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Photographer Ryan Lowry Makes Beautiful Images Out of Nothing

I sat down with him to talk about Instagram, Chief Keef, and photographing billionaires.

Portrait of Ryan Lowry. Photo by Aaron Wynia

When you take a picture, regardless of the mood, the lighting, or the way only you can see that stranger's exposed buttcrack, there's something that motivates you. Before you press down on that button, something else has clicked in your head. You can already see the likes, the reposts, and the LOLs your masterful exposure will bring. When you actually check the picture, though, it looks like something taken by someone messing around with a webcam at the Apple Store. 

Then there are people like Ryan Lowry, a dude who doesn't just capture the interesting stuff in front of him, but also makes it look more beautiful and natural than it ever should be. The 25-year-old Chicago-based photographer (who took the photos for ​this recent VICE story) often finds himself standing in front of some cool and pretty shit, and his resulting imagery of people and places has been spread throughout The Fader, Time, Bloomberg, and now in his new self-published book, ​Two Years. When I met him in Toronto he spent more time promoting Chief Keef's Instagram than his own book and told me about why he's over punk and how easy it was to get billionaire Richard Branson to do some goofy shit.

VICE: What part of your upbringing influences your pictures the most?
​Ryan Lowry: 
Punk music and skateboarding. I got into photography growing up and looking at Thrasher, where every spread was a black-and-white contact sheet of someone hitting a rail or something and I was like, "SICK." I was 12 years old when I decided I wanted to take photos. I convinced my parents to get me a camera, and then they signed me up for a class. There was this art center that had a black-and-white darkroom class that I went to until I went to college. So it was skateboarding, friends, bands, and seeing photography as a way to participate in that.

How did you start photographing rappers?
I actually didn't like rap music until I started shooting rappers, which was two years ago. I was ​Daniel Shea's​ assistant and he was shooting Chie​f Keef and I assisted him on that shoot. I never really listened to rap music and understood it on a conceptual level. I just didn't relate to it at all. Then I hung out and saw how these artists were inventing their own language and doing whatever they wanted, kind of like Dadaist artists. So then I found it relatable.

After that did you aspire to shoot rappers, or was it just coincidence that got you those jobs?
I got into rap and then started to seek it out a little bit more. There's this music newspaper in Chicago called The Chicago Reader, and I knew some of the people there so I was like, "I wanna shoot rappers," and they said, "Whenever we get something cool we'll assign it to you." The first time I ever shot rappers was for this magazine from the UK that hit me up when they were interested in doing a story about the Chicago drill scene, which is the South Side Chicago rap scene. They didn't have any contacts but were like, "We want to cover this person, this person, this person..." so I had to just figure it out. That was my first time being around that world and becoming a part of it.

How did you find shooting people with such strong personalities and personas?
You kind of have to play into their ego. You make it about them. You have to make it so they trust you and then you vibe off of that trust. My approach is, if you have a camera there, try to chill for a minute, then slowly take it out and make them comfortable. It all depends though: Some are really shy, and then others are so used to the camera that they don't even pay attention to you. You're just another guy showing up with a camera.

The imagery of hip-hop is a big difference from the naturalistic images in your book Two Years. Were you pursuing a separation from your commercial work?
All my personal stuff is about the everyday and taking mundane experiences and reevaluating them; it's personal and about me, but I want to make it available for other people. I shoot every day, so it interweaves between my professional and personal life. The good thing about getting an assignment is that it's always a different challenge. If I'm shooting a guy in a suit it becomes, "How do I make shooting someone in a suit interesting for myself again?" I shot Richard Branson the other day. I was supposed to have 15 minutes with him and he gave me 90 seconds. It's like, what am I going to take away from this 90-second interaction with a billionaire? Nothing! But I got to do some goofy shit. He did not give a fuck. I was like "Hey, I'm Ryan," and he was like, "OK. What do you want me to do?" I asked him to jump up some stairs and look back at me. He said "OK" and did it, then just started walking off. The PR person asked if I was all good, and I was like, "No! I'm supposed to have 15 minutes!"" So they got him back and I had another 30 seconds in front of an elevator door. When you're that fucking rich and used to being photographed you don't need to care.

At what point did you decide a theme for the book was starting to form?
The overall theme for the book is about everyday fate. In photography you happen upon situations, so it's like that. There are lot of stars throughout the book. As I was shooting more over the summer I would realize the book's not done, so I just kept editing until it made sense as a work.

Was there anything you were experiencing at the time that had an influence on it?
I was dating this girl for three years and we had just split up. There are a lot of photos of her. One of the last images is her facing a wall. She also designed the cover; she's amazing and very talented. I had these life changes happening like, I used to be super involved in punk and started to fall out of that. So I guess a big part of what I'm showing in the book is my personal change. I started to notice the fallacies in the punk scene, realizing that subcultures don't change and you just kind of get pushed out of them. It's shocking when you realize that something you grew up thinking was so important isn't anymore.

Was it similarities between the punk mentality and hip-hop that influenced your appreciation for it?
Yeah, actually, a lot. In my head punk was a place where you could do whatever you want, be whoever you want. You could be this wild freak. And rap is like that too. You have guys like Chief Keef or Young Thug who are inventing their own sound. They don't really give a fuck about anything, whereas in punk I realized that everyone was putting on this costume of tradition. You wear studs and dye your hair and stuff like that because you think you're doing whatever you want but now that's become tradition. I feel like rappers are actually doing whatever they want. To actually do whatever you want is insane.

Do you feel that as a photographer you adhere to any expectations or traditions?
It's really susceptible to trends, so I feel myself falling into aesthetic trends. You see shit that everyone's doing and you like it so you try to make it your own. I try to approach photography in a way where I'm making it my own.

What's the impact that Tumblr and Instagram have had on you?
As far as Instagram goes, a lot of people that hire me follow me on there, so I feel a weird pressure to behave, which is total bullshit. So I made another Instagram for bad behavior. It's just me peeing on things and been ignorant. I definitely feel a pressure to keep posting stuff, or a certain kind of content. It's not necessarily annoying, but sometimes I want to post dumb shit like everyone else but feel like I need to post something aesthetically pleasing. Tumblr I just use as pressure to keep making shit. If I haven't posted anything then I realize I'm not working. It's like a sketchbook.

Do a lot of other photographers view Instagram as an obligation?
Yeah, totally. Like, I recently pressured my friend into getting Instagram. I found out he had an account signed up so I started tagging him in a bunch of shit to get him to use it. He's a great photographer walking around everyday with a cellphone, so why not? It's just a cool peek into people's brains.

What concept would be hard to explain to a photographer 20 years from now?
Working for magazines. Being able to make money working for a print magazine will be a weird thing to explain in 20 years.