If you grew up queer, or you felt othered by society for any other reasons that made you stand out, you probably know what it is like to look for a safe space to find solace. A sort of refuge, both physical and mental, where you can just be at peace. For photographer Ryan James Caruthers, it was nature because he “found a certain comfort in surrendering myself to an unpredictable force, the human body just a flicker in the forest.”
Years later, he’s back in the forest, where he began his photographic journey taking self-portraits beneath the trees; only this time, he approaches the surrounding landscape as “a search for the past, for myself, in something new but familiar.” The result is his first photo book, titled I Thought That I Would Be in Heaven But I Am Only Up a Tree (published by Forma Editions), out this April. In addition to Caruthers’ lush photographs, it features a foreword by multi award-winning author Ocean Vuong. Today, we speak with Ryan about growing up queer, beauty, and the experience of editing his first book.
Hi Ryan, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. We last interviewed you in December 2017, so it’s been quite a long time now. What have you been up to lately?
Nice to speak with you again! I believe the last time we chatted I was based in New York. I’m based in Los Angeles now, I’ve been here for about six years working as a photographer and art director.
You’re releasing a new book, titled I Thought That I Would Be in Heaven But I Am Only Up a Tree. Congratulations! The title is poetic, long, enigmatic, and somewhat funny. Could you give us more insight into that?
I was drawn to the duality of the phrase; the feeling of being so close but unable to fully submerge or integrate. And yes, there is a nice amount of levity in the title, which I think helps round it out.
Growing up queer and feeling rejected, you found yourself escaping to the woods, a place free of judgment. What can you tell us briefly about your upbringing and your growing passion for nature?
I grew up in a small suburban town in New Jersey. Like many queer children, I constantly endured feelings of being othered. I found that one of the only places where I felt safe enough to express myself was in nature—sequestered from societal boundaries. I found a certain comfort in surrendering myself to an unpredictable force, the human body just a flicker in the forest.
At the time, I don’t think I was conscious of exactly why I enjoyed going out into the forest so often. I now find that it is probably because nature itself is queer—my otherness was finally matched by the surrounding environment.
Speaking of the book, you say: “I am no longer photographing my body within the landscape, but rather wandering into a new unknown to retrieve something that resembles me.” That’s such a change of perspective – personally, spiritually, and artistically. Is this evolution of your gaze and subject matter a sign of self-acceptance?
The origin of my photographic practice began by taking self-portraits beneath the trees. I felt that I needed to reveal my figure in the frame to convey and express my identity — in a space that felt safe for me to do so. Years later, I find that I am now chasing the visceral feeling that nature had given me in that moment, the empowerment from something much grander than I. I’m not sure if it’s a shift of my gaze, or rather an inevitable shift in interest brought on by a natural longing for the past.
As a child, you escaped to the nature hiding behind your parents’ home; now, you do so in the Californian landscape. What differences do you notice between the two environments?
The physical comparison is less significant—it’s more about the emotional resonance of the environment; a search for the past, for myself, in something new but familiar.
The book features an essay by Ocean Vuong. I cried reading his marvelous, heart-wrenching novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. When and how did you discover Vuong’s work?
A close friend mentioned Ocean’s name to me almost eight years ago. My first encounter with his beautiful work was through his 2016 collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Subsequently, I was captivated by his spellbinding other titles, including On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and Time is a Mother.
Inviting him to participate in your book must feel like such a feat. How did you two meet, and why do you think he’s the ideal person to write a foreword to your photo book?
I believe that Ocean Vuong is one of the greats. I am truthfully indebted to him for contributing his beautiful essay to my first monograph. I approached him because I was confident that he would understand the work. I was awestruck reading his essay, he possesses a rare ability to dissect beauty while simultaneously creating more of it.
You mention Caspar David Fredrich’s The Monk and the Sea as a reference point for this series of images. In Romanticism, the duality of man vs nature was one of the main topics in arts. In what ways do you relate to that?
Friedrich’s The Monk by The Sea mirrors a lot of the themes occurring within my book. The subject in Friedrich’s painting appears to be enchanted by the natural environment he is engulfed by. The scale of the landscape can be quite intoxicating along with the boundlessness that comes with being on nature’s edge.
The topic is as old as humankind, in what ways do you think you bring it to new light and through a contemporary sensibility?
The work evokes a sense of classicism for me, reminiscent of pastoral scenes depicted in sixteenth-century paintings. However, what sets it apart is the unmistakable evidence of humanity's irreversible alteration of the landscape, which permeates the images: tree limbs entangled by power lines, lifeless stumps, and fields of green obscured by layers of golf netting. I aimed not to shy away from portraying the reality of nature in our contemporary society.
I believe that the technical aspects of the work—the flatness of the light in the image and the verdant tonality—hopefully also place the work within a more current context.
If I’m not wrong, this is your first photo book. What was the creative process of putting it together like? Who have you worked with, how did you decide what’s in and what’s out, given it a narrative sense, etc.?
Yes, this is my first monograph. I worked with Maxime Woeffray at Forma Editions. Maxime was open to having the design process be collaborative in a way that most publishers wouldn’t be. We wanted the materiality of the book to reflect the work, and to feel tactile yet approachable. I am very grateful we were able to land on a design that feels cohesive to both of our practices.