February 07, 2018
My name is Ryan Buenning. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and then spent my high school and college years in Colorado. I have been living in San Francisco, California for the last twenty-two years. I make my living as an artist. I create vintage sign-inspired paintings on rusty metal that I then distress and manipulate to various degrees. I do all the rusting, cutting, painting and distressing by hand at my house in the city. It’s a little rusty sign factory.
That’s fascinating, I didn’t know that about you! Do you have a website of your work, and how did you get into that line of work?
“I don’t have much of an internet presence around my work. The pieces I make are relatively large and have always been somewhat cost prohibitive to ship. I mainly sell in person at art and antique shows around California. I do have a Facebook page where a lot of my older signs are, but it hasn’t been updated in some time. For the most part, the shows I do, the stores that carry my signs, and the custom work I receive from word of mouth have kept me busy since I started.
Before my current occupation, I worked in the Bar industry. I started as a bartender and eventually was a partner in opening a bar in San Francisco in 2003. After nearly twenty years in that line of work, I eventually left that business and went back to school for a Philosophy degree. I started painting signs shortly after finishing my studies. I was always attracted to rust and the way things looked when they start to wear and fall apart. That unique patina. I’ve been drawn to that aesthetic for as long as I can remember, but I suppose if I was to pinpoint a spark for my current occupation it would be a trip I took a few years prior to Austin, Texas. While I was there, I took a drive to some of the smaller surrounding towns to see what I could see. I stumbled upon an old semi-truck with an amazing rusty metal sign painted on the side–a giant hand-painted light bulb and the words “Sossamon Electric, Fort Worth Texas” below it.
It was this beautiful shade of rust and the aging on the lettering was perfect. I loved it so much I asked the owner if he was willing to part with it. The man was confused about why I would want an old rusty sign hanging off an abandoned truck, but I eventually made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The next day I was shipping home a four-foot chunk of that glorious sign. I hung it in my house in San Francisco, and for the next year or so I admired all the unique markings and wear patterns mother nature had created–the color variations, the way the paint held fast in some places and chipped off in others. Eventually, my fascination compelled me to buy a piece of sheet metal, water it for a few months, and see if I could paint something on it. After a lot of experimenting, I ended up with something I liked, and a friend of mine offered to buy it.
With that encouragement, I painted more and decided to get a booth at a popular local antique fair. I ended up selling most of the paintings that I brought. I had been looking to dramatically change what I was doing for a living and thought maybe I could give this a go for awhile. It’s been a little over four years now and I have painted close to 10,000 pieces since. I had never painted anything in my life before that. Life is funny sometimes.”
There was a time, perhaps seven or eight years ago, that I began to realize that I wasn’t very present in my own life.
So what got you into photography?
“My path to photography was a circuitous one. My first introduction was a sort of philosophical experiment. There was a time, perhaps seven or eight years ago, that I began to realize that I wasn’t very present in my own life. I was always thinking about so many things– job worries, to do lists, things from the past, worries about the future, etc– that I wasn’t noticing all of the beauty and wonder around me.
Similar to when you drive in your car for an hour and you are so consumed by your internal mental chatter that you can’t remember anything about the road you just traveled. Except on a more global life scale. I determined that I needed to look, notice, and remember more. But I also realized that simply telling myself to take a day each week and wander around and look at things would probably be in conflict with my over-developed need to be “productive”. The solution I came up with at the time was to take a camera with me and actively search for interesting photos.
A day of looking for photos seemed like a more worthwhile use of my time than simply wandering around. It seems sort of silly to verbalize it now, but it made sense at the time. It gave my brain a project to focus on and the end result was essentially the same. More awareness. It was a really effective work-around for me, and the more I took these days to intently look for interesting subject matter and compositions, the more I noticed that perspective of “looking” bled into the other days of my week. Initially the camera and the photograph were simply the means to the end, a byproduct of the exercise, but eventually the actual picture and the physical place become a more equal player in the process.
A short time later I had to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles for a work trip that I would usually drive quickly in a day. I decided to take 3 days and slowly drive Highway 99, stopping in every town to look for pictures. I slept in the back of my car at the various Walmarts and looked for vintage signs and old buildings all day. It was my first longer photo trip, and I was hooked. The job I had at the time didn’t allow for many more trips like that but that was certainly my first foray into photography and the rationale behind it.”
If there are things in the world that make you happy when you look at them, then start with that. Go look at those things. And take lots and lots of pictures. The healing powers of a camera and a long ribbon of highway.
“Photography would come back into my life in a more major way about a year ago. I had now been making my living as a self-employed painter for a few years. I was happy with the flexibility and creativity that my job offered compared to my previous career, but I was facing another existential crisis of sorts–I just wasn’t that happy. And there was that familiar feeling that my life was going by and I was missing it.
