The following article appeared this month in Unvæl, a journal of art. Issue 1 is currently available and includes 5x7 printed artwork from Ryan Muirhead, Ashley Callaghan, and Michael Ash Smith.
Last year while in a small tourist town I stopped at a thrift store. I looked for some boots, tried on some hats, and bought a pristine '70s tweed suit. I also browsed the books, and with each title that struck me I thumbed to a random page and read a sentence or two, the way seekers of signs often do with the Bible. One book in particular, Adventures in Contentment, nabbed my attention with its unassuming cover and oxymoronic title. I looked inside and discovered a facsimiled typewriter font, suggesting a reprint. I checked the publication date; 1906. Then I fanned the pages and landed on a line that stuck: "I felt that profound curiosity which everyone of us feels every day of his life to know something of the inner impulses which stir his nearest neighbor."
This, I think, will become the final aim of all our technological efforts—to know the inner impulses of our neighbors. Not know as in understand or appreciate or empathize, but know as in live. It won't be enough for us to improve virtual reality or develop androids to talk to and have sex with. It won't be enough to digitally preserve our psyches so they can later be uploaded into artificial bodies. It won't be enough for us to develop an elixir for DNA deterioration so we can live forever. No, why settle for immortality or simulation when the multiplicity of being is on the horizon? Living forever, after all, isn't nearly as enticing as living anew over and over again. We'll devise recursive rebirth. We'll set up the whole scheme so that with each new life the memory of the old is erased, until some final drawing of the curtain reveals the memory of a million billion lives lived, a deluge of total recall. And that will be the payoff, when one is finally free to bask in the ecstasy and terror of seeing and knowing all at once and forever.
Until then, we'll consume and make art. We'll live vicariously in every way possible because it isn't enough to live one life. We need to get inside the shoes and skin of others, and out of our own. The way Ryan Muirhead does.
I first met Ryan on a stoop in 2009. He sat effeminately, knees pulled up to his chest, ankles crossed, arms wrapped around shins, one hand clasping one wrist. This was before he was Instafamous, before he globetrotted, speaking at audiences of seasoned photographers seeking more depth. I didn't recognize in him then artistic aptitude or uncompromising vision. But then, I wouldn't have. Mostly I saw an awkward flannel-wearing longhair whose scratchy voice seemed always one note from breaking, like a dam holding back hurt.
A couple years later, after getting to know Ryan and following his work on Facebook, I messaged him, "I love your work! Absolutely amazing!"
"Thank you," he replied.
Ryan didn't need to hear this. He was by this time hooked on photography. He'd also by this time been encouraged if not lauded by his art professors, and his social media following was steadily growing. He starred on an episode of a web-based photography show called FRAMED, which garnered positive reviews. Kodak had reached out to him. Ryan's portraits possessed a quality that drew people in. He photographed friends, peers, and family, but mostly young, beautiful women, some of whom were aspiring models. With Ryan, they were able to tease out their creative impulses, just as he was able to with them. As a result, his photos often felt like records of young love. And they were in that he was documenting, at least on some level, youthful infatuation with art, creativity, and world-as-oyster rippled with youthful uncertainty. All of this played out on social media, which to this day serves as Ryan's gallery and journal. His everyday posts were at once witty, playful, confident, but also concerned and idealistic, much like any Millennial's. But his photos were emotional, and this was his calling card. This was what always yielded clamor on social media. People obsessed over the emotion Ryan was able to convey photographically. And like all publicity, it fed on itself. Comments became shares became likes became comments. Interviews, sponsorships, and speaking engagements followed. Ryan, it appeared, was fast approaching that apogee of Americanism, that promised panacea for discontent: fame and fortune from following a passion.
Then something shifted. Not in his trajectory but in his expressiveness. Ryan's social media posts went from lighthearted and droll to darkly personal. He included with his photos melodramatic lyrics from songs by favorite bands The Used and Daughter. His portraits of young females opened up into something more cavernous and acute. One could see in them wilting flowers, freshly-penetrated hymen, nostalgia for virginity, and lament for impurity. In some instances, they looked like nothing more nor less than a post-coitus record, a document of defloration. This sentiment made some viewers decidedly uncomfortable, even critical of Ryan and his work, accusing him of making porn, which only further buoyed his reputation.
