Photographer’s quirky but carefully constructed images of warped Americana go from cyberspace to gallery wall

Photo by Ryan Schude

Photo by Ryan Schude in collaboration with Lauren Randolph

By Michael Aushenker

Ryan Schude doesn’t just photograph American life, he turns it on its ear.

A sun-bathed orgy of drunks lay passed out in their underwear, the aftermath of a raging kegger. A woman throws out her husband in a scene played out across two stories of a Mid-city L.A. dingbat apartment building, neighbors doing their best to not notice. A blonde sunbathes atop the hood of her crimson convertible underneath the glare of a single street light on a creepy deserted roadway.

Such images — composites meticulously assembled from a carefully choreographed series of photographs blended seamlessly through Photoshop — have become Schude’s professional stock in trade after catching fire on Instagram, Tumblr and other forms of social media.

“Too weird for the commercial stuff, not weird enough for the gallery world” is how Schude says people have nonetheless pigeonholed his quirky, cartoony work, on display through Saturday at the bG Gallery in Santa Monica.

But these pictures also tell stories. Like the opening of a Wes Anderson film, Schude’s images feature multiple characters simultaneously engaged in various sub-narratives within a multi-tiered setting.

“Like a film, there are narratives — not just in the interplay, but for each individual character looked at in isolation. The stillness of the moment allows the viewer to survey the breadth of details. Clues open up a mystery for the viewer,” explains bG Gallery owner Om Bleicher. “There is both a celebration and critique of Americana in his work. It’s Norman Rockwell meets Gregory Crewdson.”

Before Schude pushes the button of his Canon 5d Mark 3 35-mm camera, he sketches out a scene on paper and — akin to location scouting a movie — searches various locations and takes preliminary shots.

One highlight of the current show is from a recent series shot around Big Sur. It casts Schude’s sister and her children as subjects, humorously displaying her real-life narrative of raising children solo, only set before a stunning Modernist home and misty, pine-silhouetted background.

“We were just in a cloud that day,” Schude recalls of the eerie fog scene. “I try to exclusively shoot at dusk to give it that allure.”

Each photo is a composite of about 10 images enhanced through Photoshop to look naturally unnatural.

“It’s important to me that people don’t think about the post-production on the image,” said Schude, who sometimes collaborates with fellow photographer Lauren Randolph.

Schude creates both fine arts and commercial photography, but his artistic endeavors were not an outgrowth of his bill-paying work.

“It’s 100% the other way around.
All the work that got me commercial jobs was personal,” he says.

The commercial side of his career, including work for clients such as McDonald’s and Entertainment Weekly, has been equally colorful. For a Captain Morgan ad that required photographing a bottle of the spiced rum with a boat in the background, Schude found himself on a trek to track down a pirate ship. Almost as difficult as finding actual 17th-century pirates, Schude’s journey led him to St. Mary’s City in Maryland, where a museum had a ship on permanent display in a quiet little bay.

“Ryan is an extraordinary photographer, both in terms of technique and also in timeless open-ended magical subject matter,” Bleicher says. “His work fits with the gallery’s goal to bridge boundaries of what has been considered high and low art.”

Schude, now based in Cypress Park, has appeared in bG Gallery group shows going back to a dual show he did in 2010 with The Forge studio partner Dan Busta. Since that time, bG has relocated from West Hollywood to Ocean Avenue to Bergamot Station.

Originally from Chicago, Schude abandoned business school to study at San Francisco Art Institute. He worked post-college in San Diego as photo editor of the now-defunct sports magazine Daily Bread before relocating two hours north.

“I just knew if I wanted to do commercial work, I had to go to L.A.,” he said.

Artistically, Schude has an art book due out this summer as he currently adds to his “Them and Theirs” series, depicting owners and their cars.

“It’s more documentary, more real individuals. Depending on who they are and what their story is, it’ll get more scripted,” he said.

Schude’s solo show is on display from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a closing reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, at bG Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., G8A, Santa Monica. Call (310) 906-4211 or visit