Introducing Ryan Mills

Ryan Mills is a fine art photographer based out of Spokane, Washington. Currently, he works with 4×5 black and white film making provoking and emotional portraits of his friends and family, primarily concentrating on children.  Read to learn why he works with large format cameras and about his time spent with legendary photographer, Jock Sturges.




How did you get started?

I came to photography in a roundabout way.  I wasn’t interested in art in high school.  After graduating I started doing youth work with Junior High students as a leader.  Each month there were several events for the students which I would photograph and staple them to the walls, literally floor to ceiling for 3-4 years. After doing that for a while I began to get into photography. At the time I was working at a thrift store and I had more film cameras than I knew what to do with. There was no real skill involved at that time, just a lot of clicking. When I switched jobs I ended up selling all of the gear I had accumulated and got out of the habit for a couple of years. Then digital photography started becoming prominent. I got a digital camera and started shooting again with friends. At the beginning I shot everything from weddings, to the elderly, to dogs, to landscapes. Over time I slowly began to focus on people, which is what interested me most. In the last few years its grown into a serious endeavor for me.

What qualifies as a good image is lost because everyone is exposed to so many photos.

Are you a full time photographer?

No, at this point its about the art side of it. Making money in photography has become much more difficult these days. Anyone can buy a digital camera and call themselves a photographer and there are even cell phones that can take acceptable photos. Its really changed the game. Where I live, there is an over-saturation of photographers who charge $25 for an hour session. It’s difficult to make money doing it unless you’re in a large market. What qualifies as a good image is lost because everyone is exposed to so many photos. You see this happen on Facebook all the time. Back in the day, a really good film shooter had a particular look. Nowadays, everyone’s shooting with a digital camera and it all looks the same. Art photography is my main concentration and my goal is exhibition in galleries.

How do you get into large format photography? Do you use 4×5 or bigger?

I use a 4×5 camera.  8×10 has gotten to the point where 10 shots will cost you $100. I’d really like to go up to 8×10, but its going to depend on what the market does. It has a lot to do with cost. While shooting digital, I was always trying to get a particular look. I spent a lot of time studying photography masters from the 30’s to the 90’s and trying to replicate that look. I couldn’t get it with digital. My interest in large format came from a desire to achieve that look and make really big prints.





Why do you prefer shooting large format and how does it change the way you photography?

With large format, you really have to stop, think and look at what you’re going to shoot. You can’t just click away.  I rarely have a set shot in mind, I just pick a location and we walk around looking for the best light.  Ever since I’ve gone to 4×5 I take far fewer photos. During a session, I usually shoot 10 to 20 sheets of film, depending on the attention span of the subject and location.  Models tend to be relaxed, which is counterintuitive because they have to sit still for long periods in front of a large camera.  There is a lot more time for conversation.  My shoots are laid back, its usually just me and the model.  I take a photo and we talk for a few minutes.  There is always collaboration with older models.  We are discussing the shot or other ideas.  While I’m moving things around I’m chatting and looking for that next shot.  Eventually I see something and say, “Oh yes! Hold that.” I take the shot, and we repeat the process. The flow of it works best for what I do.


Is the bulk of your work commissioned or self assigned?

Most of it is personal work and done with my friends and their kids. I don’t take a lot of cold calls and I usually do 1 or 2 commissioned assignments each month.  Its almost always someone I know. I don’t take a lot of cold calls. People see what I do and expect that I can make it happen with anyone. However, most of the work I make is based on the relationships I have with individuals. I work on a different level with them than I could with a stranger. Its hard to get the same dynamic with someone I haven’t met.


How do you find subjects?

Most are people who I have known for year or have asked me to shoot.  Occasionally I will ask a parent if their child has the right look, but even they are a friend of a friend.  I have about 15-20 subjects I’ve been shooting regularly for 5 or 6 years. Every summer I go through the list and find time to shoot with each of them.

I’m looking for someone who’s relaxed and open and not trying to project something. That’s why I work with kids so often.

What makes a good subject?

There are conceptual photographers and emotional photographers. I find myself on the emotional side. It’s more about connections with people rather than trying to project something on them. When I’m picking a subject, it’s not about an idea that I have for them. Jock Sturges told to me, “to watch your model move through space”. If you pose them, then you’re pushing yourself on them and not capturing how they really are.  I’m looking for someone who’s relaxed and open and not trying to project something. That’s why I work with kids so often. Adults often show what they want others to see and not who they are. Kids always show who they are and are a lot easier to work with.

Do you use artificial or natural lighting?

I don’t do a lot of studio work. During the winter months I experiment with it, but I find it very sterile. I’ve seen people achieve very dynamic lighting in the studio, but I can’t get it and its not really my thing. I use natural light in all of my work. I don’t even use reflectors. It’s all about finding the right light. When I go to a place, most of the time I’m seeing problems left and right. Once you find a place with the right light and the right background you tend to use that one spot quite a bit.




Do you consider yourself a photographer or an artist?

