Ryan Lowry

For Viewfinder

Letting the viewer make their own conclusion.


Portrait by Molly Matalon


Imet Ryan Lowry’s pictures before I met their author. This order of operations—common at this point, when most “first impressions” happen via the internet—often results in me trying to reverse engineer an artist, to try to, in some sense, figure out who they are by examining what they make. Usually, I’m pretty good at it. In Ryan’s case, I was not.

Why? Flipping through his new book, Ha Ha Happiness, I realize it’s because Ryan’s pictures resemble the world just enough to make me forget I’ve actually left it behind. When he photographs people I know, they look like doppelgangers. When he photographs flowers, I’m tempted to run outside and crosscheck with the real thing. What I’m saying is, whether Ryan’s shooting for The New York Times or W Magazine, his friends or himself, his work disorients me. His pictures remind me that, if I look closely enough at the familiar, I will eventually see the alien, and when I do, not to be scared, to just look and laugh.

Gideon Jacobs

Ryan by Mo Mfinanga, 2019
Photos courtesy of Ryan Lowry

By Mo Mfinanga

August 30, 2019

Estimated 18 minute read

Mo: How do you feel about Ha Ha Happiness now being out in the world?

Ryan: I was working on that for a long time so when it was finally an object, in my hands, I felt over it but in a positive way. It felt exciting to have it and share it with people. It's been well received so far and cool bookshops have been picking it up which is a positive reinforcement in this dark world. [both laughing] A lot of people came to the signing in LA and the one in New York, which I felt grateful for. Even having an event, like at Mast Books, was surreal for me. Being in Chicago, somewhere with next to no art book shops, and then coming to New York made me feel very grateful.

Mo: You were still in Chicago the first time we talked, so I want to talk about the series of events that led up to New York.

Ryan: I've been photographing full-time since since 2013, a year after I graduated college. I kind of fell into it. I met Daniel Shea at a punk gig forever ago. We were talking about photography and he added me on Facebook, and he was getting assignments where he'd be traveling around and needed an assistant for them. So I assisted him and we became really close friends traversing the Midwest. He shined a light on how to get this kind of work. 

Ryan: Now it's really easy because you can see how through Instagram. Someone will go, I shot this for this, thanks to this person. And then you realize who to email from that caption. Before it was a little more cloudy to find out how that worked. So Daniel was always really generous with anyone who asked how this stuff works. Basically, I understood that if you email people, make a portfolio, and go to New York to try to meet with them, that eventually they would give you money, which is kind of crazy.

Ryan: Daniel moved to New York in 2013 so I quit assisting and was like, “I'll just try to become a photographer.” I had done a couple of assignments before that. But Emily Keegin and Meaghan Z-H Wood, who were at Bloomberg Businessweek at the time, were some of the first photo editors to believe in me, send me to weird places and let me do whatever I want. I was 23 at the time, which is crazy. And also, Neil Harris and Bridget Harris at TIME Magazine were some of the first people to give me assignments when I literally had no idea what I was doing. I've been really lucky.

Mo: Do you think one has to leave the Midwest to fully pursue a creative career?

Ryan: I think staying in Chicago after I graduated from school and being in a city that's not as polluted with creative people was really helpful for my career. It presented me with more opportunities early on and I was able to build relationships that I think would've been harder to access if I lived in a city like New York, It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. 

Ryan: So then I felt like I was underwhelmed and not feeling as challenged so moving here was an examination of how to get work that was more specific to where I am and what I do. In Chicago, somebody from whatever magazine would need whoever was local for a shoot, so you're more shooting whatever. But here, people hire you more for exactly who you are.

Mo: It's more personality driven here.

Ryan: For sure. There's so many people. You have to find your path, too, and how to make things happen. If you're in a place like Detroit or Chicago, there are opportunities there but if you're the person that's there, so you’ll get thrown a lot of stuff. It's really good for learning and figuring out what you want to do.

Mo: And those places generally allow an easier access to a sustainable career.

Ryan: When I was living in Chicago, I was paying what feels like nothing for rent, so it was a really great place to get my footing and take risks, which is nice to do. Whereas in New York City, your rent is so fucking expensive that you're worrying what you're going to eat next week. I have so many friends who are incredibly talented but still need to assist, and like assisting, but they should not be assistants. They are incredible photographers.

