Ryan Henwood-White is an Australian photographer making a name for himself thanks to his talent interpreting classic photographic tropes such as the nude, portrait, and boudoir through his own unique eye. With the infinite variations of human sexuality being a dominant theme.
A common sight in the Inner West of Sydney, Ryan’s interest in people, psychology and human sexuality has led to a body of work full of the various bodies who are thankful for the chance to sit for him and collaborate. Creating beautiful pieces imbued with caring and humanity.
(Photo by Ryan below)
With Ryan having only been seriously photographing for a few years now, and already producing gallery level work – now is the perfect time to get to know the man and his art, by reading the interview below…
Basics/Getting to Know
Name + D.O.B?
City, State n Country you currently call home?
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
(Some photos by Ryan below)
City, State n Country you’re from?
I was born in Box Hill, Victoria, Australia.
When I was 6 weeks old my parents moved to Picton, New South Wales where I resided in the surrounding suburbs of the Wollondilly Shire until I was 21.
Describe a memory from some stages of your life ….basically trying to piece together your pivotal moments. Concerts, art, action-figures, romance, school, crime… ANYTHING!
* age 5 – beginnings:
I have very little memories from this age. It always amazes me when people have vivid memories from the age of 3.
I remember growing up on a couple of acres just west of Picton. We had a few sheep, a goat, and a cattle dog named Ben. Ben was my first friend.
My only memory of this time is of a funnel web spider, so large, it’s legs stuck from behind each side of a regular sized analog clock. That’s probably when I developed an irrational fear of spiders.. although I’m not so bad with them these days.. unless they’re hairy..
(Photos below of Ryan as a kid)
* age 10 – continuations:
At this time we had moved to Hill St in Picton, right next to the train tracks. I remember squishing 20 cent coins on the tracks, riding push bikes around with the local kids on the street, and always fighting with my brother, Tyler. We were pretty good friends, but we fought a lot, and our relationship devolved as we got older.
At age 12 my parents ended their marriage, which devastated my brother but was a relief for me. It was a long time coming and I wanted them both to be happy, I was sick of tired of the fighting.
Around this time, I liked motorbikes, video games, and pretending to be Peter Pan with the wooden knife my father carved for me. My parents never had great taste in music or art, and I didn’t develop an appetite for it until later in my life.
From the age of 6 or 7 we had a Windows based PC where I started to learn the ins and outs of computers and the internet.
(Photo below of Ryan aged 10 or so)
* age 15 – getting serious:
Around this time I had started to talk to girls. For many years to come I would develop many friendships with girls but any kind of romance was far off.
I had an unhealthy addiction to video games, particularly World of Warcraft, and the best times I had were at LAN parties with my friends, hooking up a bunch of Xbox consoles or PC’s and playing video games well into the night and the next day.
Since my parents divorced, I lived in over 20 different houses before the age of 20, with both my mother and father moving every year or so, sometimes more frequently, sometimes less. Luckily they remained friends and never lived too far from one another for us kids. The phrase, “home is where the heart is” has always meant a lot to me, as I never became too accustomed to one place as “home”.
* age 20 – young adult:
In the formative years from age 18 to 20 where I was “legal” I learnt what alcohol poisoning was, discovered how bad clubs are, and who were true friends. I had a stint at the University of Wollongong where I flailed not knowing what I wanted to do, and my father wanting me to “GET A JOB” or get out of the house.
After High School, I became close friends with Gordon, who was the center of my universe. The guy who always got picked on in school, but he had a razor edge wit, incredible depth of knowledge and an amazing taste in art.
Over the next 5 years we were inseparable. Through Gordon and his brother Hugh, I discovered marijuana, LSD, mushrooms, psychedelic rock, cult art films, anime, live music, playing the guitar and an acceptance of “being different”. Gordon was the arbiter of “cool” that my parents never had in terms of music and art and anything INTERESTING in this world. He was my ‘old guy at the record store’. We spent a good 3 years taking LSD twice a month and consuming entire albums of blues, rock, psychedelic, noise, shoegaze, jazz, punk, garage, glitch, experimental and ambient music, documentaries, lectures, films, live music, and the best of Japanese, French and Italian animation. It wasn’t until I moved to the city at the age of 21 that I discovered a community of people like us, and Gordon moved to the area less than a year after me.