I think both terms get thrown around way too much. I don’t feel accomplished enough to consider myself an artist. But a photographer is just someone who can use a camera. However, if I had to pick one, it would be photographer. To become an artist requires years of mastery which I just don’t have yet. A big part of meeting Jock Sturges was to see what a real artist is like. Where I live, I don’t get a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of big artists. It gives you a greater respect of what it means to be an artist when you get to talk with them. They talk about their work differently than a photographer who just shoots family photos. For now I call myself a photographer, but the goal is to become an artist.

Tell me more about your meeting with Jock.

Jock has put on small workshop at his house in Montalivet over the last few summers.  Its a week long workshop that’s very small, a total of 4 students are accepted to stay in his house, the same house you have seen in his books.  I applied and was accepted.  I learned an immense amount but the most import thing was learning what it means to be a real artist. Its a hard thing to quantify with words, its hearing him talk about his work, hearing his models talk about working with him, the detail in his work. Its much more than that but its invaluable for someone wanting to make serious work.


Why did you choose photography?

I’m fascinated by people. Capturing something real is my goal every time I shoot. I have studied other forms of art—painting, sculpture, etc. But I just keep coming back to photography. There’s a level of realism that just isn’t there when I look at paintings. However, sculpture has interested me quite a bit. There’s a lot that goes into a sculpture. You’re working with something bland, you have no background, nothing around it, no shadows. You have none of the things that make a photo work. Its impressive when you see a sculpture that works.

What do you like best about being a photographer and what do you find most challenging?

The best part is working with people. I like the social aspect, which is a little strange for me. I’m not a very social person. Photographing people is the time I get to socialize.  I love photographing with my friends. Some I don’t get to see very much anymore and the shoot might be the only time I see them that year.

The challenging part is getting consistent lighting. The quality of light changes the impact of a black and white photograph and finding it can be difficult. I try to scout locations beforehand, but it doesn’t always work out. When the location doesn’t work, you shoot something just to make sure the model doesn’t feel as if there’s something wrong with them. It’s important to reassure your model and make them feel comfortable. When you’re making mistakes, you have to be sure they know they aren’t doing anything wrong.

What’s the most important rule for you to stay true to?

I don’t necessarily have rules when I photograph. In the art world, there are a lot of ideas of what should be art. When I first started shooting digital, nobody in the art world would take you seriously if you weren’t shooting film. Now, there are some contests that won’t accept your work if you enter with film. The rules that used to apply don’t anymore. In the end I think it’s about the final product. It doesn’t really matter how you get there as long as the end result is good.   On the digital end, they shoot so that it looks good on a small screen or Instagram and not for a quality print.   My only rule is to create something that’s of high quality and prints large while still looking amazing.






How do you know when a series is finished?

I don’t think anything is ever final. My goal is not to get 6-10 photographs and call it a series. My work is intended to go on for a while. I’m looking at projects that are going to span time. I’ve got a friend of mine who just had a baby. By the time this kid is 25 I’d like to have 25 years worth of work and then I’ll feel like I’ve got a completed piece.


Who are some artists that inspire you?

Such a tough list, I have been inspired by a lot of my betters over the years. But there are a few that have had a direct profound impact, Jock Sturges, Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark. They have all had a way of capturing life in a that feels very real, something I have great respect for. 


Where do you see your work in 5-10 years?

I’m at the tipping point for gallery work. I’ve been networking with those who are more involved in the art community and have been able to learn from them how to have work hung. It’s been motivating to hear that my work is good enough to show in a gallery. I’ve been cautious about putting too much work out there. I’m trying to wait for my moment. I think in the next year or so the body of work is going to be there and I’ll be ready to show in a gallery. In 10 years, I’d like to have a book published. A lot of galleries won’t show work without a book, but you can’t get a book without a gallery! By then, I’m hoping my body of work is large enough that I can make the book I want to make.

What do you wish you had known when you first started photography?

Starting in film, I struggled a lot on the technical side, something that those who shoot digital won’t struggle with because they have instant feedback on the photo. For instance, now you can shoot a variety of f-stops and immediately see the result. If I had tried to shoot 4×5 ten years ago I would have failed miserably, but learning the craft through digital was game changing.


Ultimately, you have to find what you love to photograph and then study art.




What advice would you give to budding artists?

Don’t shoot for anyone but yourself. There are a lot of people who would say that you shouldn’t study other’s work to stay true to yourself. I don’t agree with that. Studying other photographers is extremely important. You need to pick photographers that impress you. And that list is going to change from year to year as you progress. As I look back over what I considered to be my best work from years past they’re not as impressive as I once thought. Additionally, It’s important to study something other than photography. That advice comes from Jock Sturges. For me, its been sculpture. Studying sculpture makes you more aware of what a natural pose is. Sculptures are never forced.  

Ultimately, you have to find what you love to photograph and then study art.


See more of Ryan’s work and follow him on the web:

WebsiteFacebookTumblr – Instagram

Like what you see?
Subscribe to Josh's blog!

What do you think?