I was also nagged by this romantic notion of the American Highway–a world of old signs, abandoned highway towns, juke joints and rusty barns. Places that I wanted to see before either they or I, were gone. Without any clear answer for this predicament, I eventually came to the simplest conclusion I could think of. If there are things in the world that make you happy when you look at them, then start with that. Go look at those things. And take lots and lots of pictures. The healing powers of a camera and a long ribbon of highway.
So I hopped in my van and drove Route 66 for starters. Years of research about signs for my art business had created a sort of aura around a lot of these well known signs. A few of them seemed almost like celebrities in my mind, and when I finally stood before a few well known suspects, after a long drive through the desert, the experience was borderline religious for me. I took quite a few week-long photo trips last year. I would return home for a few months at a time for work and then head back out for another week or more. The more towns I stopped in, the more towns I wanted to explore. What else was out there? The road is a seductive place.”
That sounds like sound advice to creatives, to start with things that make you happy and to keep looking for them. It sounds like photography has been a therapeutic method for giving you a peace of mind. Would you say doing photography is more fun, gives you more happiness than being a vintage sign painter? Do you think it’s because you don’t think of it as a “job”?
“As far as what I enjoy more, making paintings or taking pictures, it’s hard to say. I enjoy both, and they very much influence each other as I am photographically drawn to very similar subject matter. The things that I really enjoy at this point in my life–the art I make, the pictures I take, and the music I like to play (delta blues style slide guitar on old metal guitars) all seem to intertwine and play upon each other in my mind.
But it really isn’t a fair fight between my signs and photography because of the commercial aspect of my painting. Although the medium of the rusty palette and the general feeling of my work is the same, the content has significantly changed in response to needing to market, sell, and make a living from it. It is far less creative than it has ever been now because I paint such a huge quantity and often paint the same piece over and over.
I’m fine with that because it allows me to make my living as an artist, something I am very proud of, but I certainly don’t derive the same creative enjoyment from it as I used to. Photography, on the other hand, started as an experiment of sorts, and now is developing into a more intense hobby without any such livelihood responsibilities. At this point it is more creatively pure and exploratory so if feels more exciting.”
Why the fascination of signs with rust and wear?
“I have always been fascinated by rust and wear. I have bought dozens of rusty cars (rusted a few that weren’t already), I have rusty metal guitars, old gas pumps and pinball machines in my house, and would probably live in a beat up corrugated shed if I could. I’m just drawn to that aesthetic. So much so that it became my job. Hard to say exactly why. The most honest explanation I could come up with is: I think there is something about time and usage that makes the commonplace singular. There is a uniqueness and a soul that comes with age.
And a mystery within the patina that is worth exploring in person and in photographs. All those old neon signs and decaying buildings have both in spades. I think there is a longing for that sense of singularity and authenticity in a world of mass production–where everything appears to be a copy of a copy. I love things where you can still see the hand of the maker. Or the passage of time. Or the unique patterns created by use.
Additionally, and it seems cliché, but things just seem to have been more conscientiously designed in the past–whether it be a sign for a storefront, an automobile, or the packaging a box of nails came in at your local hardware store. So I’m attracted to that. In my opinion the neon sign is the crowning achievement of American art. And most of them have been discarded. ”
So would you rather have a vintage sign as-is, rusted and kinda beat up or would you rather see it like-new? I ask because I wonder if a new or like-new vintage sign appeals to you the same as a rusted vintage sign.
“I am attracted to vintage-inspired hand-painted signage and neon in any form, but I would definitely say much of the appeal comes from the wear and the visible passage of time. My eye finds those elements the most interesting and aesthetically pleasing. In things that I purchase–whether it is a guitar, or a piece of furniture, or a vehicle, I am always attracted to the ones that have the most distress and patina, and the mystery and wonder that is attached to that story.”
What’s your typical photoshoot day like, how do you plan for these places, or do you plan them at all?
“This past year I have taken nearly all of my photographs on road trips, either in conjunction with trips for work, or on specific photo excursions. As previously discussed, the desire to see specific things or locations, or to discover new places, was really the fuel to my beginning to take pictures. In that sense, packing up and hitting the road is a very integral part of my work and process.
I normally can carve out a week to ten days on the road and will travel a few hundred miles each day, depending on how often I stop. And I stop for literally anything and everything. I exit in nearly every town along a given route and drive around. See what I can see. I shoot relatively quickly and move on. I procure some sort of meager lodging for the night and repeat the next day.
It’s a blast. I spent a good amount of time this past year in California, Arizona and New Mexico along old Route 66, as well the Midwestern portion of that route. I spent another short trip primarily in the west Texas towns surrounding Amarillo and realized one could spend months exploring that area. Another week or so in Mississippi. In all, I think I’ve stepped foot in over thirty states last year. For me, when it comes to the craft of taking pictures, there really is no substitute for driving around all day and shooting lots of images. And few things more enjoyable.”
