I first met Ryan Zimmerman when I was 18 years old, staying around Chicago and skateboarding in the city as much as possible. Ryan, John Methvin, and few other friends had just moved to the Chicago area from Traverse City, Michigan and were skating the city on a regular basis. I was super stoked to meet new people that ripped as much as these dudes and tried to skate with them as much as I could.
Long story short, my first impression of Ryan was a mousy blonde kid from Northern Michigan who was super excited about everything and was trying to keep up with making a go at living in the city. Flash forward 15 years and it seems he is very much doing what he wants to do, and it's working to put food on his table and keep him as excited as he was when we first meet.
- (Mike) Describe the last 5 places you have lived over the past 15 years .
Traverse City, Michigan - What can I say, the Mitten. It's a better place to be from than to be at.
Chicago, 1996-2001: The skate rat years. Those were the days.
NYC 2001-Present: It was the first place ever where I didn't had to run from the police for skating. It's rough trying to skate here sometimes, with weather, bad cement, etc. But it makes it that much sweeter when you get it.
The stories get worse and worse man. I felt I had to chronicle it...
- Why do you think you shoot photos?
- It's not really a why as a how did I start. If I asked why I'd never do anything. In the spring of 1999, I was laid up in a sling, having just had surgery on my left shoulder. My dad gave me his Pentax AE Superprogram. I was lucky enough to have a friend give me his old textbook on photography, which I read cover to cover, and a hookup on processing. Back then, it was pretty much all pictures of graffiti and partying. I still have that camera; there are still a couple of spray paint finger prints on it.
- (Mike) It's funny, my first camera was the Pentax K1000 and then the AE Superprogram. That camera was awesome.
- The self-timer coupled with the timed exposer was epic - you could set it for up for something like 15 seconds.
- What about what you see in other people's photos? What are the things that stand out or make you wish you shot the photo?
- There are endless things I see in other people's work that I like or admire. The possibilities are endless, and I often see other images that make me say “wow.” I'm kind of a nerd that way; I like to dissect the “how” in every shot I see. But the ones I tend to gravitate toward have a loose, natural look. Not to say that's how they were achieved, I just really like a raw natural-looking image rather than plastic-looking surreal images of people without skin pores.
- Do you feel you know what you want to see as an end result when you shoot photos, or do you just shoot events you feel would make a good photo?
- In general, I know what I want to see. I take into account the shot, exposure, and what can be achieved in post. After saying that, sometimes catching the exact moment or event calls for a quick shot and zero planning. It's often interesting when you see shots like that come out way better than expected. Shots like that can often effect my more controlled shoots and how I pursue them.
- What's your personal life like - your daily routine, what you do, where you work, and how you stay up or excited about life?
- Still trying to live the dream, skating a bit, shooting, skating more than skating hard, but it's a good time. I go out with Rodney Torres pretty often - he's one of those guys that's just always fun to be out pushing with. He reminds me of why I did it to begin with; he's just a really positive guy. I snowboard with my wife in the winter, ride my bike pretty much all year round. I know fixed gears are kinda cliché, but riding in NYC traffic is pretty exhilarating.
- Besides that, I'm working both on my stuff and for other photographers. I work as a freelance photo assistant digital tech. It's great when I'm busy and slow periods give me time to shoot for myself. Lately I've been traveling for work and that is always good. Last December I was in Amsterdam on an ad job and this spring I was in The Faroe Islands for a fashion gig. I've also been to Japan twice (visiting my in-laws) in the last couple of years. Japan is great; I think Osaka is my favorite. Although I really dug the Faroes (my fellow Vikings), it's a beautiful country with really great people. I get burnt on NYC sometimes but traveling takes care of that. One of the best parts is coming back to NYC. Sometimes it takes time away to remind me what an amazing place it is.
- So, to sum it up, there really isn't a routine. I've never performed well in that kind of environment; I'm just working hard and keeping my eyes open. One day I'm doing catalogue stuff and it's laid back, a week later I'm on a zodiac boat loading gear onto a desolate island in Scandinavia, and a week after that I'm drinking coffee at home cataloging and processing. I wish they could all be exciting but honestly that's few and far between, at least for now. Or, like now, I'm on a beach in Michigan drinking a beer and watching the water. I'm on vacation, but typing this response on my phone and booking jobs for when I get back.
- My life is pretty exciting - fast-paced and hectic one month and dead slow the next. Binge and purge so to speak. The key is having enough personal stuff ready to pursue when it does slow down, otherwise it wouldn't be worth not having insurance, benefits, or any kind of security whatsoever.
