is a restless creative force.

He is happiest on the road, surrounded by a band of co-conspirators who help bring his artistic ideas to life. WeTransfer Studios presents this exclusive online exhibition, of figures shot in soaring, all-American landscapes.

In this freewheeling conversation with Kathy Ryan, the photo director of the New York Times Magazine and curator of this collection, Ryan talks about his upbringing, his process and the way he sees, and captures, the world.

  • On family 1
  • On the road 2
  • On nudity 3
  • On rebellion 4
  • On the divine 5
Chapter 1: On family

Kathy Ryan: Tell me about your family…

I was the eighth child. My mom was 45, and my dad was 50, a war veteran. He had come out of the Korean War and gotten a Purple Heart. He was part of a unit of 35 guys that went in, and he was one of six that came out, so he saw some serious action.

Then he had seven kids in seven years, right after that, and then they had me, 11 years later. I was the eighth child, the baby.

When I grew up, , which was really fun, and my brothers and sisters were so different.

They were all over the map. I had brothers that were really into business and economics, and sisters that worked in retail, another sister was a nurse. Another one of my brothers was a pretty heavy rock and roller, and a stoner, and then another brother went straight into the military, and another brother was gay, lived in New York City and was a drag queen. His boyfriend was a Barbara Streisand impersonator. Just really the whole gamut.

I got a real variety of personalities that definitely shaped the person who I am. Then a father who was a military kind of guy, and a mother who was very, very religious. It was a lot of flavors going on.

At what point did you start making art?
Were you drawing as a kid?

Yes, right off the bat. I remember going to the museums early, but , of everyone holding hands. That was very influential.

I drew all the time. I remember winning a Smokey the Bear contest; the supermarket had some drawing contest and the firemen came to give me my prize. It's one of my first memories – the firemen walking up on my property to hand me a check. It was a $100 check, which was a lot for a kid.

How old were you then?

Maybe eight or nine. It made me realize I could get paid for making art.

It was all there early on.

Yeah, but not photography yet. I got really into skateboarding. I skated every day, until I was probably 19.

I got a video camera pretty early on, and I would film my friends. I think I always consider those my first photos, making those tapes, because it's the same thing as going out and taking photos. You sort of have an objective, and you have this place that you're going to go to, and you have to scout it out...

...find frames, and slices of life?

Yeah, and you have to get this person to do this thing repetitively, until you get the shot...

Chapter 2: On the road
Chapter 2: On the road

At what point did you realize – you know what, I'm going to take this show on the road. I want to gather a group of people and make some kind of theater happen.

Was it a gradual organic process, or was it in a moment? Because you were documenting the skateboarders around you when you were quite young, then within a very few short years, you became much more expansive about the possibilities…

I think I started road tripping and travelling out of spite.

Why is that?

Because I never got to travel as a kid, because my mom was scared to fly, and we were eight kids, so my parents were always like – we're too poor to do anything. Then when I got into photography, I would look at all these great images, like the first photographer that I ever saw, Ansel Adams, and was like this guy just bops around with his camera and goes to all these cool places!

I always wanted to travel and I never had the means to do it, and then when I became a photographer that was the key to being able to get out and explore. It gave me a purpose, and you could ask people to go with you. I started to create these journeys, missions, adventures, whatever you want to call them.

How would you decide where to go?

Well, since I was shooting nudes, on my earliest trips we researched all these nudist colonies.

I soon found out that the nudist community weren't into us running around jumping off things and climbing trees and taking lots of photos. But I realized if you go out to the middle of nowhere, where there's nobody around, you can shoot people nude for as long as you want! If you're in the wild, in some cornfields, a forest, or a national park,

It must have been quite a revelation? You could own that landscape, you could totally use it as your canvas, as art.

It was a nice moment because it really connected me with what people romanticize as real America.

When you travel through America now, it's all the same stuff.If you’re going from New York to California nowadays, and you're just hopping on the fastest highway, all you're going to see is Walmarts and Taco Bells. But if you're searching for somewhere that's really remote and isolated, you're going to get the true American experience.

There are these settings on your navigation where it will keep you off the highways and only have you use back roads. If I can keep a flow going of . It connects me to the earth more.

Chapter 3: On nudity
Chapter 3: On nudity

Talk about the role of the nude. It's been such a crucial part of what you do. You present the nude in the landscape in a very unique way that, right from the start, was totally your visual language. Whether it's a nude rolling or leaping or entangled in a mass of tree branches or caught up in a bunch of ice, or leaping over something, again and again you have this kind of fabulous, dynamic, ballet-like thing unfold.

How do you direct your people, once, let's say, you arrive at a cornfield, or a beautiful sloping hillside? What happens then?

I’ll try and find locations that I can see potential in. I’ll see something that seems sculptural, or colorful, or that a person can climb or be playful within.

Before I picked up a camera I had a few majors in college. I studied painting, poetry, graphic design, actually in that order. I think all of those things go into my photographs. I'll see a tree or swamp that seems painterly, that has a beautiful color pallette.

Once we are there we set up lookouts. I have two assistants who have walkie talkies that will be making sure that nobody's driving by, as we're usually trespassing on some farmer's land. Or if we're in a national park, we are looking out for a park ranger. It's rare that we shoot where there are people, but we want to be respectful, and we don't want to bother anybody. The lookouts are to let me know if somebody’s coming and let the model know to crouch down and hide or get dressed.

When I get the model there, I'll be a bit of a choreographer and we'll try a bunch of different things. We'll go from some really loud, wild movements to crawling, to jumping, to something more subtle. We just have fun with it. People always think that I'm joking around with them because sometimes it can get so comical, but in the final photos, within those moments, there's something really poetic that happens.