I sensed Ryan was exploring in his work more than sex and beauty, and in early 2014 I interviewed him for a personal blog. I began by asking Ryan why he hadn't directed his talent into something more lucrative, like commercial or wedding work. He replied, "When I started shooting, I was miserable. I was suicidal. I hated everything about my life." This opened the door to into Ryan's depression, but also into the romantic narrative he had for it: art saved me. The post went viral, amassing 200,000 reads on the blog and republication across multiple websites.
That was nearly four years ago. Today, Ryan is a successful working artist. He doesn't sell Lightroom presets or solutions to freelancing challenges or technical tips; he supports himself from print sales and speaking engagements, plus the little he gets from a recently launched Patreon account. He calls Portland, Oregon, home—the place he ran to from Utah—but he travels several times a year. He's been to Canada, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Australia, Belgium, the Canary Islands, and back and forth across the States, getting paid to speak. In each locale, he tells his story, with his shoes off, then he photographs a model or two in front of his audiences. And he's achieved all this primarily through posting his photos on Instagram and Facebook. Sounds dreamy, right?
"If I had a button to stop existing, I'd probably use it," Ryan says.
Ryan spends nine hours a day on his phone, incessantly checking Instagram, which he wishes he could stop. When he can curtail his social media use, he disappears into StarCraft for hours on end, a fact he isn't proud of. And this escapism has increased in recent years. He shoots less than he'd like to, but he also has little inclination to. "I have no determination, no willpower," he says. "I work really hard out of desperation, not out of aspiration. That's all that moves me. That's my work to me. I feel an existential horror that I can't drop for five minutes even when on a beach on the best day of my life, but I can drop it in moments of creation when I get overwhelmed with the beauty of something." That beauty in creation is losing potency for Ryan. The savior he'd thought he found in art is letting him down. "I assumed I would get to the answer," he says, "I assumed I would get to inner peace, and I didn't even get close."
When I solicited Ryan for that 2014 interview, I wanted total access. I wanted to connect, not just observe and listen. The intimacy that Ryan seeks with his subjects, I'd sought with him, for how can one properly depict another, make them a character in some artistic representation, without first getting entwined?
I was disappointed. Ryan, for all his magnetism, was not engaging. Despite our having known each other as acquaintances for years, despite our having once shared Christmas dinner, there was little reciprocity. No doubt, I was unprofessional, even boyish, in my interviewing; he was uncongenial. If the conversation drifted even subtly away from Ryan and his work, I detected impatience. The artist-as-friend-and-mentor I'd sought did not yield, at least not how I'd wanted.
Following the online success of our interview, Ryan reached out to me and said he had more to say, that he wanted to do a follow-up interview. I was reluctant, given that I hadn't initially gained the closeness I'd wanted. I feared that Ryan saw in me an opportunity to further expand his persona. I didn't want to oblige him of this desire, nor did I want to exploit it. At the same time, I saw in Ryan a complex character on which I believed I could tell a story of fidelity to the Ideal, and a willing subject at that. I hinted as much to him, and he made efforts to bring me into his world. We talked on a few occasions, and he invited me to dinner and drinks with him and his closest friends, but nothing fruited. Whether right or not, I felt I couldn't properly reveal a subject without getting involved. Ryan, it seemed, did not want to get involved. He wanted to be studied.
And not just by me. When I spent time with Ryan and his artist friends, I saw what resembled more a group of acolytes and leader than old college pals. The conversation invariably drifted around Ryan and his interests, with Ryan generally seated at the head or middle of whatever dinner table we happened to be seated at. One evening, in a seemingly innocent play, everyone participated in shining lights on Ryan and photographing him. The scene resembled The Last Supper, Ryan as Jesus. Their online interactions, too, resembled less sincere conversation than public endorsements of one another. Ryan's friends would tag and praise him online, and he'd occasionally return the public foreplay, sharing or praising his comrades' work. What you're now reading was prompted by Ryan. He suggested I write the piece to accompany his featured work in Unvæl. "It doesn't have to be anything flattering," he said.
