Fotograf Magazine

Ryan Pfluger

Not without my father

Ryan Pfluger (*1984) is a young American photographer and a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York. In both his artistic work as well as his commissioned magazine work, he focuses almost exclusively on portrait photography. Most of his portraits are of goodlooking young men in various states of undress, taken both in the studio and freely photographed at different locations.

On the basis of this fact, one could make the somewhat politically incorrect assumption that Ryan is gay and that this fact informs his entire work. Although the assumption is indeed correct, Ryan’s leitmotif is not homosexuality as such, but rather interpersonal relationships, which form the background for everything else. Ryan is interested in family relationships, partnerships, friendships. In his blog, he writes that he enjoys watching films and television at home, which enables him to experience interpersonal relationships vicariously, isolated and free from personal involvement. He describes his relationship to the surrounding world as very insecure, unstable, shy, fragile. The environment in which Ryan grew up is not the kind most of us would describe as a happy home, and this experienced has left its traces on him. All these facts have given Ryan an increased sensitivity, the main characteristic of his work. Ryan uses his work to come to terms with his relationship to reality.

He first addressed the subject of his relationship to the people in his life in his oldest photographic series, My Unconditional Relationship (2004–2006), which consists of portraits of his friends and partners. He describes this kind of relationship as something extremely uncertain which at the same time he considers to be very strong and on which he places a great amount of importance. He sees it as an intensive bond which binds him to all his subjects, but at the same time worries that the only basis and proof of any kind of relationship is the act of photographing itself and the subsequent existence of the photographs. We can find this internal ambivalence and conflict running through all his artistic photography. For Ryan, photography is more than a tool for recording reality – it is an excuse for constructing reality in the pictorial and social realm. Ryan often works with nudity, primarily male nudity. Nevertheless, he does not work within the classical intentions of the photographic nude such as images celebrating the proportions of the human body or photographs as carriers of erotic tension. Ryan’s nudes are very civil and personal; above all, they are a testament to intimacy in the sense of personal closeness and a confirmation of the intensity of his relationship to the subject.

Ryan’s most powerful series of photographs on the theme of documenting while at the same time creating relationships is his thesis project from the School of Visual Arts entitled Not Without My Father (2007). Here, Ryan attempts to (re)construct his relationship with his father, which had long been paralyzed by the father’s chronical addictions. In this series, Ryan attempts to photographically achieve the return of the lost father/son, to restore old memories and create new ones, to – through the act of photographing – create the occasion for spending time together and reestablishing or creating a relationship. In its aesthetic approach, the series combines three elements – portraits of the father, self-portraits with his father, and still-lifes. The objects or places in the latter are like substitute portraits, for instance a collection of cut-up porn magazines (His Dirty Pictures) or folded clothing on a dresser (The Bedroom). We see the father – who works as a garbage man – with a garbage bag on his head (Self-made Garbage), sitting on a bed (First Sitting), in rehab with band-aids covering his face (Rehab), sleeping in a garbage truck (NY. Dept. of Sanitation), naked in the bathroom (The Bathroom) or hidden behind the curtains during an imaginary game of hide and seek (Hide and Seek) – idyllic scenes of everyday family life. They are photographed together on a motel room bed (Motel), on a beach (Our Beach in Winter), and in a parody “macho” pose on the shore (Journey into Manhood). In these images, Ryan appears semi-naked or totally naked, but again the nudity serves to intensify the sense of intimacy and closeness, to create a certain vulnerability – as when small children have not yet developed a sense of shame within the family environment. Ryan also photographs himself while covering his face with a portrait of his father from military academy (I am my Father’s Son). An interesting aspect of this restoration of family ties is the figure of Ryan’s mother, who is present only in her absence, through images of things – an unmade bed (What She Left Behind) and a pile of torn-up floorboards (Mom’s Floor). The reconstruction of family plays out in highly depersonalized locations, in desolate motel interiors, sterile medical facilities, cold and inhuman spaces. We see no pictures on the walls, no personal belongings on the plastic tables. Paradoxically, the photograph of the father’s porn is thus the only item hinting at “family” values and the “warmth of home” (if we ignore the mother and the tragedy of her absence). At first glance, the series Not Without My Father makes a very dark and gloomy impression in both its subject matter and in the choice of locations, but it also offers a kind of happy ending, a reconciliation, a realignment of relationships, possibly the creation and beginning of a previously non-existent relationship. In the series’ final image (Lying With My Father) we see a half-naked adult Ryan contentedly lying on a bed next to his father, who is nestled under the covers like a child that has just been tucked in. For at least a moment, the strange family relations have been reconciled. Maybe for just this one photograph, but maybe for real.

Filip Láb