Advertising and portrait freelance Seamus Ryan came to London in 1985 with £30 in his pocket and a dream of becoming a photographer. Now with a string of ventures to his name, he tells David Land about the secrets of his stylish photo booths, and successfully balancing commercial and social photography
• Advertising and celebrity photographer, shooting for clients including Bloomberg,
British Airways, Guinness, Nike, Oxfam and Yellow Pages, and receiving awards from the Association of Photographers and the D&AD
16.5 Runs highly successful social and events businesses Boothnation and Pop Up Shoots
16.6 Studio in the heart of London’s Columbia Road Flower Market, where he stages his renowned Sunday Shoots
16.7 Born in London, brought up in Dublin
16.8 Studied Environmental Management in Dublin, before coming to London
16.9 Assisted still life photographer Alasdair Ogilvie
“Most people have a well rehearsed photo face they’ve always put on since their first family photo” , says London-based advertising and portrait freelance Seamus Ryan. “They think they look good with that face on but, in most cases, they’re hiding themselves from the camera. I’m rarely happy with that, so I try and take it somewhere else. I’ve learnt how to cajole, bully, humour, flirt — whatever it takes to find a little bit of magic, and make that moment happen.”
Highly successful in advertising and portraiture, Ryan has had ample opportunity to learn how to get a result from his sitters. For the past seven or eight years, he has opened up his studio — in the heart of London’s Columbia Road Flower Market — to the public on most Sundays.
“When I first arrived in my studio, I opened the door one Sunday, and was surprised by the number of people walking by”, says Ryan, who was born in London but grew up in Dublin.
“I had the biggest indoor space in the area, so the Catholic guilt crept in, and I felt I had to do something!” He initially ran a photography gallery, but quickly found it took up so much time that his own photography was suffering, so he came up with Sunday Shoots instead.
Described by Ryan as a form of ‘photo theatre’, Sunday Shoots are big open studio events, which have become very popular. You don’t need to pre-book, and anyone can come along, either to be photographed, or just to watch the spectacle.
It is apparent that Ryan gets a kick out of making photography enjoyable, both for himself and for the many who pass through his studio each week, and his Sun¬day Shoots result in plenty of print sales.
“Hundreds of people come in”, says Ryan, “… entire families, couples, single people, old folk, a bunch of guys, hen par¬ ties, brand new babies, pregnant women.
It’s one after the other: controlled chaos.
“They can see the shot being taken, and watch it arrive on the screen. There are audible cheers if I get little Jimmy to do something cute, or if he laughs. It’s a completely different discipline to an advertising shoot. I’m free to do whatever I want, which is liberating.
“Despite the fact that the digital revolution has made everybody a photographer, most people only ever see terrible pictures of themselves, and therefore have a negative view of the way they look. What I’ve realised with Sunday Shoots is just how uplifting it is for people to see themselves looking good. They walk a bit taller that day. That’s something which, in the cloistered world of advertising, I hadn’t really thought about.”
Ryan shoots on a Hasselblad with Phocus software. “Most of my lighting is Elinchrom”, he says, “although I end up hiring quite a lot of Broncolor and Profoto lighting.
“I’m quite lucky with the location of my studio, in that Pro Centre, Pixipixel and Pro Lighting are all just minutes away.”
In the commercial field, Ryan shoots regularly for the likes of Bloomberg, British Airways, Guinness, Nike, Oxfam and Yellow Pages, and he has received awards from the Association of Photographers and the D&AD. It’s unusual to see such a successful advertising photographer also working in social and events. What Ryan sets out to achieve however, is something simple but different: “We bring the same values that we bring to any top advertising job to an event”, he explains.
Ryan has a photo booth venture, Booth- nation, which provides luxury photo booths for events; and events photography company Pop Up Shoots, which comprises photographers, stylists, event managers and set builders.
He got into the photo booth business after he designed a booth from scratch for an advertising commission, aiming to achieve flattering studio-style lighting of a kind that you don’t find in your average photo booth at the train station.
“We needed to photograph over 100 women laughing, for a feminine hygiene brand”, he recalls. “We decided that a photo booth would be a great way of doing that. Wanting all the women to look great, I designed what I consider to be the ultimate lighting in a photo booth. I want people to feel fabulous. I know they’ll have a good time, but why can’t they look great as well?”
The shoot was a success, and Ryan continued to work on his design, giving it the appearance of a genuine 1950s photo booth, and began to experiment with incorporating it into his Sunday Shoots. One day, somebody came in and asked to book it for a wedding and, says Ryan, it just started to grow from there.
