Artist Statement | Ryan Steed

The grandson of a cotton farmer and son of a literature teacher, Ryan Steed has spent years exploring and rediscovering the American South. He unearths contradictions and hidden meanings with both his images and titles. A Memphis-based photographer and educator, Ryan completed an MFA in Photography at Memphis College of Art, where he now teaches darkroom and social documentary photography.

Artist Statement

My body of work as a photographer is a result of a fanaticism with the power of the camera and what lies within its enclose. My work encompasses a belief that adheres to a canon of certain photographic heroes. My case in point would be a quote by Edward Steichen from 1972, “When I first became interested in photography . . . my idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” For me, that is the point of my work. I care for art, but I care nothing for prescribed labels in the art world. Everyone is an artist or master of a craft in some respect, what I care about is content. And for content to be worth suggestion, it must communicate, or as Steichen might say, “explain” to one another. I am for the explanation of our surroundings with my work, to capture the moment of our time and make use of it by print. This obligation is the process in which it is my expected goal to teach awareness and foster communication by the captured subject matter. 

My responsibilities are not to the label of the medium but to the responsibility of the image. In studying photography I have come across countless photographers who speak of responsibility, but it may be in the words of Ernst Haas who elegantly emphasizes the importance of a duty to the photographic practice, “I feel a responsibility toward the image as much as a writer feels for the word . . . I am in search for images which reflect myself as much as they reflect the subject matter. I am not interested in shooting new things — I am interested to see things new — in this way I am a photographer with the problems of a painter; the desire to find the limitations of the camera so I can overcome them. 

"My search is to find combinations of awareness and in them a combination of intellect and poetry. I am fascinated by dynamic time and the change from a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image with a four-dimensional awareness. How can anyone living today not be affected by it I don’t understand.” I see as Haas did the great effect the medium of photography has to shape our awareness and our reality. The camera is a force for communication and in being so its works will continue to help us as viewers shape our opinions and view our current environments.

Photography is a way to show our reality regardless of the medium’s approach. As László Moholy-Nagy argued “that what mattered was not that photography should become art, but that it should be “the undistorted document of contemporary reality.” From these regimens I have learned the power of the camera, how the image can capture beauty or horror, tell a story or scream for justice, record history, or engage us as viewers in a work of art.

I view the camera as not only a tool for art and communication but also a weapon, which in the right hands is an unstoppable force. I choose to pick up a camera to make something that is larger than myself. The photographer is a witness and his eye allows his camera to record what he witnesses; it is incredibly important to be a witness. With my work, I am a witness, and my frame is proof of the moment. I want nothing more than to be a photographer with concern for what I see. I am not in search of recognition or success with my body of work; I am in search of communication.