Since that request, we've talked at length on a couple of occasions, even hung out. When hanging out, he'll often check his phone mid-conversation, without warning, without apology. In groups of three or more, he'll drift into his phone for minutes on end or wander off, especially if and when the conversation slips from his domain. During one phone conversation, Ryan explained to me that he has no interest in other people, except those who make exceptional artwork. Even then, he wants only to get inside their heads to understand their commitment and process, try to employ that in his own work. "If you got what you wanted," I asked, "would you any longer have interest in that person?"
"No," he said.
"I'm heartbroken I'm not a rock star," Ryan told me over the phone. He likes speaking before his audiences, dislikes engaging with them. Seminars offer him opportunity to perform, just as his Instagram feed does, which is what he really enjoys. He wants a million social media followers, wants to be celebrated in death, wants to be the fly on the wall at his own funeral so he can bask in the eulogies. This last point, which we discussed on my patio, gets Ryan giddy and glassy-eyed, aroused. The eulogies would be particularly poignant in the case of a tragic death, we agree, which can't really happen past the age of 40. If suicide offers Ryan an escape from the throes of being, something he's openly contemplated, it also offers him the opportunity to be memorialized. Ryan identifies with, even hesitatingly compares himself to Western society's notable tortured artists who took life into their own hands—Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, David Foster Wallace. Then, when the conversation moves from him and his imagined encomium, he deflates and talks again of feeling empty.
The messages and emails from fans are no consolation. Since going public with his depression and the palliative effects of making art, throngs have lettered Ryan, disclosing their own unbearable moods and states of mind. In Ryan, they've found a patron saint, a man who despite the pain of existing has found cause to go on. To which Ryan says, "The emotional adulation has become distressing. People write all that time and say, 'Your work had an impact on me not killing myself.' And now I'm like, 'Joke's on you. In five years, it doesn't work anymore.'" But, for now, he keeps hitting those like buttons on Instagram and Facebook, encouraging his fans who have undertaken art in search of meaning and reprieve. Deep down, however, his feelings run contrary. "I made all this work out of pain and not wanting to be here, which gave hope to others who have pain and don't want to be here, which gave hope to me. And now I've realized it doesn't work, and I don't want to share it. That's the darkness: I don't want people to feel encouraged or inspired by my art."
The relationship with young beauties, too, is lackluster. Arguably, Ryan's portraits of women are unequaled in depicting vulnerability, delicacy, darkness and intimacy. But it ends there. He's openly said on social media that the remnants of his upbringing in Utah's sexually repressive culture get channeled into his work. He didn't experience his first kiss until twenty-six. When I ask him of this sexual tension, he replies, "It's always been there." From the beginning, Ryan has wanted to shoot the kind of women he doesn't date or have sex with. Through the lens, he's able to explore those he might otherwise never see in the nude, never get close to, never tell what to do, never elicit such coy surrender and willing obedience from.
That's not to say he hasn't had opportunity for sex, though. In such enthralling moments of creation, desires flare. Ryan's subjects have on occasion solicited him, but he's shunned their advances in the moment, forgoing sexual intimacy in favor of creative friction. He'd rather not trade one pleasure for the other, he explains. By sublimating his biological drive, by denying himself the forbidden fruit, he can prolong that headspace of reprieve, longer attend to the Ideal. He forgoes tactile connection with an actual beauty for cognitive connection to that imagined Beauty. A true martyr. And what's more romantic than that?
David Foster Wallace, one of Ryan's artistic paragons, demonstrates in his short story The Depressed Person that depression invariably looks like narcissism. The story, which is just nine pages, plummets readers into the internal struggle of the wearyingly self-conscious Depressed Person. Readers are subjected to the Depressed Person's ceaseless and sorrowful moping over every aspect of her life, worry over how the moping is perceived, fear that nobody cares, frustration that no one can empathize with her angst, and lament for the fact that only her therapist will listen, whom she must pay to do so. Wallace shows how horrifying the inability to get out of one's own head can be. The story of self-absorption is all-consuming. And it's nauseating. Wallace seems intent on sickening the reader if only to show that depression is socially unacceptable. It's a condition that sends potential helpmates running rather than reaching. The irony, or tragedy, is that the Depressed Person wants desperately to be attended to, understood, cradled. Of course, for the non-depressed person, the cure for such plight, trite though it may be, is gratitude and human connection. But these are the very things the Depressed Person cannot muster. For some, this raises a curious question: is self-obsession the cause or consequence of loneliness and psychological terror? For the depressed person, the question invokes tailspin.