(Photo below of Ryan in his early 20s)
* age 25 – adult mode:
By this time we had established ourselves in the community of party warehouses where people lived, local musicians, artists and creative thinkers. People who knew how to have a good time. I moved to the city to find music and girls, and I found plenty of both.
By this point I had spent a good 5 years trying to become a musician I was proud of. While music will always be close to me, I was never meant to be a performer.
In 2015 I pulled out my father’s old 35mm camera that he gave me back when I was 16. I never used it much to begin with, but now I had found a passion for it with interesting subject matter to photograph. I started researching past masters and developed an appreciation for nude photography. After a brief tryst with a travelling nude model, Breezy, and an appreciation of the nude photographer that photographed her, Lee Nutter, I realised I had the potential to do it myself.
At this point my communication skills were outstanding from my inherent empathy for people, the acceptance of my feminine energy, and time spent reading books on body language. So, I started to shoot nudes. At this point my friendship with Gordon hit a breaking point, and he disowned me for deciding to create in this fashion. Ultimately, we reached a place where we had grown into different people and it was the best for both of us. It was absolutely heart breaking for me, it took a good two years to recover from that ended friendship. I miss my friend, but having let go of that friendship I discovered a space to create myself, and for the first time come into my own, and understand who I truly am.
My newfound passion and purpose inspires me to create constantly and do my part to create value in the world. Now that I have two years’ experience with this medium, I know that it is the vehicle through which I communicate my “purpose”, yet not the purpose itself. I’m an existential nihilist – life is meaningless and it’s up to us to find meaning and accept the absurdity, and smile despite the fact that our life has no inherent meaning.
Photography just happens to play on all of my natural strengths.. my eye for colour and shape, my empathetic nature, detail orientated mind and desire to express myself in a way that I never could through writing. As an empathetic person, I intend to inspire a depth of feeling in others through the creation of art that inspires connection and understanding.
(A recent photo of Ryan below)
I don’t have a motto, but I often exclaim “Oh life!” in reference to the Walt Whitman poem. It’s as close to a motto as I’ll ever have.
I’ve shared it below for reference:
“Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
Favorite other artist(s)?
Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Tim Walker, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stephane Lavoué, Dan Winters, Yousuf Karsh, Mark Seliger, Yves Saint Laurent, Andy Warhol, Wes Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Charlie Chaplin, Patti Smith, Billie Holiday, Rowland S. Howard, Freddie Mercury, James Brown, Alice Coltrane, Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Elmore James, Neil Young, Aretha Franklin, Betty Davis, Courtney Barnett, Devendra Banhart, Erykah Badu, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Van Morrison.
…and a whole lot more I can’t think of off the top of my head!
Worst aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
Technology is so ubiquitous that there is a lot of noise in the world. The best artists still rise to the top, but only if they’re also great at business, or work with people who are. A lot of great artists get left behind.
Best aspect of the contemporary art-hustle?
Technology is abundant.
We all have access (in first world countries) to the internet at a fairly low barrier of entry. Social media is the next radio, the next television. Only now it’s just as accessible to your neighbor as it is to, you know, Toyota.
(Some photos by Ryan below)
What role do you think Instagram has played in the current global art scene and why?
I think Instagram, like all technology, has pros and cons. It has benefited us by providing a platform where people can connect with other artists and share in a global community where everyone is equal. I can send a direct message to some of my most respected artists in the world, and often I get replies! That’s crazy. It’s amazing.
On the downside, because it is so easily accessible there is a lot of noise, there is a lot of similarity. There is a lot of terrible art. Regardless, the fact that people have this capability to share their work, their process and growth, and get feedback for it.. it’s fantastic.
Do you consider what you are making to be ‘art’, ‘design’, re-hashed crap?
I consider what I make to be, in air quotes, “art”. Ultimately, I think something is art if it creates an emotional response in the person who consumes it. If you created something that wasn’t there before. I believe I’ve made work that matters, and I have made work that does not.
