10/23/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Ryan Pfluger on His Encounter With Fred Phelps and Hooking Up With Guys via Photography (NSFW PHOTOS)

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Pfluger. You've seen his work; I can almost guarantee it. He's shot editorial work for Time, The New York Times Magazine, and too many other publications to name. Pfluger also has an impressive body of personal work. He uses his camera to explore his past and his relationships with men, including his father and potential hookups.

Phillip M. Miner: You do a lot of commercial and personal work. Has your personal work affected your ability to get jobs?

Ryan Pfluger: After graduate school people started noticing my personal work, but then it didn't quite catch on. There was this peak, and then nothing. At that point I began doing editorial work with some great mentoring by Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine. I've been successful in editorial, but I sometimes get pigeonholed as a gay artist. I was just talking about this recently with my photo friends, who are mostly straight dudes. I told them how, because of the biases of some of the people who hire me, it's hard to be seen as a photographer who happens to be gay while I'm also making my own personal work that deals with my identity. I think if you're a minority, no matter what field you're in, some people have trouble getting past that. In my case certain people get stuck on the fact that I've photographed dudes naked. For them the more subtle aspects of my work are totally lost. Naked men make people much more uncomfortable than naked women.

Miner: People see a dick and freak out.

Pfluger: Exactly. Because of the nudity, there's this perception that I sexualize everything. I don't. At its core all of my work is about human interaction. I get work shooting female subjects/celebrities when it comes to editorial, but it seems that I'm often approached for editorial work that's about a gay story or celebrity.

Miner: Do you think you were chosen to photograph Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church because you're gay?

Pfluger: Definitely. I photographed the father of the first soldier whose funeral they protested, and Time Magazine called me up and asked, "Do you want to go to Topeka tomorrow?" And I said, "I know what you're asking, and yes, I'll 100-percent do it, but no, I don't want to." (That's what I like about Time: They know what my personal work means.) It was a job for the Westboro Baptist Church and a job for me. Phelps didn't sit for that long, because he's really fucking old and has lots of health problems. He could barely make real conversation with me. He and his entire family were absurdly nice. I knew they were conscious of the fact that I was a gay photographer. Their lives revolve around hating people like me, but they invited me into their home and were as nice as can be.

Miner: You've talked a lot about how your work relates to masculine ideals. Is that still a strong presence in the work you're currently producing?

Pfluger: It is. For me it's not about the physicality of what men should look like. Masculinity falls within the realm of nostalgia. The work I did with my dad [Not Without My Father] is a good example. Both of my parents had drug and alcohol problems. It was a constant struggle [during] my formative years. We had a very damaged relationship, at times nonexistent, until I started photographing him. I was going into my thesis year, and Collier Schorr said, "If you don't do something interesting that challenges you, you're never going to feel like an artist." So I asked my dad to sit for a portrait, and he did, and nothing came of it. At the end of the summer, he called me and asked if I wanted to photograph him again. That's when I realized, for me, my camera is totally a way to communicate with people in a way I don't know how to communicate without it. I started photographing him, and it became this dialogue of me sketching out these ideas of my childhood and my past and my ideas of what a father/son relationship is supposed to be. We started doing portraits together, and it became this collaborative piece between the two of us. It was then that I realized I can totally reevaluate relationships via photography. I started photographing objects I held on to as a kid, like video games and comic books [for the About a Boy series]. I shot how I interacted with them, exploring how these stereotypically dorky and nerdy things formed my concept of masculinity.

Miner: Given that, I'm surprised to hear that you mostly hang out with straight people.

Pfluger: Yeah. In high school I didn't have many friends, and those I did have were girls, or their boyfriends. I related to the "punk" scene but, as a gay man, still felt like an outsider, to some extent. Of course, I totally crushed on the boys, and that was something I constantly was trying to repress. In college I got a boyfriend and never felt a need to branch out and make gay friends. When I moved back to New York, I tried so hard to become someone who could hang out with gay people. I feel like I never gained the right social skills to figure out how those relationship dynamics and social circles work. Everyone I'm closest with, outside the friends I've made through my husband, which is a family and a community I finally feel a part of, are people I knew in college, who all happen to be mostly women, or my straight photography buddies. I know it has to do with my childhood. I didn't have any male role models that were a permanent structure in my life. I lost a closeness to my immediate family once I came to terms with myself and sexuality and other tumultuous issues with my mother. (That's another, different interview!) It became important to find people who would really understand how hard it is for me to open up and respected and honored the weight I put into friendships.

Miner: Do you work out your relationships with other gay men through photography too?

Pfluger: Yes. In general, all of my work is about nostalgia and sociology and what it means to have interactions with people and our values. I always put myself into situations with people I think should be in my social circle or at least be associated with. When I photograph gay men, I'm trying to capture the brief intimacy gay men share when they hook up. Instead of meeting a guy on the Internet to have sex with them, I meet them like this, understanding I'm only going to have a relationship that lasts a couple of hours. It's not that different. Both happen under the guise that we're going to share this really special moment. That's the reason I photograph nudes. It immediately lowers my subject's guards. It's interesting to think I have all of these relationships that really don't exist. My photography is my own form of parasocial interaction.

Check out a NSFW slideshow of some of Ryan's work:

The Work Of Ryan Pfluger (NSFW)

Read Ryan's thoughts on getting intimate with celebrities and more interesting gossip in the full interview here.

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