Such questions plague Ryan. He says, "The number one thing I'm confronting is the realization that you have to adopt a belief system to propel yourself forward, and I can't. I can't amass a framework and be like, 'That's the one.'" He expresses as much on social media, which only further solidifies the narrative regarding him: brutally honest tortured artist teaches humanity. But then he wonders whether that's his motive, to reinforce a flattering story. He considers his social media posts honest but also performative, and he worries over whether he's become too theatrical, too caught up in his own show. He knows what to articulate to interviewers. Martyrs have always prostrated themselves on the altar of truth, and their exchange is glory. Has Ryan adopted this role in hopes of the payoff, or does there exist some artist archetype, some particular psyche that plays out in few humans? "Either I'm insane, or crazy, or lying," Ryan says. "I'm such a different person when alone, and nobody knows."
Maybe the pain derives from sensitivity. When Ryan and I have occasion to hang out, which is barely seldom, we'll often drive through a Del Taco for a bean burrito and fries. He'll lean toward my window from the passenger side and ask the drive-thru attendant how he or she is doing. He'll then thank the attendant profusely, hand him a few dollars as a tip. A friend of Ryan's says it was Ryan who took him in during his divorce, gave him a place to stay. "One night," the friend recounts, "I broke down and he just listened to me for hours." When I asked a workshop attendee what she thought of Ryan's presentation, she answers, "He focuses on the human, not the photograph." His subjects concur. One model explains it was Ryan who helped her overcome her concerns of objectification inherent in the modeling industry. She explains how Ryan involved her in the creative process, made the affair collaborative and about connection rather than some desired outcome. She says, "I'm creating something too, and with Ryan it always feels like that." For my own experience, Ryan always pays for Uber, covers the cost of gas or bean burritos, and shares his Scotch. He is also one of two paying contributors to my blog, and has been for nearly a year.
But the beauty of Ryan is his genius. I'm reluctant to say this because firstly I'm no qualified judge, secondly there's nothing concrete to point to, thirdly I don't want to reinforce a vain and burdensome trope. What is genius? Here's what I think. I've worked with insightful businessmen who with acumen amassed millions of dollars, but none was genius. I've known popular leaders of organizations and groups, able to bring people together around a cause with uncanny ease, but none was genius. I've worked with prolific artists who turn out salable work over and over again, who demonstrate volumes of knowledge, and who express it unqualifiedly, but none is genius. In hindsight, I've known and been relatively close to two people who, from my view, embodied that attribute "genius." One, an odd and articulate reader of people, an extremely intelligent man interested in biology, shot himself in his 20s. The other, a man with a prodigious and quirky memory, also extremely intelligent, is only able to prevent himself from doing the same by imbibing 300mg of ketamine a day. I'm not saying that a suicidal tendency is the marker of genius. The common denominator, if there is one, is what I can only describe as a tic. Genius seems to be an unsettling behavioral trait not conducive to categorization or description, but that relates to a way of processing information and seeing the world. There's the clear and disconcerting sense that the genius is smart not because of what he knows, but how he knows. Interacting with a genius is like playing poker with someone who can count and memorize cards. Genius is a subtle misfire, an arrhythmia of cognition, some biological anomaly or otherwise misappropriation of nature that results in a kind of twisted energy expressed in human form. It's off, but only subtly so, fruiting a complex and sometimes off-putting person that provokes us, and, if we're lucky, reveals that which we might never see, or what we might otherwise willfully ignore. Ryan, for all his murkiness, has through his art and being shown me a kind of living I might've otherwise never known.
Take all this with a grain of salt, though. This is no more a portrait of Ryan than his photographs are of his subjects. It's clear in Ryan's images that he is documenting something other than people. To view one is to think not of the person in the frame, but the one who composed it and where he's coming from. Perhaps this is Ryan's genius on display: he shows with eerie accuracy what it feels like to be him, or human, or at least that's how we imagine it. In the end, however, it's impossible to know. Ryan can't access the beautiful people he would like to, I can't access the artist I would like to, and none of us can access the Doorway we've set on the horizon for ourselves. Alas, if there is no access, there is no escape. So we keep on making art.