I do consider my photographs art, because my intention is to make work that makes you feel something.
Any pivotal artistic moment/influence?
Richard Avedon is my hero and a huge source of theoretical inspiration and philosophy behind my photography.
Growing and learning with my hardcore feminist activist wife is the largest influence over my work, with a realigning of values, perspective, open-mindedness, appreciation for diversity, and sense of purpose to make the world a better place.
When and why did you first start making ‘art’ (drawings, paintings, photos, anything)?
I’ve always been quite fond of drawing from a very young age. Mostly graphite sketches. Nothing else really took hold besides a brief stint in photography at 16, until I got into making music around the age of 19.
I still love to draw but these days I replace most of that desire with a camera.
Why + when did you decide to go in on the art hustle?
In 2015 I found my first true passion in photography.
The art hustle is the natural evolution and process of me finding the passion to “make” in some way.
(Some photos by Ryan below)
Please describe the process of producing your photos, from finding the location, to arranging the setting, posing the model, snapping and everything else…
The most important thing to me is character. I am passionate about people, whether it’s portraiture, fashion, sexuality, or the human form.
Within these confines of approaches, I start by finding people who I feel I can express myself through, and who I resonate with enough that their expression is in harmony with my own.
This quote by Richard Avedon sums up my approach completely:
“Work out a series of nos. No to distracting elements, no to explicit light, no to certain subject matter, certain people who are not people I can express myself through. No to props. All these nos force me into a yes. I have no help, I have a white background, I have the person I’m interested in and the things that happen between us.”
I work out what I don’t want, and by figuring that out I am left with what I do. This has been my whole approach to learning photography in the first place. Experimentation, learning through failure.. creating and considering and removing elements that I do not relate with.. till I am left with what is.
Once I have a person selected we negotiate an approach to the subject matter and discuss boundaries (particularly with anything involving nudity or sexuality). If a shoot is more personal or intimate I tend to go for indoor locations or a studio, where I have control over minimalism and the focus being on the expression of the person in question. Other times where myself and the subject may prefer something on a grander scale I venture out into the world, often with my portable flash to have some degree of control over the light.
I rarely work with more than one artificial light; however, I do often make use of a combination of natural and artificial light. I imagine I will return to more complex setups when I can afford a studio and more equipment again.
Once the subject, the setting, and the confines are figured out, and I have the subject ready to be photographed, that is when I drop all of my preconceived notions, expectations and assumptions about the subject, and let the natural intuitive creative process take over and follow what works rather than what I think will work. This is how I often achieve my best work. My shoots centre around trying to find the flow state with my subject. Here’s what I tell every single person that I photograph in one way or another:
‘My approach to photography is to create art of authentic emotions and experiences. To do this I avoid the whole concept of posing. The easiest way to avoid posing is to bring all your conscious attention to the breath. If you have had experience with meditation this is exactly what I am referring to. Sometimes I will ask you to shift your weight back and forth, and move in certain ways to get you to drop into your personality and physicality, and ultimately step out of the ego.
I will do my best to connect with you, maintain lots of eye contact, and hold your present conscious attention. When you look into the lens I want you to imagine that there is no camera. You’re always looking into my eyes. It’s just you and me. Imagine the camera doesn’t even exist.. just us here in a room sharing this experience. There is no right or wrong, only what is.’
Once I have established that the subject understands my approach to photography and connection I begin by keeping things simple. Some subjects need absolutely no direction and are naturals at being present and within their body. Others need constant direction. I try to gauge where the subject may fall on this scale and work with them to find the magic. The majority of people take a good half an hour to start to loosen up and understand the collaborative environment and see what I am trying to accomplish. My shoots tend to go for around 1-2 hours, averaging around an hour and a half.
I try to engage people from a place of empathy and understanding, sharing my own vulnerability so that they are willing to do the same. If someone is particularly nervous I’ll talk to them about my own experience modelling, and go further into detail about knowing what it feels like to be in front a camera. Sometimes I’ll ask personal questions about the subjects past and share stories from my own. Anything I need to do to get the subject out of their own head.
