Photography can mean many things for different people. For fine art photographer Ryan Mills, it's about capturing the emotion and preserving it in film. His work is delicate and powerful at the same time. Children, the subject of his large-format portraits, are portrayed as they are — growing, changing, innocent. Ryan is able to capture all these things and present them to viewers because he's invested in his art and in the people he works with. These photographs reflect Ryan's dedication to his work and they are nothing short of beautiful.
Hi, Ryan and welcome to the Magazine. What do you do and what got you started on your photography journey?
My day involves working as an electrical, mechanical and software engineer. I’m the lead engineer for a firm that designs science centers and children's museum exhibits. As well as STEM/STEAM-based learning carts for schools.
About 20 years ago I did youth work with junior high-aged kids. We did monthly events and trips and I would shoot roll after roll of 35 mm. Afterward, we would fill our walls by stapling 4x6 prints floor to ceiling. In this room, you would have years of memories on the walls. It’s what really sparked a lot in what I do. Early on I was just clicking but then I started to “see” a good photo. It was amateur but it moved from snapshots to more documentary and set me on the path to where I am today.
How did you discover that black and white large format photography is for you? Why choose film photography in your work?
The choice of medium is directly related to the look I want in the final product. Generationally I was born at a very in-between age where I grew up with film being king but right at the end of my teen years, digital started to take over. I started on film then transitioned to digital around 07’. Digital was a game-changer for me. Being able to quickly experiment and see exactly what I had set was massive for me. However, I have always been drawn to the older masters. Modern digitals at that time were so flat and linear with a relatively small dynamic range. Around that time I started collecting various art books based around portraiture or documentary. Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Annie Leibovitz, and the list goes on. All of their work was just on another level, really pushing me to try new things.
It was several books by Jock Sturges that had a significant impact on me. One notable one was “New Work, 1996-2000“. Physically the book is a bit larger and it just added to the impact of these amazing prints. The work was just perfect on both an artistic and technical level in environments that were very challenging on digital. At that time digital simply could not come close to film. So I started experimenting with 4x5 films. I spent a summer with friends on a lake burning through 100 sheets of 4x5 every weekend. After a lot of experimenting I settled on Tri-X 320, the only film I still shoot to this day.
What do you wish to achieve with your work?
An emotional connection. At its most basic, the photographs I make are a capture of the relationship I have with the subject. But the subtext and meaning can go deeper and it completely depends on the viewer to decide what they see. For example, the parents of a model are going to see something entirely different than a stranger or even myself.
What were the challenges that you encountered and how did you get past them?
Shooting large format has its specific challenges and nuisances, then you have film development and in my case, scanning. Thankfully, these days there is a giant wealth of information on the internet to get you started. I watched a number of YouTube videos on shooting large format and developing sheet film. Then I spent an entire summer on a local lake burning through sheets of film. I made a lot of mistakes but I think it was necessary. I shot around 600-700 sheets of 4x5 and it allowed me to experiment. Different films, developers, and other technical things like how I was exposing. By the end of the summer, I had a fair grasp of the fundamentals but it was still not quite right to me.
The biggest challenge in using the internet was that while there was a great deal of information. A lot of it was conflicting and it some cases just plain wrong. The following summer I flew to France to take a workshop with Jock Sturges. I have to credit a great deal to him. There was a myriad of small details I overlooked as well as things that were just plain wrong. Even five years later I am still picking up small tricks from him that improve my work.
We noticed that a lot of your portrait work uses time and youth as themes. Why choose these subjects?
Most children are honest subjects, they don't try to project an image they want everyone to believe. They are also at peace with themselves. Working with time just goes hand in hand with shooting youth. Each photograph is an attempt to capture who they are. But with children, they change so quickly I’m constantly trying to catch up.
We love the simplicity of your shots. They're bare and engaging at the same time. How did you develop this shooting style?
For me, the models are always the main focus so I’m specifically picking locations where the background is not going to be unnecessarily engaging and the light pleasing. After that I just let the models be, there are no fixed poses, I don’t force anything on them. Even with the younger kids, there is constant collaboration, we’re always talking. Sometimes about life, sometimes about the next shot and I always shoot their ideas. I only take a max of 20 sheets with me on a shoot so there is no rush.
The last detail I think is the most important. I make a great deal of effort to know the people I shoot. And that is especially important with kids. If it’s a first-time shoot I need to have lunch or dinner with them before my camera even comes out. At that meal we don’t talk about the shoot, we talk about them, life. It’s critical because large format creates a very “true” photo. A photo that shows how they are feeling and their connection with me. It’s why I often use the same subjects, year after year. The first shoot is always the weakest, every shoot we do after that will get better and better.
We also found out that you have projects that are still ongoing, some were started six years ago. Why did you want to capture change and time in your photographs?
Even when I was still shooting digital I was chasing time. Children grow so fast, each year brings something new. Unlike adults, even who they are can change. With each year is a new person and that old person is gone forever. I wanted to capture each of those steps and have this body of work you can look back on and see those changes. There is also a great deal behind each of the photographs, many are still evolving. With the portrait work, I don’t see it ever ending, it slows in the teen and young adult years. Priorities shift to school and work but I hope one day I will get to photograph them and their firstborn.
What's the story behind your ongoing photo projects?
A number of the children I work with are involved in bigger things. For example, a few kids have had opportunities to play lead roles in film and TV likely turning it into a career. As I’m typing this now I’m on my way to Los Angeles to photograph a girl named Hunter Rowland who is competing on American Ninja Warrior Jr. She is only 11 but has been training for years. She has the heart of a lion and will likely be a part of the next generation to really push the sport. I also travel for the projects working with kids around Europe as well. Every one of them is different — personalities, lifestyle and it changes every year. Once I reach that ten-year mark I plan to go back and create small monographs, detailing more of what was behind those photos.
In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
Emotion. I want to feel something with any art. Photographs, in particular, need to engage. Photos with a story are the ones that last.
Do you need the best gear to put out quality content?
Gear is dependent on what you want the final product to look like. They are simply tools to shape the image. So that depends entirely on what you want to create. In my case, I want to make huge prints with the best IQ while still being practical. While 20x24 makes an amazing image it's far too large to be practical shooting children, developing, even scanning. 8x10 was the right choice for me. I use a cheaper 8x10 Kodak Master View but I use a higher-end modern lens, the Rodenstock 240 mm f/5.6 Apo-Sironar-S.
What would you say is your dream project/collaboration?
I’m always rolling ideas around in my head. Tons of ideas but always limited by funds and time. With that said, I already feel like I’m working on my dream projects and honored to have so many people willing to work with me.
What does a perfect day look like for Ryan Mills?
The last two hours of light on a beach with 20 sheets of film and a great model. Follow that up with a few hours of conversation and dinner and that’s the perfect day.
Do you have upcoming projects? Please invite our readers.
I just want to keep expanding on my portraits that span time. There are several groups of people like the Ninja Warrior kids that over the next 20 years are just going to explode. Being able to capture these early days I think is everything.
Any last words?
These days I feel like too many people focus solely on modern photography for inspiration. Just completely ignoring hundreds of years of art. The volume created since we graduated from cave paintings is staggering. Does not matter if it’s paintings or sculpture, each medium can teach you something new. It’s well worth spending the time to dive into it and discover something new.