“My dad was a artist, who became a lawyer, and he told me: ‘Get a job where you don’t have to be in an office,’ ” says Washington photographer Patrick Ryan.
Well, that son listened to his father. Known around town for his Capitol Hill work as well as his commercial, movie premiere and fashion shoots, Ryan has merged his two great interests of politics and style into his own photo exhibit, “Red Carpet D.C.: The Capital and Cult of Celebrity,” at the Embassy of the Czech Republic July 19. It will feature paparazzi snapping pictures of the guests as they walk on the carpet to view photographs of such stars as Michael Douglas, Nicolas Cage, Jessica Biel, Al Pacino and Sharon Stone.
The unique show with its oversized images meets at the confluence of what is called “Hollywood on the Potomac” and where members of Congress listen to actors and others testify about a cleaner environment, stopping a famine and other causes. They may even get to meet the president.
“Sooner or later, they all come to town,” Ryan says. “There is a sense of humor to it. The celebrities feel important, and the senators are like schools kids. I observed Sen. Tom Harkin repeatingly telling Robert DeNiro, ‘You’re my favorite actor.’ Both sides benefit. Sasha and Malia met the Jonas Brothers, and they got to hang out at the White House.”
Indeed, Ryan was interviewed by ABC News on photographing the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and knows how things can get out of hand to the point where, “It doesn’t matter what you’re famous for, just as long as you are famous,” he says, recalling his photo of Kris Jenner and Lindsay Lohan at a Georgetown party before the dinner. “When you think about it, it’s pretty silly.”
His photographic journey began decades ago, when Ryan’s mother Edith gave him a 1950s Kodak camera. By the age of 10, he was developing film. The local boy grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., on Western Avenue. His father went to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and his mother to Visitation Prep next door, meeting years later at the Brickskeller. He and his brothers attended Gonzaga College High School on North Capitol Street. “It was during the 1980s, we liked the underdog aspect of it,” Ryan says of his prep school. The neighborhood is in better shape now.
Today, the 46-year-old Ryan’s parents are gone, but he and some of his siblings still live along Western Avenue (three houses) and worship at Blessed Sacrament Church. His family is and has been made up of lawyers, artists and actors. His father Robert worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. One sister is a lawyer and worked at the State Department; a brother works for Reuters. One uncle was an artist and another a television actor.
Always entrepreneurial, Ryan did legal research for out-of-town law firms, getting documents for them from various federal office (this was before the Internet). A few years later, his mother died after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. It was during this time that Ryan again picked up a camera after going to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, as a retreat. “I shot tons of film,” he recalled and re-ignited his true love of photography.
After freelance photo assignments and meeting editors at the Georgetowner Newspaper, Ryan began full-time work at the Hill Newspaper during the election of 2000. He is still amused by the question he would get on Capitol Hill: “Where are you from? Here? No, really where are you from?”
Later, as photo editor of the Hill, Ryan led the switch from film to a fully digital newsroom and originated the still-popular feature, “The 50 Most Beautiful People on Capitol Hill.” He left the Hill with mentor Martin Tolchin to become founding photo editor of a newspaper that later became Politico.
Another mentor, the Hill’s Al Eisele, has this to say of Ryan: “He’s that rare Washington creature. He combines an insider’s access with an artist’s objectivity, which allows him to portray the reality of the social and political scene like no other photographer I know. I’ve been privileged to watch him work — and play — at close hand from K Street to Kazakhstan, and I never fail to be impressed with his artistic ability.”
Today, Ryan’s freelance assignments read like a who’s who of the Washington scene: official photographer for Vice President Joe Biden’s media and beach party, for the Miss D.C. America pageant and for the premiere of “J. Edgar” with Clint Eastwood for Warner Bros. Add to that the “Harry Potter” premiere at the British Embassy as well as a screening with First Lady Michelle Obama for Warner Bros. There’s photographing the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture with President Obama or the Susan Komen Race For The Cure. Of course, there are inaugurations, the national political conventions and countless social events. You get the picture.
Two unusual assignments came back-to-back two years ago: covering UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon’s state visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan and then, in New York, Bridal Week (shooting an average of seven fashion shows per day).
Fashion shoots are always in the mix for Ryan. One of his favorite subjects remains Kate Michael, Miss D.C. 2006, now a new media maven with K Street Kate, who credits him for helping her start her D.C. career. “I’ll never forget working with him on my very first fashion photo shoot at ‘the Exorcist’ steps that eventually landed me the number-one spot on the Hill Newspaper’s 50 Most Beautiful,” Michael says. “He encouraged me to get agency representation. Years later, I’m still turning to Pat for his great eye and inspiration.”
As for photojournalism in D.C., “the best in the business” right now, according to Ryan, are Stephen Crowley and Doug Mills, both of the New York Times. “I still shoot politics. A campaign is like a horse race, and I regularly shoot the Preakness.”
Photography is recording history as it happens, Ryan says. “When I was reading Bob Woodward’s ‘State of Denial,’ I thought to myself: ‘I was in that room’ during the episode he describes.”
“I find it interesting that subjects often speak freely around photographers,” he says. “Most people like photographers unless they have done something wrong.”
“The difference between reporting and photography is that reporter can call someone or look over documents later,” Ryan says. “The photographer has to be there. A photographer can wait hours to get the shot. Photojournalism is sort of like tennis: You have to figure out where the ball is going to hit it — to get that shot. Photojournalists and sports photographers try to anticipate subjects as well as the lighting. A studio photographer controls the light. We are running after butterflies with a net.”
Ryan’s photo blog, SnarkInfested.com, began in 2009 as a mix of “political types, models and party types,” he says. To his own chagrin, the blog gets lots of hits not when the president is shown or a protest covered but when “photos show people with less clothing on” — in such events as No Pants Metro or the Cupid Undie Run on Capitol Hill.
“I’m trying to depict a different side of D.C. and showing that it is more well-rounded than most people think,” he says of his blog. “D.C. has an international flavor. There’s Capitol Hill, the White House and the embassies. New York is international, too, but more insular. They are thinking about themselves and their neighborhoods, but D.C. is actually thinking about the nations represented here.” (He still contributes to this and other publications as well as websites like Urbandaddy.com.)
While he has traveled to such places as the Galapagos Islands and Spain’s pilgrimage destination, Santiago de Compostela, not to mention Central Asia, the question arose: Ever have a desire to photograph a war zone, whether Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere?
“No, I would not make a good war photographer,” Ryan shot back. “My photos celebrate life. I would hate to take a picture of a dead person. There’s a sense of humor, a joy of life to my work.”
And if you know him and a few other members of the Ryan family, you know that’s true.
Red Carpet D.C.: The Capital and Cult of Celebrity, Thursday, July 19, 7 p.m., at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, 3900 Spring of Freedom Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008