Mo: Yeah, and the margin of living is high, so everything feels like a business decision. You can put a lot of money into a personal project but realize that you can't do that too often, which ends up with you being very careful of what to pursue. Think of the people putting most of the money they make from jobs back into another project.

Ryan: I don't think people realize that as much. So many shoots that you see photographers do for magazines or whoever, they're funding the whole thing. That's crazy to expect people to do.

Mo: And there's a lot of favors.

Ryan: At the end of the day you're selling your idea and vision. You're not being hired by a brand to sell something, so you're responsible for delivering what you believe in.


The Map is not the Territory

Photographed by Ryan Lowry for 'Plant Magazine'



Mo: How has your relationship with New York changed the longer you live here?

Ryan: I think I'm less afraid of it. I moved here being afraid of it socially and work wise. I knew who my friends were here, but I didn't know I would become so close with them and have such a tight group of friends. I think it's so important in a place like this that can feel pretty lonely to have those [social] pillars. I grew up as an only child so I think friends have always been very important to me, for better or for worse. [laughing]

Mo: What did being an only child influence in your life?

Ryan: I feel like me being an only child influenced how I socialized. When you have brothers and sisters, you're kind of dealing with these social interactions and understanding how to communicate with people in a different way. But when you're an only child I think you learn that stuff a little slower. I guess being an only child for me was nice because my parents had the resources to pay for an Art Center darkroom class. [laughing]

Mo: How did your parents react when you became a working photographer?

Ryan: When I was in college they were like, "What are you going to do for money?" And the answer was literally, “I don't know.” My dad was a Bloomberg Businessweek subscriber so when he saw Daniel's name in the magazine, he would ask if I was on that shoot. So when I started doing that, they were like, Cool, you're not a fuck up! [both laughing]

Mo: You have to find that language to explain to them what you're pursuing.

Ryan: Luckily they've been so supportive of me.

Mo: What field do they work in?

Ryan: They actually work at the same job they've had for 25 years together. It's a carpenters credit union in Northwest Indiana. 

I think if people are going to present their work digitally or a physical way then it should have something to do with the work.
— Ryan Lowry

Mo: Something I'm always thinking about is how our practice is intertwined with platforms like Instagram—but also our lives. It's interesting to see how much time it can take to make an Instagram Story. And when you see someone make one really well you go, There goes the fucking bar. It's now even higher. 

Ryan: Some people are so fucking good at Instagram, it's crazy. I feel like I really have to check in and go, It's time to do this Instagram thing.

Mo: I have a friend who talked to me about the fact that in a world with so much information, maybe it's more liberating to surrender as little information as possible, because what are we really trying to say? I think if you share a lot then it's harder to stand out more.

Esquire , 2016.

Esquire, 2016.


Mo: When you take a break from Instagram, is there usually a specific reason why?

Ryan: I think [it's] sometimes when there's been overwhelmingly stressful social situations in my life that will force me to check in with myself for a while. Instagram gives you a voyeuristic look into other people's lives. I think checking in with yourself and your real relationships in life is important to do every once in a while. 

Ryan: As a photographer, no matter who you are, you'll see that this person shot that thing, and think to yourself, I would've done something else like... Why did this person get this thing? It's not even an intentional thing. It's just the artists ego wondering, “How did they solve this solve this problem and how would I do it differently?” It's funny how that can take you into this swirly negative place. So it's good to take it all with a grain of salt, and realize that Instagram is just a thing that people share on with a bunch of advertisements. None of this shit really matters that much.

Mo: There's the fake happiness, too. I love how congratulatory people are but how much of it is real? If we didn't have Instagram, would we be texting, calling, or engaging with each other's work as much? Maybe we're doing that more now because we're saturated with work being shared.

Ryan: I kind of miss Tumblr.

Mo: What do you miss about it?

Ryan: I mean, I made so many friends and creative relationships through Tumblr.

Mo: What do you think Tumblr nurtured that maybe Instagram doesn't?

Ryan: I think the main things that made it the shit were you didn't know how many followers someone had. You could kind of suss it out by their notes, but even someone who wasn't very popular could have something go viral really easily. Because of the ease of sharing, you could discover things more through it whereas Instagram is a bit more closed off. Instagram is popularity-centric. It's about likes; it's a number's game. Tumblr was a little slower because you looked at it on the computer. It felt more personable, too. With Instagram, you're looking at a tiny ass photo on a [phone] screen and sometimes people put white borders around a photo making it even smaller. I don't want to look at photographs this way!