“It didn’t give you instant prints, initially”, he says. “We’d show the shots on a screen and people could get prints later.
“Our second booking was for a big fash¬ion event at the National Portrait Gallery. From there, we got some good press, and the phone started ringing.”
The business continued to evolve, and Ryan now has six permanent booths, including one in the flagship Topshop store on Oxford Street, and a ‘beaten up’ version in a record store in Brick Lane. Other in carnations include a mini Airstream caravan and a mini VW camper van that go to festivals.
The booths now produce instant prints, and allow upload of images to Facebook and Twitter, while Ryan attributes their resounding success to the quality of the images produced.
“We’ve done high profile awards, and all kinds of high fashion events”, he says. “They aren’t your typical photo booths. They deliver good photography, in an area which may not traditionally have had that. It all stems from my passion for photographing people.”
Surprisingly perhaps, given his noted success in the industry, Ryan’s roots lie not in photography but in two years of a three year degree in Environmental Management at university in Dublin.
“It was something I fell into but wasn’t particularly interested in”, he says. “It entailed the production of reports that needed illustrating however. I hadn’t seriously thought about photography prior to that, but pretty soon I was illustrating my reports beautifully!”
Ryan came to London in 1985, with just a rucksack and £30 in his pocket. “Over 50% of my class at school emigrated”, he says. “It was just so bleak in Ireland in the 1980s that, unless you had something set up or you worked for your dad, there was no point in staying.
“I was naively thinking, ‘I’ll be a photographer’, but I soon realised that wasn’t going to happen quickly. I was buying the B J P every week and looking at the ads in the back, but I wasn’t even qualified to work as a cruise ship photographer.”
Living in a small flat in Clapham, Ryan built a darkroom in his bathroom, and began shooting on the street. “Looking back, it was really abysmal photography”, he laughs.
Taking on various jobs, including working in a pub, Ryan would phone photographers to find assisting work. He eventually found a temporary job assisting a van driver, who happened to deliver props to studios.
“He worked for photographers almost exclusively, going to the prop houses in West London and bringing them to the studios in Clerkenwell”, says Ryan.
“Each time we were at a photographer’s studio, I’d ask if there were any jobs going, and after a couple of days I got lucky. I came across still life photographer Alasdair Ogilvie, and he asked if I’d start Monday. That’s when my photography career began.
“He’s a great bloke. We were in a big studio, and Alasdair let me have a corner for my own setups, using his equipment. We were shooting on 10×8 film.
“After four years, Alasdair had to move studio, so we moved together, and I set up as a still life photographer alongside him. My girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, gave up her job in an advertising agency to become my agent. We were young and hopeful, and it worked.”
After a further studio move, Ryan settled at a studio on Kingsland Road for nine years, before moving to the studio he is based in today.
His transition from still life to portrait photographer occurred suddenly in the mid 1990s, when he was asked to do a picture of a man smoking a cigar, with a wig on his head that had slipped forward, for an advert for The Sun.
“I put it into what were then the A F A E P Awards (now A O P), and got a Merit for it”, he says. “Almost immediately, people began asking for my portrait book, rather than my still life one. I’d never shot people before, mainly because I was too shy, but within a month of winning the AF AEP Award, I’d grabbed just about every human being that was passing my studio, every relative — you name it.”
On reflection, Ryan concedes that he is far better suited to portrait photography than to still life. “I was a little bit obsessive about still life”, he says.
“For me, there was no point in doing it if I couldn’t say it was perfect. I’d still be there at 4am — probably having not improved anything since 6pm the day before.
“The beauty of shooting people is that, in 20 minutes, they’ve had it. I’d like to think that the lighting skills I learnt while doing still life are what keeps it all going, however.”
Represented today by Charlotte Morgan at Morgan Lockyer, Ryan is well aware that, while having an agent with an excellent reputation is undoubtedly beneficial, he nonetheless has an important part to play in ensuring that the work keeps coming in.
“Getting work isn’t just down to your agent: it’s a combination of many things”, he explains. “The connections you make as a photographer are important. You have to build your reputation by doing a good job, being on time and on budget — making sure everybody’s happy.”
While Ryan has six copies of his print- based portfolio, he says that his work is mostly viewed online these days, and that he generally takes his iPad to meetings. He is still passionate about showing a printed book where possible, however. “I have a beautiful printed portfolio, with my logo silk screened onto it”, he says.
“It’s made by Cathy Robert, who is fabulous, and I do all the printing myself. My port¬folio is very important to me. It goes back to the darkroom days. A photograph comes into its own when it’s on paper. It’s another entity. “At the time when digital came in, I was shooting on 10×8, and I thought the quality of digital was appalling. It was extremely expensive and complicated, and the computers weren’t up to it.”