That's how it goes down. There are usually about five to ten people that are there to help create a vibe.

So creating this family that travels together feels pretty comfortable to me. Everyone chitter chattering in the car...

Chapter 4: On rebellion
Chapter 4: On rebellion

That's why I think your family history is a really important part of who you are, the personal part that then gets melded into the artist. I'm one of six born in eight years, so I know that upbringing. You're literally never alone. So your practice is recreating this idea that you need to be surrounded. And it's interesting, because then as an artist, you have to go to this other place, whether it's you alone, thinking up what you're going to do, or after you come back with your thousands of images.

It's like you've tapped into this deeply traditional, classical form of art, the nude in the landscape, but then you've done exactly what a great artist does, you've spun it on its head and made something new out of it.

Being raised in a very Catholic household, how did you get so comfortable, right from day one, with a kind of back to nature ease with the body? Can I ask that?

Yeah, those are the best questions. I think the essence of where all my art comes from is rebellion. That's the heartbeat of it, and when you're raised by teenagers, you have a lot of rebellion, right? That's what teenagers do.

Normally you grow up with parents saying follow the rules, listen to police officers, respect your teachers. It was the opposite for me.

It was like don't believe everything your teachers say to you, don’t listen to mom and dad, follow your dreams and do exactly what you want to do.

I think I already had it running through my veins, you know? When I was a skater, there were only a few of us in the town. We were the punks, sort of considered the losers. You're always getting kicked out of places. There's always some security guard saying, “Get out of here”…

That definitely set you up for your future trespassing art making.

Totally, and I feel like all that stuff goes into it what I do today. Even just talking about the Matisse painting, there was something about the body that I’ve always found fascinating.

For a model to pose nude for my camera requires a lot of trust. They trust my vision and that I will make a beautiful image of them. Posing nude is also a rebellious act, almost political in a way.

Almost all the outdoor photos you look at that I’ve taken, we didn’t have permission to shoot on that land. We always go by the philosophy that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than get permission.

Chapter 5: On the divine
Chapter 5: On the divine

You spoke about the early Matisse. What else do you look for just to feed your imagination?

I guess growing up Catholic, I have to figure out how to negotiate religion into my world. Being gay, growing up Roman Catholic, those are two colliding forces.

But it's rare that you veer away from how you grew up, and I think that somehow nature is where I feel the most spiritually connected to some kind of a higher power.

You know, I spent my entire life looking at a man half naked on a cross. That was in front of me every single day. Then when you flip through the Bible, or you look at stained glass windows or Roman Catholic art, it's all nude bodies and these religious scenes of people in pastoral landscapes...

The Garden of Eden.

Yeah. I think subconsciously a lot of stuff got ingrained into my visual DNA. To think about the photos that I make – whether they're in caves or on ice or in cornfields or climbing trees – I think it all traces back to figuring out how to create my own version of that highly religious world.

In a lot of your pictures there's also an ecstatic quality , and a sense of revelation. I see the Biblical quality when that happens. I think having been brought up in a faith, whatever religion, is actually a major gift for an artist because it opens up an area in your mind that there is a higher spiritual power and that obviously interweaves with art.

Oh totally. I definitely know that I'm not running the show. Like, if there's some giant gust of wind that comes through the image, or we might get some crazy purple or pink sky, all that stuff is out of my control, and I definitely believe in the idea of something greater than myself driving the ship.

Which I think of as being very particular to photography as an art form and what you do. You put yourself in a place where you're basically opening up tremendous possibilities for something to happen.

When that sky suddenly turns purple, or some kind of magnificent gust of wind comes, you're ready. I love that. You set the stage, and then you're like, okay, let serendipity, let the higher power step in. And that probably does go back to your Catholic upbringing and that way of seeing the world.

There's tremendous planning in what you do – not everybody can even begin to do something like this. It's just astonishing how often something really poetic happens, but then again, it's a beautiful country. There are these huge areas, as you know, behind and just beyond the Walmarts, that are, even to this day, somewhat unexplored.

I spend a lot of time doing landscape research, and that's a big part of my process, being like oh, there's a rainforest in America? In Washington?

A lot of the photos that I made in the winter, in the ice, people see those and say, “Wow, you went to Iceland or Greenland.” And I say no, we just drove to upstate New York. I think a big part of my artistry is seeing the potential in landscapes.

I know, it's crazy that people don't realize how much incredible stuff is within miles of where they are. You just have to go seeking it a little.

I think it's just having an adventurous spirit, you know? The book that I read the most when I was younger was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I feel like that's pretty parallel with my life. Still.

You're kind of like an explorer out there, you're seeing things and bringing them back to us because somehow nobody had seen the possibilities before in that landscape.

That's also pretty neat, that wonderful sense that not everything's been done. That an artist can take us into something that was wide open for exploration and nobody else realized it until that moment.

There are a lot of times where we'll be driving, and I’ll see something and make a u-turn. And I see my assistants looking at me thinking, what do you see that we don't see?

Most of the people I work with are photographers themselves, or artists. People who understand, okay, you might be cold, you might have to go through some sludge, but the final product will be worth it. That there will be an image that will hopefully live on and end up in a magazine or on a museum wall and take on many lives.

What role does beauty play in your pictures?

A lot. Starting with the landscapes – something that's visually intriguing, that has a lot of texture.

Then finding beautiful light. We will often wake up at 4am. Do you know how hard it is to get people up at 4am and be like, hey, we're going to get up before the sun comes up just so we can take some photos?

Then to find interesting people. On a lot of my early trips, I feel like I was recreating my family. After I did my first road trip, my mom came to my exhibition and she said, “Wow, I don't know if you see this but everyone in your photos looks like your brothers and sisters.”

It became so apparent to me that that