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Portfolio and Interview: Ryann Ford

Monument Valley, Arizona -- Ryann Ford

We are happy to release a portfolio of images from Ryann Ford, a series titled Rest Stops - Vanishing Relics of the American Roadside. Ford's images capture a once common but now increasingly rare sight -- the roadside rest stop, simple picnic tables positioned a scenic locations that served as respite from the road, a place to eat packed-lunches, take a break from the car and enjoy the landscape. They are quaint structures, sometimes simple, sometimes quirky, but despite their charm, they are now seldom used. Many of us don't bother to pack a meal on a road trip, preferring instead to take advantage of the ease of the many fast food joints just off the road or the one-stop convenience of the travel centers that combine gas, restrooms, tourism information and food. Ford's images not only document these often over looked and under used structures, but also capture the landscapes in which they reside. Sitting center frame, the rest stops are surround by the iconic American Southwest -- National Parks, rock formations, Saguaro cactus, big skies and mountains. These rest stops provide a link to the highway culture of America's past and speak to how that culture is changing.

On the occasions of Ford's portfolio debut, we've taken the opportunity to ask about her photographic background and the Rest Stops series.

Near Clines Corners, New Mexico - U.S. 66/I-40 -- Ryann Ford
Sarah Bradley:     How did you get started in photography?

Ryann Ford:     When I was about 12 or 13, my dad brought out his Pentax Spotmatic that he bought in Vietnam. Being so young, it was really complex to learn since it was fully manual, but he gave me a few pointers and I was determined to take photos with it. I figured out the self-timer feature, put on red lipstick and curled my hair, and took glamour shots of me and my dog. That was really the extent of it until I got to high school.

Even in high school I was drawn to photographing buildings and structures, but especially the abandoned ones, whether it was an old ghost town or some shack in the desert. I asked my photo teacher where I should go to college if I wanted to pursue photography. Immediately, without even thinking, she snapped back “you have to go to Brooks [Institute of Photography]. It’s the best photography school in California, you can eat off the darkroom floors.” I’ll never forget her telling me that. So that was it, off to Brooks I went.

When it came time to choose electives at Brooks, I read about an Architecture class. During school I hated shooting people, so I would look for any classes where I wouldn’t have to shoot people. The Architecture teacher told us about an internship being offered at the end of the session with Resorts and Great Hotels magazine, and I ended up getting it. It was one of the best internships at Brooks because you got to travel with the R&GH photographers to a few shoots that could be anywhere in the country. I ended up going to San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit, and it was probably the most pivotal point in my career.

Right before graduation, a photo assisting job at the magazine opened up and I took it. The next three years were some of the most incredible years of my life. I traveled the world, staying at and shooting incredible hotels, and eating as much free room service as I could. On our days off, we snorkeled in Brazil, rode scooters around the British Virgin Islands, and snowboarded in Whistler. It was an unbelievable job for a 20 year old, straight out of school. Eventually though, believe it or not, the traveling got tough (we’d be gone for up to a month at a time) and decided it was time to move on to my next adventure. A couple friends from Brooks had recently moved to Austin, and told me how amazing it was, so I packed up my car, and moved to Texas, sight unseen. That was the second most pivotal point in my career.

Near Big Bend National Park, Texas -- Ryann Ford

SB:     Rest Stops is a documentation of the picnic tables and small rest areas that used to be a staple of the American highway. I’m interested in how this series came to be. What made you notice that these structures disappearing? Do they hold special significance for you?

RF:     Upon moving to Austin, I decided it was time to go freelance, and while shooting various jobs all over Texas I started noticing these cute little roadside tables along the different highways. We had the giant interstate rest areas in California, but it wasn’t until living here that I really started to notice rest areas. I noticed that a lot of them looked really old, some had cool mid-century architecture, some were really quirky, like they were shaped like a teepee or an oil derrick, or had a theme to them depending on the region we were in.

One night I decided to Google “rest areas” to see what they looked like in other areas of the country. I came across a news article detailing the closure of many of them due to budget cuts, and they weren’t just being closed, but demolished. I had considered doing a photo project on them before, but this was the deciding factor.

While doing my research, I read about a rest area just north of Ft. Worth that was “a breeding ground for crime.” Evidently a lot of prostitution and drug deals went on there, and it was scheduled for demolition. They showed a photo of it - it had a roofline mimicking the shape of longhorn horns, and on its sidewalls was the Texas flag. It had so much personality and charm, I just couldn’t believe they were tearing it down. The next weekend I high-tailed it up there to shoot it. A few weeks later I had to drive up there again for work and it was gone.

