Old World, new approach

Birth of Venus II

Excerpt from “The Birth of Venus II,” by Seamus Ryan

“I’ve had a lifelong interest in mythology,” says Seamus Ryan. “[Unlike] other photographers who just take pictures, I imagine a picture first, then I take a lot of pictures to create the picture I want. With this one” – and he points to “The World Tree,” a coastal view with ravens – “I knew I wanted to start a series on the World Tree, which is – according to Norse mythology – a kind of axis mundi. Rather than viewing the world as a globe, they viewed it as arranged according to a giant tree.”

The composite shot utilizes a mountain range from Lake Tahoe, the Palos Verdes shoreline, a raven (or crow) from Malibu and another from Ryan’s front yard in Beach.

Although the immense tree emerges from and even becomes the coastal land mass, it may be the birds themselves that entice the viewer.

“The two ravens go with the Norse mythological theme,” Ryan explains, “because they were the messengers of the king of the gods,” this being the Viking deity Odin. They were also, Ryan adds, Odin’s personal spies – collecting information and then reporting back to him.

I point out that in what I know of them, ravens symbolize death and misfortune, and what springs to mind is Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” with its premonition of the artist’s own demise. Of his last visit to Mallarmé, Paul Valéry later wrote, “Nothing told me that I should never see him again. On this golden day there was no raven to foretell it.” And, of course, with the impending “Ring” festivities throughout Los Angeles, one can’t omit Wagner and the ravens of ill-omen in “Götterdämmerung.”

“Yes,” Ryan says, “Wagner was tapping into the same myths that I am for this particular work. They’re carrion feeders,” he says of the black birds, “but to me they’re not just that because I think of them in this messenger-spy capacity.” However, he also acknowledges that, in addition to his two ravens, Odin is associated with two wolves: “Both (ravens and wolves) are found on a battlefield after a war; both are kind of sitting there picking the leftovers.”

Beauties and monsters
Ryan’s interest in mythology isn’t confined to hyperborean realms.

“In the past I’ve illustrated Greco-Roman mythology as well as Hindi polytheism. If there’s a good story involved (“The Arabian Nights,” anyone?) and a good image pops into my mind, then I’m going to want to adapt it and make it visual.”

He likens what he does to cover bands, although in his case Ryan isn’t out to imitate a prior work of art but rather to pull his own interpretation from it. One example might be his first take on the birth of Venus, widely portrayed as emerging from the surf on a clamshell.

“My initial intent was to ape Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ completely, but then I threw that out and I did my own ‘Birth of Venus.’”

To these eyes it’s part Javanese temple dancer and part calendar girl. A few days after our conversation, Ryan completed a second “Birth of Venus,” and that’s the one reproduced here. The model is full-figured and her sensuality is undeniable. But does she appear a little too knowing? Should a depiction of the goddess of love appear more ethereal rather than less? Apparently this will be an ongoing series and the artist will attempt many perspectives.

At the moment, Ryan is enthusiastic about recreating an image of Theseus and the Minotaur. He began by hopping a fence and photographing bulls, but found something unexpected:
“They’re immensely sympathetic. It would be hard for me to depict the Minotaur as just this unthinking beast about to be killed. So, when I do Theseus and the Minotaur, the Minotaur is going to be presented in a more sympathetic light, almost as the embodiment of Nature, and Theseus will be an embodiment of the encroachment of Man on Nature. It’s kind of like the taming – or destruction –of the natural world by the forces of Civilization.” He pauses and laughs. “And this is all just from the bulls I photographed! In this case, the model (being the bull) inspired me to this idea beyond what I had originally envisioned.”

An image that’s already been completed catches my eye. It’s an enigmatic work that shows an expressionless young woman by an ancient shoreline. Behind her, there seems to be an entrance to a temple cut into the rock at the edge of the sea.

“That one [“Magdalene III”] is from my Magdalene series, so that’s Judeo-Christian mythology,” Ryan explains. “I took the background shot on a scenic beach north of Santa Cruz, and the doors I put into the rocks are from a church in the Silverlake area. The girl I photographed in my own house. I really like how the colors turned out.”