Ryan waited to go digital until he felt that it was as good as the film he had been using previously. “When I finally got a Leaf digi “When shooting people using digital meanwhile, it’s wonderful to know that I’ve nailed the shot I set out to get. Then I can play around and see what else is possible.”
Unlike many photographers, Ryan finds that he shoots fewer frames digitally than he did on film. The only downside that he acknowledges is that the momentum of a shoot can be disrupted if you have to email images to clients who aren’t present.
Many freelances also see shooting tethered as a drawback, as it can encourage a feeling of ‘too many cooks’, but Ryan disagrees. “I’m not trying to hide anything”, he says. “I had to get over that idea when people started coming into my studio on a Sunday. They could copy exactly how I’m lighting something, but at the end of the day they’re not me — they’re going to do something different.”
Sunday Shoots, Boothnation, and Pop Up Shoots have proved a great commercial success, but have they altered Ryan’s profile in the advertising world?
“The Sunday Shoots have actually helped me as a photographer”, he says. “Interacting with the public, on spec, never knowing in advance exactly what I’m going to encounter, thinking on my feet, week after week, has improved my work, and the agencies and art directors who use me find it interesting.
“I’m not just sat by the phone waiting for the next advertising job — I’ve got this whole other agenda.”
The lucrative field of advertising photography can be tricky to break into, and Ryan attributes his success to a number of factors. “I don’t think it’s ever been easy to get into”, he says. “Those who break throughtal back for my Hasselblad, I was a complete convert”, he says. “I couldn’t imagine going back.
“Before, I had to buy three kinds of film for each job, and test them all. It was agonising and expensive, and even then you were at the mercy of the labs not necessarily having their chemicals at the right temperature, whereas now I can control the whole process.
Although it doesn’t pay a great deal, it allows you to be quite creative with your lighting, and it’s not as exploitative as some of the editorial arrangements.”
Hard graft and good vision have certainly stood Ryan in good stead, but I find myself wondering whether, given his time over, he would have studied photography at university.
“I’ve met many people who have come out of college, and still had to go on to do what I did, because they’ve got no experience”, he says. “I’d like to have gone to college, just to have a few years to sub¬merge myself more in the aesthetics, but I have no regrets. What I did was a good way to learn the craft. University has intellectual possibilities, but at 19, would I have indulged in these or just gone to the pub? I wouldn’t know!”
One thing he does know is that taking pleasure in his work has contributed greatly to his success. Ryan may be business savvy, but he isn’t lacking in passion, and this is probably the key to his appeal, to everyone from high profile clients, to strangers who stroll into one of his Sunday Shoots.
“The main thing for me is to enjoy photography and keep having fun”, he agrees. “It’s wonderful to just open the doors, and let everybody come in and share the joy of photography. Over the years of doing Sunday Shoots, we’ve produced so many images that I know, for the families concerned, will become really significant in years to come.” are the ones who work the hardest, who are obsessed. It’s not as glamorous a job as many think.
“Once you’re established, it becomes a lot easier, though. Agencies are understandably afraid of losing an account with a client; if they’re going to commission a photographer, they want a safe pair of hands.”
In presenting yourself as a safe pair of hands, your online presence is these days an important part of the mix, of course. Ryan is currently updating his series of websites under the banner title Republic of Photography, aiming to provide an on¬going dialogue with all aspects of his work — Boothnation, Pop Up Shoots, Sunday Shoots and Seamus Ryan.
“They all inform one another”, he explains. “If people come to our Boothnation site, I don’t want them thinking, ‘It’s just another photo booth company’. I want them to know it’s the photo booth company that does the Baftas, and has just done the Der-ren Brown theatre poster — to see that it’s coming from a good photographic pedigree.
“I use Facebook to communicate with our customers for Sunday Shoots, while Boothnation has quite an active Facebook page too, with lots of friends. Maintaining a conversation with your clients is important and, certainly with the Sunday Shoots side of things, it helps to have a door to the community.”
A glance at Ryan’s website shows a selection of striking celebrity portraits, work which comes from a mixture of sources.
“I’ve just done a Sky campaign with Lily Allen and Jonathan Ross”, he says. “I’ve done BBC advertising campaigns with various sporting celebrities, and I photographed Olympic athletes for Camelot last year. Once people know that you’re not going to be fazed by celebrity, they’re comfortable to let you shoot more.
“I rarely do editorial. Nowadays, many magazines will take all your rights and only pay you £200 — I find that a bit insulting. I do work for theatre, however.