Ryan McSwain is a designer and photographer based in Oakland, California. His new zine, titled 19-20, is a reflection of his experience from August 2019 to July 2020. This zine explores the suburban environments of the Bay Area, Ryan’s Arkansas hometown, and - in my interpretation - memory.
How long have you been practicing photography?
I’ve been practicing film photography for about three years. Before that, I was shooting mostly on my iPhone.
Does your design background inform your photography?
Absolutely. Many of the techniques and principles I use when designing such as color, balance, hierarchy and space carryover to how I compose photos.
What/who are your artistic influences?
The work of Robert Adams and Stephen Shore heavily influence my photography. Outside of those two, I tend to reference ideas from architecture and design movements like the Bauhaus and Swiss design. With both design and photography, I aim to be very clear, simple and thoughtful about how I communicate and portray ideas.
You grew up in Arkansas and have been living in the Bay Area for the past five years, what are some similarities and differences that you see between the two? (geographic, cultural, etc)
The most notable differences between Arkansas and California are the geography, cost of living, and job opportunities. Arkansas is mostly rural with lots of farmland, hills, lakes, and towns scattered across the state. Many of the opportunities are linked to agriculture, education, healthcare and services. I wanted to pursue a career in art and design, which is why I moved to the west coast. It’s very different and there’s more opportunities to get involved in the art and design community and connect with other creative talent. There are some similarities, but they’re more subtle and located in places you would typically overlook.
Do these similarities and differences change when you’re interpreting them through your lens? (compositions, colors, imagery, etc.)
Yes and no. I naturally gravitate to places that feel familiar and the camera doesn’t really change my perception in that regard. With places that are more foreign, I tend to rely on the camera a bit more as a tool to observe and understand what makes it feel a certain way.
You focus on the more subtle, mundane, and suburban environments of the Bay. In your book you explain why you’re drawn to this, but I want to ask why do you think others are drawn to this conjunction of film and suburbia?
I think people of our generation and younger, who have grown up in a digital environment, are drawn to the novelty of film photography and the nostalgia that resonates from it. Whether you grew up in the suburbs or have studied the work of photographers like Robert Adams, Lewis ltz, or Stephen Shore there’s definitely interest in that particular motif that I can’t fully explain for everyone; beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. But, speaking for myself, the interest comes from my own experiences and how certain places bring about memories of my childhood and what it was like growing up in a suburb.
I noticed that the title for each season was interspersed in their respective space between the five vertical bars that you use as a motif throughout the book. What is the significance of this symbol?
Since the book is organized chronologically and separated by season, I wanted to introduce something graphical to connect everything without detracting too much from the actual content. I felt that the five vertical bars were a subtle way of accomplishing that.
What did you experience during the Winter in Arkansas and Summer in the Bay Area that prompted you to shoot them in black and white?
I use black and white film when I want to highlight something very specific or when the conditions aren’t ideal for shooting color. The series of photos I shot in Arkansas were from wintertime, which is typically a very dormant time of year. I wanted to highlight the bareness of the landscape and felt that black and white best captured that look and feel. The photos I took during the summer were mostly portraits of people around buildings with harsh shadows and lighting, so I chose to play to those conditions using the texture and tonality of black and white film.
What influenced the decision to include personal essays? How would the zine be different without them?
I wanted this book to be like a journal of my experiences over the past year and felt that writing complemented the photos in a way of sharing my approach and personal recollections. I also wanted the book to feel personal for the reader, so I wrote in 1st person to establish a sort of conversational quality. Thirdly, I wanted the book to serve as a personal reference—something that I could look back on and see where I was at the time and what led me to certain decisions about what to photograph and why.
You say “Many of the photos I take are responses to memory and experience.” Can you talk more about how you interpret the relationship between photographs and memory?
For myself, photos are manifestations of internal desires, thoughts and memories. There’s a quote by Todd Hido, saying “To me it is no mystery that we can only photograph effectively what we are truly interested in or-maybe more importantly-are grappling with. Often unconsciously.” I think there’s some truth to that statement in that there’s a correlation between what we photograph and internal desires. I find myself thinking a lot about that when justifying why something is interesting and worth photographing. I also notice it when putting together collections of photos and analyzing how they’re related.
Does 19-20 influence your memory of 2019 and 2020?
To an extent it helps me remember certain aspects regarding what I was doing at a specific time and how I responded to various circumstances. It doesn’t catalog every detail, but it does aid in connecting the dots.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud described the Camera as,“an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions,[a] materializations of the power he possessed of recollection, his memory.” Can you comment on this interpretation of the camera?
My understanding of Freud’s statement in context of what he wrote about regarding the relationship between technology and human sensory functionality, is that the camera reveals limitations of human memory and enhances our ability to retain certain details. I believe that cameras definitely play a role in helping us remember certain aspects of what we saw, but to the extent of which it enhances our memory—I question. Memories are composed of multiple senses and while a camera may capture a visual representation of a moment or place, it doesn’t capture every sensory detail. Therefore, should cameras be considered tools for measuring our ability to fully remember something? I don’t think so.
A 2013 study observed that “If participants took a photo of [an] object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ location[...] than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them. However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired, and, in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as a memory for features that were zoomed in on.” As a photographer how do you interpret the results from this study? What do you think accounted for the differences in recollection?
I would say the results of that study aren’t too surprising. Often when photographing a subject from a distance, you have to account for composition, so your attention is less on the details of the subject itself and more about what’s surrounding it. However, when you crop out extraneous details, you’re able to absorb more information about the subject and what’s in focus. Something else worth noting is that cameras distort and flatten important details, which can further change your perception and understanding of an object. I think the solution to this issue is to follow your feet and not just your eyes when photographing a subject. Sometimes it takes that spatial awareness to fully understand and retain specific information.
14) You say that 19-20 is part of an ongoing project, where do you see this project going?
I plan to continue sharing my work online and printing in different formats. Making books is helpful because it informs me of the past and provides insight into the direction I’m going. It also forces me to view my work in other places besides my phone and computer. There’s something uniquely gratifying about flipping through a book that makes photos feel more substantial and meaningful. Regarding the project itself, I’m not completely sure what the next theme will be; I try not to be too prescriptive about what projects should be. I like to leave things open and allow myself the freedom to experiment, observe, analyze and respond to what I make.
15) What are your plans for the future?
Right now, I’m a full-time designer at a brand/design agency, so photography is just a hobby. That’s not to say it can’t become anything more or find its way into my design work, I just haven’t come across a way of combining the two in a way that would make sense. For now, I plan to continue focusing on my design career and enjoying photography on the side.
In Autumn Ryan writes “Living in California, I don’t experience that [seasonal] transition [...] The lack of change in scenery led me to become bored with the photos I was taking.” Later on in Spring he says “The Thoughts and sounds of my childhood and home were still loud.[...] It became apparent that though I was in a strange and unfamiliar place, something ordinary and charming about it felt familiar.” It’s this emotional progression in the book that makes 19-20 feel more like a story than a collection of photos. Ryan being able to connect with the unfamiliar environment through the memory of his home interestingly presents an inversion of Freud’s interpretation of photography as a tool for memory to memory as a tool - an inspiration - for photography.