Ryan Pfluger on Photographing Caitlyn Jenner and More

January 22, 2016

Since graduating from SVA, Ryan Pfluger (MFA 2007 Photography, Video and Related Media) has been an in-demand editorial photographer for many top magazines, and recently shot Out magazine’s 2015 Out 100, a project in which he photographed everyone from President Obama to Caitlyn Jenner.

Pfluger developed his unique portraiture technique as a student. During his second year at SVA, he began documenting the emerging Brooklyn hipster scene in “The Prowl,” his photo blog on Nerve.com. His composed, formal portraits of men he met at parties, on the streets and online helped to define a new aesthetic of metrosexual masculinity, in part driven by his own personal discomfort with the traditional ideals of manhood. While Pfluger’s content was seen as controversial by some (particularly his male nudes), his work caught the attention of his teachers and editors alike.

Pfluger sat down with SVA Close Up in his Williamsburg Studio to talk about how he made it happen, why he shoots the way he does, and how he works with his subjects to get the intense portraits he creates.

jenner735You recently photographed the Out 100 list, Out magazine’s yearly round up of people who have made important contributions on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. What was that like?
It was a lot! It took five weeks working full-time to photograph all 100. Getting to know Alicia Garza, the founder of Black Lives Matter, was incredible. I had a real kinship with her, and a feeling of real camaraderie.

Shooting Caitlyn Jenner, I knew that was going to be very jarring for people. I went into it thinking: I need to give this woman the benefit of the doubt. I know nothing of her besides press snippets of things she says that are dumb. But I don’t know her story. She’s the first person besides Chaz Bono to publically transition. She’s not someone like Laverne Cox who transitioned and then entered the public eye. To be under so much scrutiny takes a very courageous person, regardless of how you feel about her, and that’s how I approached it. In the end, it was one of the best experiences of the whole project.

From the outside, your transition from SVA student to professional photographer seems blessed. How did it happen?
My thesis year my advisor was Kathy Ryan, who is the photo director at The New York Times Magazine. She was the one that got me started doing editorial. She sincerely thinks about what a photographer’s voice is. I always made it a point to continue my relationship with her because she was very supportive of my work, and also was very honest about things that she didn’t like.

My own work had to take the back burner. I was still making it, but it wasn’t the intensive projects that I was doing in grad school and immediately after. To spend that kind of time you have to say no to a lot of things, and I was pretty much taking anything that came my way to just facilitate relationships and maintain that client base.

studio735In the past, you’ve talked about your social anxiety and the way you use the camera to initiate conversations with people, particularly people you think you should feel comfortable with—your father, other gay men. Do you think the formalism in your work is a way of commenting on or replicating this feeling of distance?
Completely. That’s probably the most conscious decision I made when I started. I look at people that can do things off the cuff, who can really engross themselves within a community. I can’t do it, and so I’ve always been very conscious about removing the individual and putting them into a space just with me. Even when I go into people’s homes, I make sure that no one else is around so it’s just me and the subject.

There’s a real amount of not only trust but time that goes into making something that is very stark. It’s not about the quantity of photographs that I take. I was with Vera Farmiga on her farm for Time magazine a few years ago, and I spent most of the time just talking to her. I only took three rolls of film. Without fail every frame I liked, and it was because it was not about being a photo shoot. It was about me getting to know this woman outside of the context of “you’re an actress that’s been nominated for an Oscar.”

Most of the time what I use is either the first or the last photograph that I take, without fail. Usually the first photograph I take people don’t even realize I’m taking it, and the last is usually a time where their guard is completely down.

Obama735How do you work with your subjects? Is it different when you’re on a personal shoot versus an editorial shoot with a celebrity?
I like silence. I don’t give a lot of direction, and it’s very much about the kind of awkward moment between photographer and subject. I try to treat celebrities exactly the way I treat strangers, which is usually off putting and jarring to people that are used to being photographed all the time.

Doing editorial has really shaped the way that I look at subjects. Because if it’s someone you know, you have an idea that they’re going to be this way in front of the camera, or they’re going to be approachable and interesting, but really, it all depends on the situation. I never come into shooting with preconceived thoughts. I never expect anything out of my subjects, which I think lends itself to some kind of interesting honesty because I let the subjects do what they want to do.

Even when it comes to nudity, I never have any requirement. If you want to take off your shirt, take off your shirt. If you want to be nude, be nude. It’s really about having a dialogue between me and them.

I may have a subject for an hour but I may only take two rolls of film. I want it to be a memorable experience and something that is shared between me and my subject. Even if I never see them again, I want it to be something that I can remember. I mean, that’s why I started photography. For me it’s always about holding onto some aspect of a person.

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