To celebrate Pride Month, we're highlighting Brooklyn-based photographer Ryan James MacFarland. In his latest book project Cheap Vacation, Ryan reflects on the personal aspects of his photography, and how growing up Queer in the South led to a fascination with escapism through imagery. Watch the full interview on Instagram, or continue reading below.
Where are you from and where are you currently based?
I’m from Tallahassee, Florida and currently live in Brooklyn, New York.
Can you describe a recent project you’ve been working on?
I’m in the final process of editing a book that I’ve been working on for about three years now called Cheap Vacation. It’s 15 years of work from 2004 to 2019, and is basically a culmination of three solo shows that I’ve had that have all become one large exhibition. To create this book, I've gone back through old negatives and reprinted them, and have also shot some new images since 2004. It’s a lot of work, but I see it as a small bookend definition of a major part where I was shooting all film and printing all myself directly to paper. I also recently started dubbing in the digital world, so I wanted to get this all in one solid book for presentation to end-cap this long-term project that I didn't even realize was one singular unit. 100 photographs is where we're at right now, and I think I like keeping it at a nice solid number.
Where did you take the photographs for this project?
All around the world, honestly. I predominantly shoot mostly when I travel. I do a little bit at home, as I tend to keep a camera in my bag at all times, but I'm most inspired by seeing an environment that I'm not used to. Taking myself out of my natural element is when I'm most inspired and think that also comes back to what photography is all about - this idea of escapism. Escapism is actually where the term 'cheap vacation' came from. In this book, I'm trying to question what's considered a true reality or a hard fact, and make the viewer question that a little bit is a big concept overlying the whole project. Taking pictures is also a form of escapism for myself — I deal with a lot of stress and anxiety so having a camera in my hand is probably the best tactic that I've learned over the years.
Since this body of work has spanned so many years, do you often see your photos as a reflection of yourself and your identity?
Yeah, absolutely. There's one solo show from 2014, Secret Wisdom, that I've picked a lot of inspiration from. That was really the most personal work I've ever done, where it was all about growing up Queer in the South and feeling really isolated as an only child living in the depths of the woods. I’ve realized over the years that photography has become a really strong form of therapy for the anxiety that I deal with and the day to day reality of being a conscious human being of what's going on around us in the world, the planet, society, etc. I try to narrow that down to my own perspective and how I can share it in a way that is very personal to myself, but also relatable to others. And I think that's one reason I really try to keep things completely timeless when I shoot — like a picture being taken in the 70s or 50 years from now. I like to think that I've done a decent job of that — keeping things not really specific to a certain time and place, but more specific to my own perspective.
Taking myself out of my natural element is when I'm most inspired and think that also comes back to what photography is all about - this idea of escapism.
Ryan James MacFarland
What has it been like to revisit some of these images, especially in thinking of how you want it to read in a book? How has that changed the meaning of the work for you, if at all?
No, it totally has. When I go into the dark room, I'll go back into negatives from ten years ago and just flip through casually and see what jumps out of me. For a couple of years, I got really into kind of nonlinear mathematics and theoretical science. And looking back at pictures of what I found, that I took in 2005, that was really kind of in 2012 — it was cool to see that the things I was consciously thinking about 5-10 years before are cyclical and come back around. I've realized I'm shooting similar things that I was shooting ten years ago that I didn't even know. I was kind of working on this one body of work for the whole time and it just fell into place really naturally.
While you've been working on this massive book project, have there been smaller projects that you've been doing on the side or other work that you've already been starting to think about?
Yeah, I've been working on Cheap Vacation version two. It's all digital work, which has been a really fun experiment to see in the way that it's changed, and the way I've been looking at the world now. It's not that I'm shooting differently, but mostly the kind of camera I'm using and the ability to capture different details in the world. I also think it has a lot to do with age and maturing over the years.
I never strive for the fantastic, but I feel like it actually becomes that way because of the nonspecific time and place of my work — I aim to build this 'stranger than fiction' narrative into my work. I also shoot so many frames of every single image zoomed in, zoomed out, and at different angles. I think that repetitive process of duplicating an image is great because it makes me think a lot about what I'm actually taking and what interests me. It’s also given some interesting personal insights into my own way of thinking and process.
What are some recurring themes in your work?
I always try to make the the viewer question reality — what is known as a fact, and why is it a fact? I like to put a little seed of doubt in the everyday thinking of the average person or the art lover who wants to see it. I always try to make things accessible since I’m shooting everyday life and commonplace scenes. This idea of you know what’s in front of you, but something is a little off to you? I accomplish this through groupings, editings, and double page spreads to really drive the point home.
How did you decide on the format of your book?
My brain does not work narratively in the least. I think in bullet points and write in bullet points, so this is the first time I’ve really seen a narrative come about in my work. I think of it more as like a poem, rather than a story where you take little bits — after revisiting once or twice, the story comes together but it’s a different story for each person who sees it. A viewer can interpret it in a number of different ways.
Is there anything in general you want to share about your practice?
The level of fantastic reality is another key term that I put into my own head or try to keep present in my work. Those little layers of questioning reality and playing with reality —planting the seed of doubt factor and putting into the viewer. When looking at my work, something feels off, wrong, uncomfortable or maybe the opposite, but at the same time something also feels right and makes sense but you don’t know why. Uncanny is a great term for what I naturally strive to do.