Award-winning editorial, advertising and fine-art photographer. Ryan Schude knows how to light up a scene with cinematic drama.
Ryan Schude’s photographs, often described as Gregory Crewdson meets Philip-Lorca diCorcia, are multi-faceted scenes—one part documentary style, mixed with a dash of cinema and finished off with advertising influences. In his well-known shot, “The Diner” from 2008, for example, virtually every sector of the composition features a vignette that’s essentially a picture in itself; combined, the image constitutes a brilliant slice of American life.
While Schude concedes that it was a bit of a calculated risk to have jumped into this very defined niche of advertising meets fine art, ultimately he wouldn’t have it any other way. “With everyone and their mother shooting simple, natural light or on-camera flash for fashion and lifestyle images, I think it might be just as hard to break into a saturated niche as opposed to being one of the few people with the ability and temperament to tackle any size assignment,” he says. And so far, it’s worked—his images have attracted advertising clients such as McDonald’s, AT&T, Kawasaki, Caesars Casino and Under Armour; ad agencies David & Goliath and Leo Burnett; and several publications, including Esquire, TIME and Guinness World Records. Schude is represented by Glasshouse Images in New York, and F.A. Caesar in Hamburg, Germany, for his commercial work, and Galerie 64bis in Paris for his fine-art work.
Despite his current successful portfolio and all of its acclaim, 32-year-old Schude admits that building his body of work didn’t come easy. It was a practice in temperament and skill, tackling complex shoots involving models, intricate lighting and meticulously-crafted sets infused with a drama and quirky humor.
Lighting proves key to each one of Schude’s images—during his shoots, every part of the set is lit at the same time, as opposed to using one or two lights for each separate area and compositing them all together at the end. “The difference in many of my images,” he points out, “is that all of the actors are on set at the same time and lit together, giving the whole scene a more realistic feel.”
Building a Foundation
For Schude, a creative epiphany came midway through his studies as a business major at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. He hadn’t explored any creative outlets in high school, but as he “started to play around more seriously with photography,” a career in business lost its appeal. He retained his major, but integrated photography, filmmaking, painting, printmaking and sculpture into his studies.
With photography as his principal focus after college, Schude enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute, learning as much as he could in a year—“I had no interest in getting a degree as I already had one, and figured I could learn quicker on my own, so I left and started freelancing,” he says. What he did learn in school was traditional film-based photography in 35mm, medium and large format in color and black and white. The transition to digital came with the rising costs of film, processing and scanning and industry trends.
Upon exiting formal school, Schude became a staff photographer and photo editor for the small, low-budget San Diego magazine, Daily Bread. The variety of work at Daily Bread—from action shots, natural-light, and documentary style to elaborately lit, staged images—became the foundation for what Schude does now.
After three years at Daily Bread, Schude relocated from San Diego to L.A., a move he said was necessary to establish himself as a serious shooter. With a degree in business and an extensive portfolio of published work, Schude had to restart from the bottom rung, taking a job as a clerk in equipment rental house, Pix, and assisting other photographers—many of them younger than he. “Working at the rental place was perfect for me to get my bearings and take my time building a whole new book while accessing their equipment,” Schude says. “It was like starting over. I just had to patiently rebuild my portfolio and continue to shop it around as that was something I had never done before.”
Beyond Pix’s generosity with equipment, Schude rebuilt his portfolio with help from Hand Prop Room, which works with individual photographers on tight budgets, and LA Casting, a source of models who have participated in numerous projects for Schude.
Assistance also came from Schude’s brother, Collins, a film director, who was integral to many facets of the earlier large productions—“from concept, to casting, to prop and wardrobe, the photos wouldn’t be the same without him,” Schude says. Since then, collaboration has become a larger part of the work, and images have been created alongside other photographers, painters, doctors, writers, musicians and stylists.
Elaborate Sets and Direction
At some stage, Schude realized he had the wherewithal to tackle big, complex photographs that required a head for logistics, an eye for detail, technical photography skills and the ability to direct people. One of his first projects of this large scale evolved from an assignment for an editorial portrait of a film director. Using his clout at Pix and rounding up a group of people willing to help out, Schude created a set alive with zombies, and produced a compelling portrait that looked as if it cost a fortune, but in fact had few production costs. That image was followed by “Saturn,” then “Bago,” “Breakdown (Jaguar),” and “The Diner,” all made while Schude was working at Pix.
“The Diner” (bottom of page 61) in particular, is what Schude describes as having been “an interesting challenge.” The ambient illumination from the sky at dusk combined with the mix of neon lights inside the diner posed its own set of technical issues. The size of the cast and crew, all of which needed direction, and the split-second timing of elements (such as the waitress spilling the tray of food), contributed to the challenge. Also, unlike most other locations, this one had to be paid for, so time constraints were a factor.
Schude and his crew replaced nine fixtures’ light bulbs with slaved flashbulbs, and used an additional 13 flash units to light the set. The 17 cast members and their families—all volunteers—had to be coordinated throughout the shoot, from wardrobes to props. In addition to Schude, there were three people setting up lights, a behind-the-scenes videographer, two wardrobe stylists, two other production assistants and “the main man, Collins, as co-director.” Everyone was there simply because they were enthused by Schude’s project and wanted to be a part of it.