- Working the way you do, do you ever find yourself scrambling for money?
- Yeah, the perils of freelance. My wife works pretty steady and, the longer I work freelance, the better I get at it. Not to say it doesn't get stressful at times. Last year was rough with the economic collapse. A lot of magazines went under and ad budgets shrunk. But I find ways to get by, filling in at studios and equipment rental houses, and in evenings shooting weddings from time to time.
- New York is a great place for people watching and shooting photos of all the crazy shit that goes on around you. Do find yourself shooting a good deal of street happenings or everyday life around you?
- I do, but in a binge and purge type of way. Sometimes it gets old, and that's where traveling comes in. When I get back from a trip, I see the city with fresh eyes. It's like living in the mountains - after a bit, you start looking up at them less and less.
- Tell me about your ghost bike project. Did it come about just out of seeing so many occurrences of those around the city? Were you looking for something to make a series out of or do you have a different connection to that project?
- It started when I saw one on a bike path on the west-side highway, and I thought it was someone's bike. Then I saw a few more covered in flowers. That's when I realized they were signs that explain the who, when, and how. The occurance on the bike path was a person killed by a bus exiting a parking lot that exits over the path. There's a light there, but bikers usually ignore it. There's a second one on the same path now, from a drunk driver thinking the path was a street. The stories get worse and worse man - I felt I had to chronicle it. I was also new on my Fixie when I started, so it kept me cautious. Bikers get stupid just like cars sometimes, and that's a battle a bike just won't win.
- I was a couple years into it until I personally knew a victim. Amelia Geocos, age 24, was struck and killed July 11, 2008. That was the first dedication ceremony I had ever attended. It's pretty powerful stuff.
- Originally I tried to contact magazines about it but no one bit. A year later, another mag did a story - that bummed me out. Nowadays they have them around the world, and there are many websites mapping them.
- Where do you see your photos going? If you could picture yourself 15 or 20 years from now, where do think you will be and what role will your photos play in your life? (Hard question, I know.)
- I try not to think that way. If I think that way it will influence the how, why, and what I do. I really try and shoot what I want to, so if it does work, I'll truly be doing what I want. With that being said, I am always looking for like-minded companies etc. - places where I fit in, so to speak.
- As far as 15 to 20 years from now, I just want to grow and learn. I try not to set goals in that regard because everything changes so fast these days. My only real goal is to not get lazy or complacent and to keep doing things that keep me stoked.
- (Mike) To me I think that living in New York would be a good way to find work if you are a freelance photographer.
- Do you get the feeling that even in a place that large, it might be a little over-saturated with photographers?
- It is the place to be for that, and yes there is a lot of us. I remember being at a hotel this summer to meet a client (photographer) for a shoot, and across the street, another shoot was going on. Meanwhile, down the block, two other photographers just happened to walk by and were sniping (shooting the other photog's shot with long lenses). So yeah, it can be a bit over-saturated, kinda like moving from the midwest to Cali to make it in the skateboard industry, I assume.
- The social circle, especially the one that gravitates around the NYC skate art groups, is always a good way to make connections that may eventually lead to work or some elevation of status. Do you ever get the creepy feeling when you're out and about that a lot of the people hanging out are just trying to slither up the pole and get in with the right people?
- I would assume that stuff happens in scenes everywhere. Is it worse here? I don't know. I'm not sure I hang out enough to be regarded a "slither worthy." There are some cool circles for sure, but I'm pretty sure I'm not in them. I can say that what happens a lot in the advertising/fashion industry is people overstate their knowledge, skills, or experience. Seven out of ten times they get away with it. But sometimes it can blow up in your face, and that industry is pretty small and word travels.
- Yeah I feel it's really important to be humble in your actions regarding your abilities and talents. However, it does get frustrating when you see people who are full of shit making it because they know how to brand and sell their lies. It's like it's becoming more and more hard to discern the genuine from the scripted. As people get more articulated in marketing themselves and packaging what they have to offer, they lose purity.
- With that said, do you have anything coming up you're excited about or something you would like to talk about or promote?
- I'm excited about everything - my career, my friends, my wife. But as far as anything special dropping, I did a story on NYC for a new Mag called Topic. Besides that, just excited to be here doing my thing.
If your interest in catching up with Ryan or checking out more of his work you can go to his site Stopdown Photography.