone was in attendance, Ryan began his workshop. He sat in the center of the room on the floor on a couple of pillows by the fireplace, without shoes, wearing mismatched socks, holding his iPad, his camera in front of him and his red white and blue sweatband on his head. He reached into his pockets, removing everything he could find in them. “I can’t think when I have stuff in my pockets,” he explained. What followed was an absolute whirlwind of information and emotions. Spending a few hours in the same room as Ryan Muirhead is a truly unique experience. From a stranger’s perspective, he is by far the most troubled, complex, nervous, anxious person I have ever met, but at the same time he is absolutely brilliant, exceptionally talented, mind-bogglingly self-aware and unintentionally inspiring. For as many people as there are that appreciate and try to mimic his work, he is the only one who can create the work he creates. There is a level of emotion inherent in all of his images that cannot be replicated because for him, the image is a byproduct of the interaction and connection between him and his subject. It is very hard to briefly explain the nature of Ryan Muirhead in only a couple dozen words but if you appreciate or are at least intrigued by him and his work, I will link at the bottom of this blog a couple of interviews with Ryan. Perhaps then you will begin to understand.
As a group, we spent the next four or so hours just listening to Ryan speak about his work and his experiences. He has a very unique perspective on things. At the beginning of the workshop, I started to take notes but I quickly realized that I would be much better off just listening to what he was saying as opposed to trying to record it. I wrote down maybe two dozen words of notes before I stopped. It would be very difficult for me to try to dictate to you everything Ryan had to say, even in an abridged form. I simply wouldn’t do him justice and quite frankly I am still processing everything he had to say a month and a half later. This was not like sitting in on a TED talk as I assume many would expect it to be. At times he was very humorous with some of his stories, like the one where he searched through his photos for hours to find an image of the tattoo on his chest to put in the slideshow for the workshop without realizing that the tattoo is ON HIS CHEST. At other times he was painfully serious, such as when he explained how his upbringing in Mormon culture nearly killed him, but that of course lead to his passion for photography. Just go watch the interview linked below. It’s extraordinary and Ryan can definitely better explain himself than I ever could!
One thing about Ryan is that he doesn’t like to take people’s money. He explained that he is very rarely paid for his work. He is supplied with the majority of the equipment and services he needs to make his art, such as film, cameras, developing services, etc. These workshops essentially pay for his travel and other expenses, so he likes to give something tangible in return to those who paid for the workshop. Ryan is a huge proponent of “art you can hold” as the majority of images created today exist in a digital state so prior to the meeting, he had all of the workshop attendees choose one of his images which he would then print by hand and deliver to us on the day of the workshop. So, when he told us that our prints had inadvertently been donated to an Amsterdam airport, we were all a bit surprised. He went on to explain that he had all of our prints along with a portfolio of his printed work in a case next to him in the airport and when he boarded the plane, he accidentally left it behind. Realizing his error, he quickly asked the flight attendant if he could go retrieve his case holding thousands of dollars worth of prints. Of course he was not allowed to leave and then re-board the plane so the flight attendant called ahead to the desk in the terminal to see if they could see his case and of course they couldn’t find it. That is of course assuming that they actually looked. After his tragic anecdote, he explained that as soon as he got home he would reprint and mail our prints to us, along with another print to compensate for the mistake. (As a side note, I do not currently have the prints here with me because Lindsey and I decided it best if we send them to her parents’ house back in PA since we can’t hang anything in our apartment here in Edinburgh anyway and because we didn’t want them to get damaged in transport from the US to the UK and potentially back again if we move back to the states)
After lunch, we shifted gears and pulled out our cameras. We watched as Ryan demonstrated how a typical shoot goes for him with the two workshop models. He is very intuitive, yet particular in the way that he works. The shifting of a hand, the direction of a gaze, the distance between his camera and the subject; all equally crucial components to the image he was making. He shot a roll or two of film and then told us that it was our turn so we all began photographing each other, Ryan included. At this point, the atmosphere was the calmest it had been all day.
Afterwards, we all met up at a vegetarian restaurant for dinner and I have to say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I am not, by any stretch of the term, a vegetarian. If I don’t have meat for a day, I get extremely sluggish and irritable. That being said, I’d eat the jackfruit fish and chips that I ordered again. After dinner, the majority of the group joined Ryan at another pub to continue socializing while I headed back to home because it was getting quite late by this point and it was about an hour ride back to Edinburgh. Plus, I just really wanted to put on a pair of pants that didn’t have a huge hole in them.
The next day, Ryan and two of the workshop attendees were visiting Edinburgh for the day so I joined them for lunch. For the next few hours I was probably the worst tour guide as I had only been in Edinburgh about a month at that point. We hiked up Calton Hill just outside of my apartment, explored a cemetery that had some amazing light and sat in a cafe and talked over tea, but the highlight of the day, at least for me, was the whisky tasting. Apparently one of the workshop attendees had told Ryan of a hole-in-the-wall whisky shop that he needed to check out. You see, Scotland is littered with tourist trap whisky shops that all carry the same stock so the prospect of a whisky shop worth going to was very intriguing. For anyone who likes whisky and may be visiting Edinburgh any time soon, be sure to check out Cadenhead’s, “Scotland’s oldest independent bottler”, which is off the Royal Mile. After we finally found the place, we went in and got the grand tour of whiskies from all over Scotland. Without gushing too much, it was like a dream come true. I was sampling amazing whiskies with my favorite photographer in Edinburgh. Life. Made.
After the cafe, we met up with Lindsey who had just gotten out of class and we walked through the Princes Street Gardens on our way back to the train station as it was about time for Ryan and those traveling with him to get back to Glasgow. We said our goodbyes and headed off in opposite directions. Those two days that I spent with Ryan were truly remarkable and I will always be in my wife’s debt for signing me up for the workshop in the first place.
Again, go check out the links below to learn more about Ryan as I know I definitely have not done him or his workshop justice but if I have at least peaked your interest, then my job is done. If you ever get the chance to meet Ryan, definitely don’t let it pass you by. He travels a lot so if you ever see a guy with long hair, a red white and blue sweatband on his head and a camera in his hand, offer to buy him a scotch. You will not regret it.
Ryan Muirhead documentary video interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMW1ng-Eikk
Ryan Muirhead audio interview podcast by Matt Day: http://theshootwithmattday.libsyn.com/ryan-muirhead
Ryan Muirhead written interview: http://thisisarc.co/index.php/2016/10/09/conversation-ryan-muirhead/