Every year, Schude attends a creative retreat called “Phoot Camp” that consists of about 30 people meeting for a weekend to shoot photos and hangout. “In 2010, we ended up at a mansion in Calabasas that turned out to have a great pool in the backyard,” he says. “Alongside another camper, Lauren Randolph, we decided to create two images depicting the before (page 58/59) and aftermath of a classic, high-school party thrown while the parents are out of town—band geeks getting tossed in to the pool by jealous prom kings, jocks having chicken fights, a Where’s Waldo beach shanty, fried ribs on fire from the 4-H babes and alterna-dorks chugging whiskey,” Schude describes. “We filled the pool with every stereotype we could muster. Fortunate enough to utilize the rest of the [workshop attendees] as cast and crew, we were able to spend all day Friday setting up, shoot the nighttime pool party scene at dusk and get everything wrapped in time for dinner.”
Schude used nine lights for this shoot (see diagram page 60). Just out of frame to the right of where the cooks are lighting the grill on fire, there is a little house which served as base for a medium roller jacked all the way up with a super boom extending out over the roof lattice.
“When we were tech scouting, we noticed a great pattern the sun was creating from that lattice and wanted to recreate that by using a hard source as far away as possible to create defined shadows,” Schude explains. The rest of the sources are scattered about lighting each vignette with 7-inch reflectors. “We dragged for the ambient to use as a fill light for the surrounding background plates, but, kept our shutter closed down to 1/160 during shooting the people so that the only light hitting the subject was strobe in order to freeze their movement. It was shot with a 5D Mark II 35mm L series lens, at f/5.6 with our sharpest focus on the guy [Nate Bolt] getting tossed in the pool. Many of the subjects were taken from different frames, but everyone was shot at the same time and lit at once in an attempt to minimize cutting people out in Photoshop as opposed to just blending the frames together.”
Schude says the group spent the next day shooting casual snapshots and relaxing in preparation for the morning-after shot on Sunday. “Again receiving generous help from our fellow attendees, we were able to turn an all-day shoot into a few-hour fiasco, thanks also in part to the fact that the only thing our talent was supposed to do was lay on top of each other half-naked and act passed out.” (To view a time lapse video of the first night at Phootcamp, made by Simon Biswas, visit http://vimeo.com/14325323.)
At The Inn
In April 2011, Schude was set to have a dual art show with Dan Busta, a photographer colleague from Daily Bread, at the Bleicher Gallery in Los Angeles. “Since both of our imagery is highly narrative based, we enlisted a friend and published writer, Davy Rothbart of Found Magazine, to suggest one of his short stories he would enjoy seeing brought to life,” says Schude. “We both instantly gravitated toward the ominous tale of a real experience he had, sleeping over in an abandoned motel, on a dare with a girl, and the shock they had in the middle of the night. After a short search around L.A., we ended up with our whole cast and crew in desolate, Baker, California, home of the world’s largest thermometer, three hours east on the way to Vegas. Here we knew was located Arne’s Royal Hawaiian Motel, a long abandoned establishment just decrepit enough to let us do our thing.”
For this shot (opposite page; lighting diagram below), Schude used a small softbox with a grid boomed directly overhead the little girl. Camera left, directly across the pool from the old man, was a Dynalite head, bare, with a little blue gel on it. In the pool, Schude had a smoke machine powered by a 2000-watt generator. Camera right, past the two palm trees, were two Profoto Acute heads sharing a 2400-watt pack with narrow beam reflectors and peach gels on them to light the motel in back and the general scene around the old man. “There were two light-bulb flash slaves hanging from strings under the motel roofs,” Schude says. “In the room beyond the woman in the back was a Dynalite 1000 pack with a pencil light and some aqua gel. One more Dynalite with a bare head was hitting the side of the semi truck.” All of the strobes were powered by two 6000-watt gas generators. The camera used was a Hassleblad H2 with a 35mm lens and Phase One p30+ back set to ISO 200 and f/8. “The shutter varied as the ambient light faded since we shot at dusk but the idea was to shoot as slow a shutter as possible, without incurring motion blur, so that the background plates and the subject would blend as seamlessly as possible,” Schude explains. (The camera was tethered to a Macbook Pro, which was powered by a 1000-watt generator.)
Schude tries to capture every element in one image, minimizing the need for photo compositing, but will harness the appropriate technology to perfect the end result if necessary. He has shot primarily digital for the last six years, currently with a Canon 5D Mark II and an assortment of lenses. “My prior experience shooting action has been crucial to how I shoot now,” he says. “Mostly, each frame is shot very slowly and calculated. I shoot a frame, look at the computer, see what’s wrong or right, change it, shoot another, and repeat it until I have the image I want as opposed to just shooting huge volumes and hoping something materializes.”
During a typical shoot, Schude will tether to Capture One Pro, use Adobe Bridge for image browsing, and do everything else in Photoshop. His computer is a 17-inch Macbook Pro and currently he does most post-production work himself. Schude and his brother Collins, along with Busta, became partners in Los Angeles studio The Forge, which they rent to other photographers and filmmakers, and use to house their own photography business (www.forgela.com).
Even with a business degree, Schude admits his brain really doesn’t work in a business-like manner, and he has no formalized business plan on paper or in the works. “There is a naïve optimism lingering that keeps telling me if I continue making photos that I want to make, good things will happen,” he says.
To see more of Schude’s work, visit www.ryanschude.com.
Writer/photographer and author Peter Skinner is based in Queensland, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com.