Playa Vista photographer Howie Ronay transforms trash into art

By Kelby Vera

Photographer Howie Ronay dumpster dives for his art
Photo by Maria Martin

Howie Ronay never imagined that a bike ride in Chicago would be the catalyst for a life-changing project, but that’s exactly how Pretty Ugly Gallery began. Since 2013, Pretty Ugly has been finding magic and beauty in the imperfect edges of urban life, blossoming from an Instagram account into a full time passion.

Now about that bike ride…

Ronay was cutting through an alley on his way to the downtown loft he shared with his wife Jennifer (now Pretty Ugly Gallery’s CEO), when something caught his eye.

“It was very strange. I’d walked through this alley a hundred times at least,” Ronay recounts. “But one day, I happened to notice a brown dumpster. It was rusted and the paint was revealing different kinds of colors. There was like a rainbow of earth tones showing through — oranges and reds and dark browns, and I couldn’t help but stop.

“Before I knew it, I started snapping pictures of this dumpster,” he says, laughing. “I must have looked partially insane.”

But the results were striking.

“As I kept looking, it started to look a little more like modern art and less like a dumpster,” says Ronay, who by that time had already worked as a creative director in advertising for two decades.

To reveal the washes of color and texture hidden in dumpsters, chipped paint, rusted cars and other facets of urban decay, Ronay shoots about 50 photos of an ugly thing, experimenting with various compositions until he settles on three photos he thinks are most compelling.

“At that point,” says Ronay, “I will push some more saturation, and I will adjust the overall color temperature warmer or cooler depending on what compliments the shot the best.”

After Ronay’s photographic epiphany in Chicago, he knew he needed to find the perfect name — something that was just as unique as the fusion of dirty and dazzling in the pictures.

“I knew [the idea] was contradictory, finding this beauty in something known to be ugly, so we needed that juxtaposition in the name.

“And really quickly ‘Pretty Ugly’ hit me,” the perfect combination of a common phrase and the essence of the project.

Though some of the work is done on the computer, “everything starts with that initial capturing of the beautiful compositions and designs that were already hidden within.”

Pretty Ugly Gallery took off quicker than Howie and Jennifer could have even imagined. As the Instagram fan base grew from handfuls to hundreds, followers started to itch for prints and IRL artwork, leading to the creation of the webstore.

In addition to the success of the shop, PUG has sparked more than a few amazing collaborations.

Santa Monica culinary social club Stage + Table reached out after finding Pretty Ugly and invited them to help plan an evening of art. The result was a Pretty Ugly matching game, where teams competed to pair the original pictures with PUG’s painterly prints.

PUG also has the honor of being showcased in Sundance Cinema Galleries in West Hollywood. The gallery has also found a way to pay it forward to the artists of the future, partnering with both the National Network for Youth and Anthropos Arts.

Through it all, Ronay’s bike has been one of his most important partners.

“If I wasn’t a biker, this would never be happening,” he says. “The bike is the key to this whole thing.”

Ronay can recount his share of adrenaline-fueled moments in pursuit of the perfect picture.

“There have been times where I see a construction site and I’ll wait for the light, run in my bike shoes, hop over the railing and sit there shooting,” he says, laughing again. “And then I’ve got to find a break in the traffic and get back and not slip on the asphalt.”

While Pretty Ugly isn’t a physical gallery yet, it has sparked a community of creators who tag their pictures #PrettyInTheUgly.

“The greatest thing about the whole thing is how it started with no intention other than posting a few pictures, and now I’ve been fueled and inspired by people’s enthusiasm.”

So if you’re the type to find magic in the messy, maybe the #PrettyInTheUgly is the life for you.


Find Pretty Ugly Gallery online at