Mo: It doesn't promote longform content either but Tumblr did.

Ryan: And you could see people's projects develop there. Tumblr felt more of an extension of the practice and someone's portfolio. When people comment on your Instagram post it's a serotonin boost. It's like, Yeah, pat me on the back! That feels fucking good! [both laughing] 

Ryan: The algorithm rewards people if they can engage with people longer on their posts with a slideshow or location tag. You just want to use it as something to share something you believe in, so why do we have to engage in this game? But a lot of people have been able to have their work seen by people that wouldn't see it if it wasn't on Instagram which is important. You're seeing more diverse viewpoints in the world, too, but the format of it would be better served on something like Tumblr or another longform [platform] on the internet.

COVE campaign shoot, 2019.

COVE campaign shoot, 2019.


Ryan: I think if people are going to present their work digitally or a physical way then it should have something to do with the work. That's why in my book I wanted full bleeds. I wanted there to be no blank pages but the publisher talked me out of it. It's not dressed up in any way or anything to manipulate your view. I'm still excited about images and don't think they need a weird layout on your Instagram swipe-through, or doing the thing where people cut images. Like dude, you got too much sauce on this. Communicate the thing to me in the most simple way you can think of. It doesn't need all these bells and whistles. I think people are always thinking of ways to stand out which I get, but it's cheap sometimes. It's cool to make an image that can stand out no matter the presentation.

Mo: Sometimes people's work harmonizes better with considered design.

Ryan: Yeah, design is an important part in a lot of photographers work and I like it when it's thought about. But a lot of times people blast some corny shit out because other people are doing it.

Patrick Belaga for Frieze Art Fair, 2019.

Patrick Belaga for Frieze Art Fair, 2019.


Mo: What are some things you wish you saw more of in the photo community?

Ryan: Seeing how open Daniel was and how freely he would share his resources created this ethos within myself to share resources to people that are willing to work for them, not just anybody emailing you and giving them all your contacts. But demystifying all this and guiding people to mastheads or something helps. With all this information being so readily available, I feel like photographers are less cagey about how this stuff works. The old-school way of being like, I worked hard for this and you need to suffer and assist until you can't take it anymore... That mindset is nasty and ego driven. 

Ryan: Now you can be 22, make some cool photographs, make a portfolio, go and see so-and-so, they give you an insane shoot, and start a career. I think that access is changing how the way this world works. It manifests friends in a different way which I think is funny.

Mo: It lets you carve your own path. It's allowed me to do that.

Ryan: Yeah, dude. You're 21. That's crazy. You have access to all these people who have been working for a long time that you're interested in. That’s literally because the internet exists. I think before that level of access was way more guarded.

Mo: When I lived in Detroit, I could establish relationships with people in New York or LA. Before, you'd have to travel to these places, and if you didn't know anyone it would be daunting, especially if you made the jump and moved to a big city like New York.

Ryan: Yeah, you'd go to an opening, see someone, and go, Oh, are you da-da-da?

Mo: Or to even find out about the opening, you'd probably have to go to a bookstore.

Ryan: But that's also a pretty incredible process. The internet's accessibility can make people feel like they're owed something. But dude, just sniff it out. Keep following the smell and you'll find what you're looking for. So I think when things are a little harder there's a layer of putting more effort and it being more rewarding, naturally.

Mo: I think about certain young photographers who have done a lot in a small amount of time. Not saying it's a bad thing, but be mindful that if a series of events happen way earlier than they happen for others, then plan towards longevity. That's all.

Ryan: Take the harder, slower path because you'll develop more.

Mo: [Redacted] basically had that meteoric popularity in her work. However, to me, it seems like she took a step back to realize how to move towards a career that isn't based on a singular moment, but instead a career that's substantial.

Ryan: It has to be crazy to have a primary focus on advertising work at the age she started off at. People have no idea who they are until they're 25 or maybe 30.

Mo: Yeah, so it's hard to find out who you are as an artist when the formative years already have so much external pressure.



Ha Ha Happiness

Happiness doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s the ugly, the alienating, the devastating things that allow it to exist. Ha Ha Happiness presents Ryan Lowry's photographs of the mundane, the happenstance situations in everyday life.

Learn more here



Mo: What do you feel like your work has informed you about yourself?