The tonality, along with the brooding combination of nature and arcane mystery or religion, bestows a sort of gothic Romanticism into the frame. I mention that, in addition to the mythological base, I detect an influence reminiscent of the Symbolist and Decadent art movements of the late 19th century, and this leads us right to Arnold Böcklin’s iconic “Isle of the Dead.”

It’s a picture that Ryan is in the process of reimagining. The work was originally commissioned as “a picture to dream to,” and Böcklin went on to execute five separate versions, which today are in famous museums from New York to Berlin. I once asked the animator Ray Harryhausen to autograph a postcard reproduction of the one I’d seen in Leipzig because I knew that he’d incorporated “The Isle of the Dead” into his film, “The Clash of the Titans.”

“Although I use photography as my medium,” Ryan says, “I definitely am better versed in paintings, from Classical to the Renaissance, and Medieval paintings as well. So, when I’m composing an image, I approach it more as a painter would rather than as a photographer would. Essentially I’m not recording truth, but telling a story, a fiction. Most photographers are non-fiction, but I’m in the realm of fiction.”

“Magdalene III,” by Seamus Ryan

Touchy about touch-ups?
You take pictures, but because there’s so much manipulation and combining of separate images into one, a purist would say that this is not photography in the traditional sense. You’re in the nebulous area of art-photography.
“As you said,” Ryan replies, “a lot of purists wouldn’t call it photography because of the manipulation of the images, but to me all photography is manipulated to some degree, whether it’s with chemicals in a dark room or staged shots with props.”

This was true even at the beginning: O.G. Rejlander’s “The Two Ways of Life,” an image that dates back to 1857, was composed of at least 30 negatives. He defended himself by saying that “Art is the study of life, and photography is like a brush full of paint – use it as you are able.” And then of course there are Roger Fenton’s Orientalist scenes – like “Pasha and Bayadère” – that weren’t shot on location but during the summer of 1858 in the comfort of his London studio.

A century and a half later there’s still a whiff of contention about the purity of the art form, and Ryan admits to being somewhat defensive when the issue comes up. “It’s like you should be using technology a century old if you were a real artist! – and I’m like, No, that doesn’t really make sense.” He points to the acceptance of electronic music as well as digital filmmaking. “If you use special effects in a movie it’s still a film, but in photography if you use special effects there are going to be some purists who are going to be bagging on you for it. For me, it’s just another tool to create.”

Let me juxtapose this with a statement once made by Frederick H. Evans, the subject of a large retrospective opening Feb. 2 at the Getty Center: “Photography is photography; and in its purity and innocence is far too uniquely valuable and beautiful to be spoilt by making it imitate something else.” Evans died in 1943, at age 89 or 90, so it’s hard to know what he’d think of today’s technological advances, but of course his words are worth bearing in mind.

“It’s hard to say exactly what it is I do,” Ryan continues. “I consider it photography, but it certainly isn’t the same as a person who’s just going around taking shots of something and then leaving it the way it is. And because I’m printing it on canvas, and sometimes I’m hand-painting embellishments on those prints, then that makes it multimedia. If I’m designing planets on a computer and throwing the planets in, then it’s like computer graphics. So, it is kind of nebulous to classify at times. I just find ‘photography’ is the simplest way to describe it.”

Screen dreams
What about film, and the filmmakers who inspire you?

“I mentioned how I’m more well versed in painters than philosophers,” Ryan says; “I’m also far more well versed in moviemakers than photographers. All of my new images in the past year have the same dimensions; they all have the same aspect ratio, and that’s actually a cinematic ratio of 1.85 to one (one tall, and then 1.85 times that wide).”

“So, certainly, I’m often inspired by films if I see a particular shot that I like. I’ll never copy something outright, but I’m always watching movies and getting ideas in terms of how to compose something and where to put it. And I definitely like the wider frame; it seems more closely to emulate the natural field of vision with the two eyes.”