I can imagine the feeling of going to towns that you’ve never been and exploring it, I bet it’s a huge thrill! But can you recall any towns/trips that you were disappointed by?
“I can’t really think of any places off the top of my head that were particularly disappointing to photograph, or at least I try not to think of it that way. When take a photo trip I have a general idea of the route I am wanting to take and where I need to end up, but I try not to have a ton expectations attached to it. I am certainly pleasantly surprised when a town offers what I am drawn to, but when it doesn’t, that is the nature of the beast.
It is certainly harder and harder to find these little time capsules so I feel more appreciation when it does happen as opposed to disappointment when it doesn’t. I usually travel pretty fast, so my only real regret is that I haven’t been able to stay in places longer. I generally feel, if given enough time, there are good things to photograph in most places. Some places just take a little more coaxing to reveal their mysteries.
Are there any photographers you are inspired by?
“My sister gave me my first photography book many years ago. It was Readymades by Jeff Brouws. I have devoured all of his work with much appreciation since, and can’t think of any photographer whose tastes are more aligned with mine. Another book that stands out for me is Juke Joint by Birney Imes. It’s a fantastic look at a subject matter that is close to my heart. William Christenberry, Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Todd Hido, to name a few more.”
Name a few photographers on Instagram that you love and why.
“Wow. So many inspiring photographers on Instagram I would barely know where to start and would feel horrible leaving anyone out. I think a simple perusal of the artists you have featured and the interviews you have done would be a very good start to my list if I could create one. I’m flattered to be in such company. Another such collective I would point out would be @valtimmermans.
Many great photographs and artists are featured there as well. She was the first one to repost one of my pictures last year when I was just starting to travel and post pictures more frequently and it really sort of jumpstarted my account as far as feedback and followers, which has provided a lot of inspiration to me this past year. So I have a soft spot for the feed.”
“There is nothing terribly special about the composition or light, just a straightforward portrait of a beautiful old building. But it really encapsulates why I take photographs. The journey and the experience of it. I am an aspiring blues guitarist and novice blues historian and this store was a place Mississippi John Hurt, one of my musical heroes, used to congregate and play.
There were a lot of such places in Mississippi, and it was a trip I had wanted to take most of my adult life. It had all the ingredients of a great picture for me–it was a personally important place for me to see, it was exceedingly difficult and satisfying to find, it was thousands of miles from my home, and its history and patina were beyond my expectations. Just an amazing day, and a beautiful place to hold a camera.”
Route 66 between St. Louis and Chicago
“I think one the most attractive things about photography is this idea of possibility. That some really cool scene is just around the corner, or past the horizon, or waiting at the next exit. A moment that is ready to be captured. I had been traveling most of the day and had just started to think about finding a place to stay the night when I spotted this old motel sign with a lone car parked underneath. I pulled over and shot a few quick frames in the fading light.
A few minutes later an old man emerged from the attached restaurant, ambled to his vehicle and slowly pulled away. It was a lucky fleeting moment, one I was happy to catch and one that continually inspires me to drive a few more miles to take a peak around the next bend.”
What camera(s) do you use the most often and why?
“So far I have been attracted to simplicity. For the first few years I was only shooting with a little point and shoot or my phone. As previously discussed, the photograph was initially sort of an afterthought of the process. As my interest and knowledge has slowly grown (I am admittedly still a neophyte) I have tried to retain that simple approach. The only two cameras I ever use are a fixed lens Fuji camera (x100f) and my iPhone.
I have a lens conversion on my Fuji that makes it the same focal length as my phone (27mm) which is generally the perspective I like to shoot from. I like the compactness and ease of this setup, and I like the way the fixed lens forces me to physically move when I am composing. For whatever reason, I have found the inherent limitations of the fixed lens freeing rather than stifling. I am planing this year to try out a 35mm film camera that was given to me by my father, a Nikon F. I have a lot to learn and discover as far as cameras go, and I’m curious how it will influence the craft.”
Do you have any special projects coming up or places you plan to shoot?
“I would love to return to Texas for a more thorough investigation. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Mississippi and would like to explore further, as well as some of the surrounding southern states. I spent a good amount of time photographing well-known sign landmarks and often-photographed places this past year. They have been heavily documented and for good reason.
I was primarily motivated to see those places for my own personal experience, and not necessarily by a drive to create a unique body of photographic work. I think the inevitable progression this coming year would be to try to stray off the beaten path a little more, while still focusing on a similar vernacular.”
Ryan, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and having you share your thoughts and stories. Hope to see more great work from you.
“It was a pleasure speaking with you as well. It really has been an interesting creative exercise for me and has me even more excited about my next trip.”