Ryan: I think my work has always been self reflective and I know that's not the most popular way of working these days which I'm totally fine with.

Mo: Why do you think it's not popular?

Ryan: I think right now a lot of work, rightfully so, that is getting traction is very political and identity-politics based. I think that goes along with people having more access to resources and sharing their voices, and that's not a bad thing. But my work has been autobiographical and photographing what's in front of me and what I'm doing. I've taken a deeper dive into that and be more in touch with myself and my pictures.

Mo: What do you feel like it's been revealing about yourself?

Ryan: I started doing therapy three years ago and that has put a mirror in front of me and had me evaluate my core, who I am, and involved that directly into the work. I've always had the same kind of practice of making pictures, but the content, the way that I display them, or the way that I tie them together is more cohesive. I think my photos have gotten more emotionally intense lately.

Mo: Does Ha Ha Happiness associate more with the good parts of happiness, the fleeting parts of it, or something else?

Ryan: It's about really being in one of the darkest holes I've ever encountered in my life and looking around at the people who choose to dive in there with me. It's acknowledging the absurdity of these moments and choosing to have a more positive perspective. Or maybe this [moment of life] was horrible but I survived. There's kind of that melancholy or blissful feeling of when you bottom out, you get to ask, “What's next?” How do you carve out a positive outlook then?

Ryan: My friend Joe is a writer and I'm horrible at writing so I sent him an early edit of the book and was like, I need to figure out a name for this thing because we're going to print it in a month. And he was like, "How about Ha Ha, Happiness?" I loved that, thought it was so funny and apt, and I sent that to Margo and Mike at VUU. They thought, “Why don't we drop the comma so it's even drier and more sarcastic?“ And I liked that. I think it translates the content.

Ryan: With photography, the conclusion is built out for you upfront. It's easy for people to respond to things that are kind of made up for them where these are images of this place and of these kind of people, which I think is great, and I love work like that. One of my favorite photo books ever is Lars Tunbjörk's Vinter. He's this Swedish photographer kind of wandering around the dead of winter in Sweden. It's very dark but also has this thing of showing how resilient the people are who live in this place that's hard to live in, in the winter. There's pictures of people dancing in bars and cars driving around. Of course it's a documentary project about winter in Sweden but to say that underserves the whole thing. When you look at the book you can read it in your own way.

Morrissey in Toronto, 2019.

Morrissey in Toronto, 2019.

I think making work that people can look at and come to their own conclusions and narrative makes a more exciting and interesting format.
— Ryan Lowry
Spring 2019.

Spring 2019.


Ryan: I think making work that people can look at and come to their own conclusions and narrative makes a more exciting and interesting format. I think Jason Fulford does that really well, too, where he pieces together images from his archive that may have nothing to do with each other, but the viewer looks at it and sees that 'a' plus 'b' equals their own 'c'. Someones history and experiences brings so much to how you digest visual art and I'm really interested in that. I don't like being spoon-fed. I think a lot of photography projects are, I went to this place, travelled here and these are its people.

Mo: It's definitive.

Ryan: Yeah, it's definitive and underserves the medium. I think the language of photography is such a mysterious thing. Anyone can look at an image and realize its of this world and have some kind of experience to decipher something that image. I think definitive projects serve the idea of what people are interested in shooting for work. My personal work is so fuck-all I'm surprised anybody gives me a job.

Mo: You're not trying to tie it all into one topic.

Ryan: My work is there to confront my darkest and happiest feelings.

Mo: Is there anything you're still trying to confront?

Ryan: I guess that's a question of what my next step is, which I don't know. [laughing]

Mo: Is there anything new that excites you right now?

Ryan: I think everything excites me! How would you answer that question?

Mo: I think for me it's scalability within my platform or career. Like, putting most of my chips into photo editing. But also the idea of surrendering [career] expectations is sexy. 


Ryan: I can totally relate to that. I think things that excite me are putting myself in new situations to find something that I'm interested in. It's about challenging myself and learning how to keep growing.

Ryan Lowry in his Lower Manhattan apartment, Mo Mfinanga, 2019.

Ryan Lowry in his Lower Manhattan apartment, Mo Mfinanga, 2019.

Further Reading

  • Sasha Arutyunova
  • “A lot of what I try to do with still work is create images that feel cinematic, where the light itself has a story.”