Through the Lens: Ryan Buenning


It all began with Route 66. A ten-day trip driving along the historic route from Chicago to L.A., inconized in everything from Easy Rider and Paris, Texas to Kerouac's On the Road and Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch”, was what spurred Ryan Buenning, a painter from San Francisco, to pick up his camera and take to road.

That road trip has since become one of many, with Buenning’s travels across the country now organized into thousands of neat squares on his Instagram account, @doitinaven. Inspired by “the iconic scenes of the American highway”, Buenning’s eye for composition and color, honed by his years as an artist creating vintage sign-inspired paintings on rusty metal, lends itself perfectly not only to the social media platform (his images have a cinematic quality that would make any user stop scrolling) but also to America’s ‘highway landscape’. Dotted with places to eat, sleep, refuel, and see sights, our roadsides have become as much part of the travel experience as the road itself. But across the country, on the edges of our highways, remains places and spaces, and most importantly their signs that have been left, remarkably unchanged by time. While they may no longer be as shiny as they were in their mid-20th century beginnings, these remnants of the past are given a fresh coat of paint by Buenning. Take an abandoned movie theatre “Rialto, Rialto” that wouldn’t be amiss out of an old Hollywood western. Framed by Buenning, the theater, in spite of clear signs of delipidation, looks like a place worth visiting– even if the chances of catching a film is unlikely.

Here the Kansas-born, San Francisco-based artist tells Us what photography has taught him, his love for neon signs and Chuck Westmoreland, and where he’s headed next.

Photo: Ryan Buenning

Photo: Ryan Buenning

When did you begin to take an interest in photography?

My interest in photography really started to take shape a couple of years ago as a tool to slow down, notice my surroundings, and be more present in my life. As tends to happen in modern life, my daily thoughts were increasingly with future problems and daily to do lists. For a while I had had this nagging suspicion that my life was passing me by, and that these uniquely American places that I had imagined visiting one day would fade away unnoticed by me. I had been traveling more to art shows for work (I’m a painter), and saw an opportunity to slow down and take pictures along the way. I took ten days and drove all of Route 66 looking for old signs and forgotten towns, and I was hooked. I’ve been trying to take weeklong photography specific trips whenever I can ever since.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the iconic scenes of the American highway— neon signs, roadside Motels, forgotten towns and faded remnants of a bygone era. I am particularly attracted to how time and wear makes the common place singular.

For a while I had had this nagging suspicion that my life was passing me by, and that these uniquely American places that I had imagined visiting one day would fade away unnoticed by me.

What’s your go-to camera?

I simultaneously shoot with a Fuji X100f and my iPhone for social media. The Fuji is a fixed lens camera, which I like for simplicity, and it shares the same focal length as my iPhone, which is nice when shooting in tandem. I like to keep things pretty simple.

How much planning goes into your work?

I plan out a general route, which is usually dictated by needing to travel to an art show or some other place or event, and because I like shooting signage I’m usually cognizant of a couple significant pieces that I would like to see, but it’s pretty loose from there. I basically just stop in every town along the way and look for pictures. As stated previously, photography is primarily an exercise in noticing my world and being present, so although I am looking for somewhat specific content, I mostly try to just notice and explore and be open to the scenes as they present themselves.

What do you find so appealing about the American landscape?

I am fascinated by the neon signs and roadside vernacular that shaped highway culture in the middle of the 20th century. I think it is such a distinctly American art form, and it has sadly been largely disregarded and replaced.

Favorite place to shoot?

So far most of my work has been centered around California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. I’ve spent some time in Mississippi, and most recently in Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Regardless of state or region, I’m primarily fascinated with small town America.

Favorite American photographers?

My favorite American photographers are Jeff Brouws, Birney Imes, Stephen Shore, and William Christenberry, to name a few.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I make my living as an artist in a different medium, and I feel like my photography certainly bleeds into and influences my work, but if I wasn’t able to do that I think I would enjoy making neon signs.

Song of choice for your American road trip?

On my last road trip I had the song “Long Winter Rodeo” by Chuck Westmoreland on repeat.

What’s next?

In the future I would love to take more pictures in the American south east. Especially the southern states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

Photo: Ryan Buenning

Photo: Ryan Buenning

Words: Emily Freedman