If someone does need more direction I assist in certain ways. “Just be, don’t try to do anything.” *Snap, snap* “Okay how about you try turning this way a bit?” *snap* “Oh! That was cool how you did that thing with your hands, please try that again, and look into my eyes and breathe.” *Snap, snap* “Great! That was wonderful.”
Music plays a huge role in my shoots when I have access to it. While I’m actually making the photographs I tend to avoid conversation, I really want that absolute presence. Music helps people connect with their own bodies and their expressive side. If I feel it is appropriate I often connect with the music myself and subtly dance to show that I am engaged, connected, and open to expression myself. I tend to vary the music of the course of a shoot to fit my inspiration in the moment. Ocassionally I will stick with an entire album to maintain the flow that is working for the particular subject. The creative spirit comes in waves and I find that I ride that wave with the subjects to the crest, create what we can while we are there, and then begin to slowly descend. Once I had hit this crest I know we have created the best work within this particular session, and when I sense that we have passed this point I let the subject know that we are done. I don’t believe I’ve ever photographed someone long enough for them to get bored of me, but I could be mistaken.
Once the actual creation is complete I work on the editing in my own time. It is important to me that the subject likes their appearance in the photographs, but I tend to use the ones that I find most compelling, aesthetically, emotionally, photographically. The ones that make you really feel something. Once I have culled the photos down to the absolute best I love to seek a second opinion from my wife. She has an eye for expression.. she helps me consider photographs I may initially dismiss as being second best. Ultimately I go with my gut, but a second pair of eyes helps me overcome my own shortcomings sometimes, and is invaluable to my process.
With collaborative projects where the subject has given me their time, I let them have the final say on any photographs they really don’t want me to use. Sometimes this has been a struggle when objectively the best photograph is not one that is particularly flattering, however my strong sense of empathy and love for my subjects occasionally trumps their desire over the art. Some may call this a fault, but I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to create with these individuals, and I refuse to damage the relationship to use what I consider the “best” if it comes down to that.
That about sums it up!
What is your standard camera / equipment set-up?
Previously it was a lot of film cameras.
Today it’s currently just the one digital camera due to the need to downscale shifting from full time work to full time artist – I use a Nikon D750 with a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, and a 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens.
I mostly stick to the 50mm as I find limitation breeds creativity, and the best photographs are made by moving your body, not the zoom ring.
In addition to this I use two memory cards in my camera in case one fails. I always carry two fully charged batteries and my Yonguo flash, with a light stand, shoot through umbrella, and triggers.
Occasionally I bring a reflector/diffuser combo to shoots when I have an assistant. At home I use a backdrop with white/grey rolls of paper, and two continuous lights, one regular and one on a boom arm.
When I can afford it in the future I will return to shooting medium format film, most likely on a Pentax 67 and a backup Nikon F3 or F4. I plan to invest in a studio flash kit with various modifiers in a permanent studio setup.
(Some photos by Ryan below)
Thoughts on the multiple issues surrounding nude photography…
The absolute most important thing.
You should ask for consent for everything. To give you some ideas, I always enquire if the subject wants to be left alone to undress, if they’re comfortable with me moving some strands of hair if it’s ever necessary, if I can come close to them for closeups, etc. I always ask my subjects to inform me if they become uncomfortable at any point and to be completely honest with me.
There have been a few times that I have made subjects feel uncomfortable and I have huge respect and gratitude for these people for informing me of this. As human beings we learn through failure, and it is because of these experiences that I now understand what it takes to always, without fail, create a safe space that is conducive to comfort and expression.
If the subject feels safe, respected, and comfortable, they feel at ease to express themselves, and it is in this way that I create the best art.
* the image being seen out of context?
This is not something that particularly bothers me.
I try to control the context in which people consume my art, however people will always draw their own conclusions. I do my best to express what I want to express through my work and the audience chooses how they interpret that. Nudity and sexuality are very sensitive topics for many people and I can’t, and would not begin to change my behavior or photography to comfort people. I intend to do the exact opposite. I want my photography to be challenging.
* the porn Vs. Art divide?
