While a lot of our interviews on Tomopop focus on artists, there are plenty of other folks in the toy world that don't do their work in resin and vinyl. In fact, some ply their craft from behind a camera lens. One of those photographers is Ryan Roberts. Hailing from Nashville, Tenn., Ryan's jumped on to the scene as one of the toy world's emerging photographers, often adding a (sometimes darker) twist to photos of figures both new and old.
Recently, we talked with Ryan about his life, his photography, and how sometimes, even the best laid photography plans can go a little haywire. Hit the jump to check the interview out!
Tell us a bit about yourself, Ryan.
I'm an enigma ... ha. I'm a soon to be a 35-year-old kid who's found himself socially a bit awkward, and making up for it a bit by expressing myself through humor and images. I'm a sucker for conspiracy theories and all that stuff and it's finally starting to take a more serious tone in my work. But I've got lots of wacky pop stuff I'm working on, too. I need to get out more.
What brought you into photographing toys? And what types of toys do you like to shoot in particular?
I was in love with photography before the toys came along. I would shoot all kinds of different series. Eventually, I mistakenly took an extreme close-up macro photo of one of my Star Wars figures and the results were pretty shocking. I loved toys as a kid, like stay in my room all day and play toys, all weekend, in the sand, in the rocks, with my neighbors, on and on. And embarrassingly that went on a little bit longer than the rest of my friends. But by my mid- to late twenties I had put the toys on the shelf for nostalgia more than to bust out and have wars with. So bringing my love of photography and toys together was the paradigm harmonic.
Well, I like shooting some of the old vintage toys on a nostalgic level but the new art toys are really colorful and come from such more personal, artistic places of their creators so they're a lot easier to work with. Some of the new toys these days are begging for a backstory where as we all know who Cobra Commander was and what his MO was. The key is twisting those old figures' MOs on their heads and coming out with something new I guess, or something fresh. It took me coming up with a punchline to get into a deeper realm where I could explore some new boundaries and put my over-active imagination to work.
What kind of equipment do you usually work with?
I use a camera and some lights and use Photoshop to get my images to come to life. I guess I'm still insecure as I don't like giving away my gear by brands and specs and whatnot. I'm sort of proud to have taught myself a lot and to have found my niche so I feel like keeping my game kinda hush. Maybe that will change down the road.
How long does it take you to set everything up for your photos (backdrop, lighting, etc.)?
Man, it can vary from an hour or so to forever in some photos. Sometimes I have to ad-lib and swap out figures and stuff until the story seems complete. Sometimes, it all comes down to one magical prop or something that sets the whole piece off. I love when that happens and lately it's been happening a lot. The toy gods must be happy or something.
Are there any photographers that have been an inspiration to you? How so?
I look at almost every other photographer's work out these days, and I feel jealous and wish I knew what they knew. In time I'll pick up more tricks and stuff. And there's this guy, Brian McCarty, that people keep telling me to check out, never heard of him.
Ha, just kidding. McCarty's work is of course super tight and he'll always be a mountain top and my predecessor or whatever but I think our work is different enough to co-exist I guess. For the record, I didn't see his work and then go, "Oh, I should do that." Like I said, I need to get out a bit more and I didn't see his stuff until some friend of mine showed me his Monkey Assassin a good while after the fact. However, once seeing his work, I was able to figure out how high the bar had been set. He's a really smart cat. I guess I'm still an outsider doing my thing trying to make my stuff better and better until it's worthy of the artists whose toys I shoot.
You've also dabbled a bit recently in video. Tell us a bit about what brought you into doing video and what you think video adds to your artwork.
Ya know, if they had Mac laptops this fast when I was in college I would have gone into video, no doubt. It's so fun and rewarding. I'm also a DJ so once I started mixing music to video, I about freaked out. I can see why editors can stay up all night cutting video and where the energy and enthusiasm comes from. Once I upgraded to a camera with HD video on it, I knew I had to shoot videos of my toys. The first one was the Two Counts Kill Nine video. I laid down a tight Autechre track and started cutting all the weird footage I took into a story. I instantly thought they'd be rad on Adult Swim and thus the fake logo I added to the end of them, Adult Wims. I sent them to a friend's friend's wife at Adult Swim and haven't heard back. I would freak out if they played them. I know we're not supposed to be star-struck and all that "Stop Smiling" shit but I'm such a excited little kid when it comes to dealing with big stuff like that. Maybe that'll change, too.
Have there been any shoots you've wanted to do, but when it's come down to it, things just didn't work out as you'd hoped?
Ha yeah, I have a handful of photos in my collection of unreleased work that make me cringe. Sometimes, they're so vibrant in my head and the angles are all there and I sit there for hours trying to make something even remotely bearable to no avail. I've had to reshoot a couple of them because I knew they would look good if I could figure them out. And sometimes the final result is way better than I was even going for.
I keep try to shoot a photo with an actual Popeyes Chicken sign in the background to no avail. So I went to Home Depot and bought some wood to create my own scaled down version of the sign. What really sucks is when I've been working on a shoot for about five or six hours and the whole set collapses and I have to start over. Or I wrap on the shoot and take the set down to realize I should have moved something or forgot to include a prop or a figure. My garage studio can get crazy with tons of toys and props all over the place so sometimes I nearly mess shit up.
That said even though I love to drink, I don't drink a much or at all when I shoot these days because it can dull my sharpened focus and determination to nail a piece. I had this Acid Sweeties shot where I was going to shoot about twenty some of those figures and Schlitz after Schlitz it kept getting more and more retarded. I was like, "Does this camera not know what to do?" I drank until it turned into something useable in my outtakes or whatever when I make a coffee table book down the road but nothing I want to show off. It had the potential to be so symmetric as I was aiming to play off lots of repetition and geometric placements and angles. I told myself that even if I was sober I wouldn't have figured it out. We'll never know.
What are your plans for 2012?
Man, I've been making lots of good connections and have lots of things I hope come true but if it all blows up and the zombies eat my face, it was a fun ride and I hope I made some people smile or think. I'm actually a bit of a "doomsday prepper" so that's a fun and scary habit to have. We just had a billion tornadoes hit the Midwest and South today so it ought to be a fun storm season down here in Nashville this year as the galactic alignment causes more and more disturbances in the ether and whatnot.
What do you like to do when you're not shooting photos?
I like watching TV and movies a lot. I wish I played more video games but there's almost no time for that these days. I like to make mixes so I'm always hopping around through different genres making eclectic mixes. I do lots of editing to the tracks so they can end up pretty unique. I been making these mixes I call "Cloud" mixes that are pretty tight. I make about one a year. Last year I made number 7. My friends ask for those like they're from another diminution or something. I don't know, I need to get out more ... did I say that already?
Thank you, Ryan, for the opportunity to do this interview! You can follow Ryan on Twitter and Facebook.
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