That ratio, however, as Ryan points out, would be even narrower in real life. One can get a better sense of this kind of wide-angled field of vision by looking at the photographs of Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao (whose images are 20 by 40 in.) and Catherine Opie (who favors a 16 by 41 in. format) in “Urban Panoramas,” opening next week at the Getty Center.

“I immensely enjoy the work of [Quentin] Tarantino,” Ryan continues; “he’s probably my favorite filmmaker of the modern era.” Terry Gilliam’s earlier pictures, “Time Bandits” and “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen,” have also made an impact. “So, as a photographer, I take more inspiration from filmmakers and painters than from photographers; which isn’t to slight photographers. It’s just that my knowledge of art and cinema is far stronger than my knowledge of photography.”

I point out the obvious, that it’s generally easier to catch a movie than a photo show.

“Photography probably isn’t as appreciated as much by modern audiences,” he replies. “But then, why would it be if you’ve got a picture that moves?”

Not surprisingly, Ryan is intrigued by filmmaking, and can picture himself as a key frame artist, as one who concocts images around which a movie could be constructed. Like working with storyboards. “I feel like that would be a good application for me,” he says, and it’s not hard to envision him moving in that direction.
The pen is mightier…Seamus Ryan graduated in May of 2004 from one of the Claremont colleges, Pitzer, with a double major in art and world literature, the emphases being, respectively, photography and creative writing.

With my own interest in world literature, and in particular the masters of the Latin American novel and short story, from Borges and Cortázar to Carpentier and Vargas Llosa, I’m curious to learn of Ryan’s latest discoveries.

“Sadly, I’m not the bookworm I once was,” he replies. “I’m stuck on the dead guys: I really enjoy Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo.” He then mentions the Viking sagas, the Edda and Beowulf. “For me, the older the better when it comes to my literature.” Tolkien? “I’m a total Lord of the Rings nerd, and that probably shows in images like ‘The World Tree’ because he was into the same old sagas that I am.”

It’s not an insignificant remark. “Looking at ‘The World Tree,’ a part of me thinks, ‘I’m going to write this story.’ It’s based on a myth, but I’m going to write this specific story.” Writing, he stresses, is just as vital to him as photography: “If I don’t create something regularly, I just feel like I’m wasting my life… I can never limit myself to one medium; I would never be able to do that. I can’t pretend to be just one segment in the pie chart of who I am. I’m a multimedia guy.”

On your website you post your ideas and thoughts about various subjects, I tell him, and you have some strong opinions.

“My mother’s always telling me that I should take the stuff down,” Ryan responds, with a laugh. “She’s worried that people won’t hire me if they read my strong opinions, but I’m the kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. I can’t keep my mouth shut; I can’t keep my pen silent. I hope I don’t come off as a complete jerk in my online ranting, but I do have a lot of strong opinions.”

If an artist isn’t outspoken, what’s the point? Each reader (and viewer) will have to decide for him- or herself if what Ryan has posted complements their impression of his work, cuts into it, or rounds out the profile (or pie chart) of who he is.

In fact, Ryan isn’t shy about speaking his mind when we talk about the visual appeal of old buildings and old cities – he spent a semester in Modena, Italy – and what he sees as the lack of cultural preservation in the United States.

“We do have some old buildings; the California missions are nice,” he says. “I just feel that there’s a lack of regard for beauty in our culture. It’s like greed has become the only value in America. It’s like a person’s worth is judged by their wealth. And it just gets worse every day; there’s really no respect for the art, and there’s really no respect for actual values beyond greed and financial gain.”

See what I mean about him being outspoken?

At the same time, Ryan praises California’s ecological diversity. He’s originally from Santa Cruz, where he still has family, and frequently drives up and down the coast. When he does so, he says, “I’m reminded of just how gorgeous this state is. I’m actually lucky to have all that in my backyard. I can go to the snow, to the desert, to the woods… I just wish we had some medieval buildings, that’s all.”

Limited edition prints by Seamus Ryan are available from his website, seamusryan.net or seamus.la. He can also be contacted by telephone at (408) 656-9211.


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