After that, I got serious about the project and set out to start documenting as many as I could. I think what really drew me to this project was a mix of things - definitely the architecture, but I also just love roadside culture and Americana. I’ve always been big into road trips, especially through the southwest, and I think it’s so fun to be driving along and see how each rest area is different. After learning the history, and visiting so many of them, I have become even more attached to them.

Near Burleson, Texas - I-35 -- Ryann Ford

SB:     What’s the process of finding and making the photographs in the series? The 20 images in your Photographer’s Showcase portfolio were taken in the Southwest. Do you have plans to continue the series to other parts of the country?

RF:     When I first started out, and had a free Saturday or something, I would just grab a map and head out to search for them. The map had an icon where the rest areas and picnic areas were supposedly located, but I found, even after buying a brand new map, that the maps were inaccurate; I would arrive at the destination and half the time the rest area was gone. After shooting most all of the ones near Austin, I decided it was time to hit the road for a real road trip.

Ever since high school my mom would worry about me going on road trips alone, and shooting alone at all of these desolate places. I finally agreed to let her tag along on one of the trips, and we’ve been road trip buddies ever since. It’s pretty tough to find someone who can, or would even want to take off work for a week to drive around the desert looking for rest stops. I have a pretty cool mom.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona -- Ryann Ford
Since discovering that most of the maps are inaccurate, I’ve started using Google images to find various people’s snapshots of rest areas all over the country. When I find one that looks really unique or fun, I do a little research and then set out to find it. I usually plot a weeklong trip around a few great ones that I’ve found online, and then end up finding lots more along the way. Since almost no two are the same, the anticipation of what the next one down the road will look like is really fun.

One of the challenges of shooting them is that you’re driving hundreds of miles a day, and you may come upon one at noon, and the lighting is terrible. If that were the case, and it was one really worth shooting, sometimes we’d wait for better light, sometimes we’d move on. We tried to spend the night near the one we really wanted to shoot, so that it could be shot at sunset or sunrise. The process of shooting them is fairly simple, which is nice, since time is so limited on the road and we have so much ground to cover. We usually just pull up, I take a couple frames, and jump back in the car. For the really great ones we spend a bit more time there.

I have thought about continuing the series throughout the rest of the country, though honestly, the rest stops aren’t quite as photogenic, in my opinion. What really drew me to them initially was the simplicity and beauty of this lone table sitting out on the stark landscape. When you move outside of the southwest, the rest of the country is more wooded, and often times the tables aren’t covered. If they are covered, they are usually obstructed by trees. Also, because the east is more densely populated, there aren’t as many rest areas. I’m still undecided on how to continue the project and there are still so many I’d like to get in the southwest.

Juan Santa Cruz Picnic Area - Tucson, Arizona -- Ryann Ford

SB:     What are the differences in your methods of shooting for a commercial project verse a personal one? Do the two ever inform each other?

RF:     Most of my commercial jobs are high stress, and every element is completely controlled or staged. A lot of equipment is involved, and it’s really quite a production. When I shoot the rest stops, it’s just my Mamiya RZ medium format camera, film, a tripod and light meter. It’s so relaxing hitting the open road, and being outside in these beautiful landscapes, often alone with these quirky tables. Because I am an architectural photographer, I’m a bit of a control freak, and I sometimes find myself making sure the verticals are straight on the rest stops, or something like that. Also, with commercial jobs, you’re taking pictures that will make clients happy. When I’m photographing the rest stops, I shoot what makes me happy.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico -- Ryann Ford
SB:     Both your commercial and personal work seem to indicate a special interest in architecture. What inspires you photographically?

RF:     Yes, I definitely have an interest in architecture, and I guess I always have, I just didn’t know that’s what it was when I was younger. As I mentioned above, I’ve always been drawn to photographing buildings or structures, especially ones that have been forgotten. My previous personal project was on the Salton Sea and all of its abandoned motels and yacht clubs. I am drawn to shooting in quiet, remote places, versus bustling cities. With my commercial work, I am inspired by great design, especially great architecture and interior design. If I wasn’t a photographer, I’d probably be an interior designer.

Time lapse video of Ryann Ford shooting the Rest Stops series.

For additional information about Ryann Ford's work or to acquire a photograph, please contact the gallery at (505) 988-5152 x202 or by email.