The New York-Based Photographer Shares Personal And Haunting Images Of The Vast American West

Words By John-Paul Pryor

It's safe to say that the New York-based Los Angeles-born photographer James Ryang has an enduring love affair with the open road. Although he counts among his commercial clients the likes of Sony, The Gap and Nike, and shoots for such presitgious titles as New York Magazine, Nylon, The New York Times Style Magazine, and Vice, his personal work is arguably where you find his true character, burning through a lens that trains its eyes upon everything from hobos to empty parking lots in order to capture the beating heart of the USA. Here, the young image-maker presents a series he recently shot on a road trip through the vast landscape, and tells us why spontaneity is key in capturing a snaphot of our times.

Topman GENERATION: What first drew you to photography? What are your earliest recollections of using a camera?
James Ryang:
When I was a kid, my father was the family photographer. He shot chromes and Super 8mm films of my brother and I growing up. He had three Pentax SLR’s brought from Japan that were given to him by my grandma. Her intention was for him to one day give them to me if I ever showed an interest, or when I was ready to use them properly. But my first camera was a 35mm point and shoot Olympus that I got when I was 10. At that age, I mostly just shot my friends and places on vacation. Getting prints back from the pharmacy was always the best part. I don’t think I even knew how a camera really worked back then, just that I could take pictures and get prints back after a few days. And if I got double prints, I could share them with my friends. I think that’s why I kept it up and never got bored. Some of my favorite photos growing up were on postcards that I collected. Postcards of absolutely everything as long as it was a postcard, of places I’d been, single portraits, paintings, polaroids, bands, artwork, whatever – like baseball cards in a way – I had boxes of them.

Topman GENERATION: What do you seek to capture in photography? What do you hope to communicate through the lens of your camera?
James Ryang:
I think I take pictures because it’s all I’ve ever really loved doing, even at a young age. I really fell in love with it as soon as I started and never wanted to stop. I didn’t have any interest in drawing or painting. My brother was much better at that than I was. It’s possible I ended up choosing photography as opposed to other media because it was instant yet unknown, which I really liked. There was a certain element of uncertainty and surprise with every roll of film shot. With every set of prints, I’d learn from my mistakes – remember where I was or what I was doing, and try new things the next time. That was an amazing part of it, which was the chance to experiment with the color or the crop and understand what I liked in pictures and relive old moments. A photographer friend of mine once told me that to be a good photographer, one needs to figure out what he/she is in love with and once they figure that out, to make images about that very thing. It seemed proverbial at the time but has served as good guidance.

Topman GENERATION: How would you describe your aesthetic? Is spontaneity important to your practice?
James Ryang:
I think that all photographers rely on moments whether they are staged or spontaneous. Spontaneity is key in being creative I think; whether it’s finding what works in a picture while you’re searching for it on a shot or telling yourself to have full awareness of the visual space around you. This recognition of a “decisive moment” happens most often while I’m driving somewhere because I’m constantly missing things on either side of the road I’d like to stop for and see. But then I take a moment and tell myself to turn around or stop because I think it will be worth it in the end.

Topman GENERATION: Who would you say were your biggest influences and why? Which photographer in particular has been an inspiration to you?
James Ryang: 
In terms of photography influences, there are a lot of photographers out there that I like. I’m constantly looking at the work of my friends and peers, which I think is a great way of seeing what our times are like because it’s really easy for me to look at pictures by those who came before us. I’ve also always liked the colour images by photographers like Mitch Epstein and William Eggleston. Most of my early inspiration came from photography books like The Democratic Forest and The Americans by Robert Frank. The images in those books pushed me into taking road trips, and shooting America.

Tell us about your road trip and shooting the desert... What was that like? How did it come about and how inspiring was it for you to capture these desolate vistas of America?
James Ryang:
A lot of the photography I’ve done for myself in the past 12 years has been shot on road trips. It’s a major source of inspiration for me. Maybe because surveying the land in front of you from a car forces you to pay closer attention to what’s around. The desert is a great space for these moments to reveal themselves. It’s a place I’ve been going to for years, and is close to where I grew up, so revisiting the cities and stretches of road after time away allows me to see them again with fresh eyes, see changes, and find the new. I continually remind myself to look for things unfamiliar and to go against my own instincts

Topman GENERATION: What is your definition of beauty? Where do you find beauty in your desert series?
James Ryang:
I think all photographers seek to capture beauty in some regard. It is our interpretation of beauty that makes us unique from one another. The things that I decide to pull over for in the desert may not interest others in the same way – what I find funny in an image, another may interpret as banal. I think the thing I like most in this series of images is colour as a character throughout, in the light, signage, swimming pools, and so on. Also, the desert is a magical place with lots of quirkiness – one day we got a “Judgement Day” dollar bill with our change at a thrift store prophesizing the end of the world; it seemed all-too appropriate in such a weird place.

John-Paul Pryor is editor of Topman GENERATION, contributing arts editor at AnOther Magazine, editor-at-large for PORT magazine and regularly writes for Dazed & Confused, TANK and Sabotage Times