Enter the Chaotic (But Controlled) World of Ryan Schude

The L.A.-based photographer gives us a peek at his methods

In examining one of Ryan Schude’s photographic tableaus, you might think he just happened to snap an insanely epic photo in the midst of a free-for-all. In reality, the L.A.-based photographer is a master of orchestrating controlled chaos, imbuing his images with a sense of movement even though each is a single moment frozen in time. “You’re tempted to call the pictures cinematic,” Zac Pennington writes in the foreword of Schude (Roads, September 25, $60), the first monograph of the artist’s work, “but that’s not quite right…these aren’t movies: we can’t know what happens before or after because there is no before and no after. There’s no sequence and there’s no consequnce. There’s no resolution. Dense as it is with material, there’s only the moment in Schude’s photography—stuffed with a film’s worth of story, or maybe no story at all.” We caught up with Schude to talk compositional challenges, the biggest influences on his work, and how he came to love Los Angeles.

Each image you make is like one still shot out of a movie that has no other scenes. How do you conceptualize that? Do you begin with location or a riff on a classic idea you want to make modern?
It happens both ways, but more often the story develops around the location instead of the other way around.

Your images are so detail-rich. Who do you collaborate with? Do you do your own casting, locations, set design/building, and costumes? How big is the team you’re working with?
It varies greatly. I did the Saturn nearly all by myself, while a similar scale shoot for Caesars Casinos had up to 50 people on set.

The Saturn (2007). Mid-City, Los Angeles.
The Saturn (2007). Mid-City, Los Angeles.

The Saturn (2007) Mid-City, Los Angeles

Who are the people in your shoots? Friends? Actors? Models?
It’s been the whole gamut, but the majority have been actors found through LA Casting. The Phoot Camp series were all photographers. Many others were friends, family, models, commissions, etc.

Does budget affect how big or small you make your productions? What are the challenges you find in making a highly produced picture?
Some of the biggest and most successful productions were done with little to no money. That said, I would always prefer to have more money to produce the images in order to properly pay everyone involved, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we will end up with a better picture.

Phoot Camp (2010). Calabasas, California.
Phoot Camp (2010). Calabasas, California.

Photograph by Ryan Schude in collaboration with Lauren Randolph

The cow skull and taxidermy seem to be a recurring theme for you in your work. Is there a story behind that?
The acquisition of the 150+ cow skulls which provide the iconic grid at The Forge studios was the result of an arbitrary purchase from a fashion designer who originally bought them for a Rankin shoot. Since we’ve had them they have been used in many photos but not in any symbolic manner. As for the rest of the taxidermy, there was a log cabin set we built for a music video that used a bunch, but any other pieces sprinkled in other images were most likely coincidental.

Who would you say were major influences on your work?
For mostly better and sometimes worse, my family members have been a crucial factor in this book’s content. I say that with the utmost love and respect for the whole lot of them, but the dedication at the end went out to my mother and father, whose “irreverence for orthodoxy managed to sneak its way into each and every one of these here doodads.” When my dad asked what exactly I meant by that I explained more simply that the nature of the work is directly related to the lack of tolerance they had for people telling them what to do. Ultimately I don’t know which I will regret more, quoting myself just now or calling us all out for our stubborn commitment to compulsion.

How well choreographed are your images? Do you try to get a near-finished piece ‘in camera,’ or are you piecing a lot of tries together in post-production?
Everything is lit and staged at the same time with the hopes of getting the final image in one shot, but it rarely works out that way. Generally the pieces are a blend of a handful of frames shot within 30 minutes, but the Saturn and Nog were made up of a single image.

Nog (2005). San Diego, California.
Nog (2005). San Diego, California.

Photograph by Ryan Schude

What changed your mind about loving Los Angeles? Why do you think the city gets such a bad rap?
I didn’t like L.A. before living here. It’s not a classically beautiful city, and it gets a bad rap because it generally has bad taste. The community of artists and friends I am surrounded by are the biggest reason to stay, but it doesn’t hurt that I can also ride a bike 12 months out of the year. I love being a tourist here; there are infinite places to explore and more culture and activities than can possibly be exhausted.

How has living in Los Angeles informed your work?
The nature of the images is a natural result of the environment surrounding their creation. The Dingbat-style apartment building used in the Saturn is a good example of this which screams L.A. The accessibility to talent, locations, and resources is begging to be tapped into daily. It becomes more a question of managing the time and energy required to bring the nonstop inspiration to life than searching for it in the first place.