To start I will say that I do not object to pornography. I may very well make something more pornographic in the future, however I will always do my best to also make it aesthetically artistic.
I think the degree of explicitness is not a sole deciding factor as to whether something is artistic or not. I created this graph to represent my point. It is not explicitness or suggestiveness that decides if something is art or porn, it is whether or not it is tasteful or crass. It comes down to intent:
I’m going to base some thought on this exert from an academic article entitled ‘Drawing the Line: Art versus Pornography’:
“Pornography focuses on sex that is aggressive, emotionless, or alienated, whereas in art, and particularly in erotic art, love, passion, and equality between partners are of crucial importance. In support of this view, authors often appeal to etymology.
For while ‘erotic art’ ultimately derives from ‘eros’ (the Greek word for love or passion), indicating an integrated sexuality based on mutual affection, the term ‘pornography’(whose etymological root is ‘porne,’ meaning prostitute) reflects a dehumanized sexuality based on the exploitation of women.”
I’ll start by debunking some points in this exert:
– Sexuality can be aggressive and can still be artistic.
– Prostitution is not inherently dehumanising and can be incredibly empowering.
– Pornography is not inherently disconnected however the majority of porn IS. That is a huge problem I have with the porn industry and why I want to go into creating porn at some point.
That aside, I believe that this is the core of the argument. I believe that pornography can be artistic, and art can be pornographic. The reason this debate comes up time and time again is because the majority of porn that exists in the world today is crass, is dehumanising, is misogynistic and disgusting.
When it comes to my own creation of art involving sexuality, some subjects are sharing their sexuality for personal reasons… to feel liberated and embodied. Others are exhibitionists who want the viewer to be turned on by the art. I am not deciding for each subject which way this goes, that comes down to the experience that is being shared and the intentions of the subject. My goal is to do my best to be present and creating in line with the desires of the subject. This directly influences the quality of the art that I make. To do this I must always be in complete control of my own sexual energy. I must be contained and approaching the subject with an artistic eye and not an objectifying one. Allowing one’s sexual energy to spill out is a quick way to make someone feel uncomfortable in such a vulnerable situation.
I always try to make art, but I intend to have objective intent as to whether the photos are erotic or not. In this way I believe my art is unique, or at least highly uncommon in the area of erotic art and pornography. I know of no other photographer in Australia who is creating like this, with my friend Ellen Hewitt being an exception.
My wife coined the term “un-sexy sexuality” and that’s really what I want my work to represent. Sexuality can be fluid, fun, silly, playful, sexy, erotic, serious, perverse, intense, interesting, and unique.
I am creating with individuals on their terms to express themselves in whatever way they choose to, and that is the core factor. Whether they be considered art or porn doesn’t really matter to me. The important thing is that they make you feel something, potentially challenge you, and hopefully reflect on your own sexuality.
How do you find your models?
For my artistic endeavors, rather than my commercial ones, I prefer established friends, or excellent acquaintances. I do seek out strangers, or friends of friends who are full of character and personality, but I try to always get a feel for these people before creating with them.
Richard Avedon said:
“My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”
I can relate with this for the majority of my work. All of my photographs are in a way of and about me, because I am making creative choices every step of the way…
Avedon also says:
“Camera lies all the time. It’s all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment, when you… the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger.
‘Lying’ is an ugly word. I don’t mean lying. But any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.”
In this way every photograph is about me, because I am making choices constantly that sculpt the subject into my desired outcome. The subject can indeed influence my desired outcome, but I am always making the most important choices. However, particularly with my sexuality work, I am working in a different space. I am removing myself from the equation in some ways, acting more as a wallflower for some subjects, than as a source of connection for others.
What qualities do you look for in a model?
Character, confidence, ease of expression, creativity, self-love, presence, lack of ego, connection to the universe and other human beings.
(Some photos by Ryan below)
What have you learned from all the people you spend time photographing?
That you can never assume anything about anybody. That every single person is equal and has something valuable to offer. That no matter how outgoing or reserved a person might be, when they get in front of a camera there is no telling how they might behave.
I’ve seen stage performers cower at the sight of a camera and the need to connect, and anxious introverts embrace their extroverted side.