Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder, Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap.
Trends of the early-1990s we’ll happily leave in the ’90s: hairspray, shoulderpads, perms, track lighting, white laminate everything.
There are a few things that should never come back, but there’s one thing the ’90s did really well: fashion photography. It was bold, surprising, artful and niche. The person behind the camera mattered as much as the person in front of the camera
It’s that 1990s sensibility that drives photographer Ryan Plett.
These days everyone is a photographer. They’ve become a commodity. But that didn’t stop Ryan from quitting a successful career in consulting—trading floor-to-ceiling windows in Chicago for a New York “shoebox”—and attempting to create something that rises above the hoi polloi.
It’s clear he loves his New York shoebox and all it symbolizes. For him it represents total independence and the freedom to do a job he loves—even though it means doing that job seven days a week at a massive pay cut.
In only three years of dedicated shooting he has worked with Penfield, Timberland, Nordstrom, Need Supply, Hypebeast, GQ, and Mercedes (in partnership with the Wall Street Journal). Just this summer Ryan had a 10-image spread in Details magazine, he shot an album cover for Grammy-winner Jill Scott, and of course he shot a Bridge & Burn summer lookbook on the coast of Oregon.
This is a man who is unafraid to hustle—and that hustle has shaped every step of his career up to now.
Initially, growing up in Davenport, Iowa—the birthplace of chiropractic—he had a very different notion of what his future career would look like: “At age 10 I wanted to be chiropractor. How weird is that? I knew a couple chiros who were family friends and they were balling. I thought, this is cool: crack some backs, hang out, work four days a week.”
But in his teens a love for sport trumped his childhood vision of an easy workweek. “I loved Jordan shoes, the Bulls, and the Cubs. I remember seeing those ads and thinking ‘oh that’s why those shoes are cool and why people are getting shot for their shoes. Because these are so much more than shoes.’” Seeing the stories that make a pair of shoes into a brand, and a brand into a love affair, he knew he had to be part of building those stories.
The first step was a marketing degree, but when Ryan finished his degree in 2003 there was a dearth of marketing jobs. He took a stop-gap job in retail, stacking jeans at Abercrombie and Fitch—unintentionally starting on a path that would set him up for a future in fashion. And this is where the hustle kicks in:
“I was literally promoted every six weeks,” he says, explaining that, in a company full of teenage shop staff, a little hard work moved you up fast. “Within a year I was a regional manager and opening Hollister stores around the country. I learned a lot about business even though I didn’t feel a connection to the product. Either way it was a great marketing company that knew how to sell their brand and their lifestyle.”
Fully aware that he didn’t want a future at Abercrombie, and feeling the itch to move to Chicago, Ryan applied to an unspecified monster.com job posting, and by complete surprise found himself in his dream role at Adidas. For a year and a half he supported the brand doing marketing, product design and research, until the company purchased Reebok and dozens of staff were let go.
But again, hustle.
While with Adidas, he met a man at a tradeshow who purchased a pair of sneakers in response to Ryan’s undeniable charisma.The man had no intention of buying shoes that day. The man explained that he worked for Accenture, and wondered if Ryan could sell enterprise business solutions as well as he could sell high tops. “He gave me his business card and said if I ever need a job call him up. That was a week before I was laid off.”
Three interviews later, Ryan was selling million-dollar consulting contracts. “I could talk and I had the people skills, but I still had to learn all the tech.” Ryan spent [five years] consulting around the world and getting comfortable in his Chicago life. But he soon got bored. To stay creatively motivated, he started a style blog and brought a camera with him on his work travels. For a little while at least, it kept him grounded as he started to doubt the path he was on. “You think: I have to stick with this—this is what women like, this is what my friends expect,” he explains. But more and more he began to dread permanently falling into the trap of corporate America. And at the same time people were starting to notice his photographs. Brands were starting to get in touch with him. More and more it started to look like a viable alternative. As his photography was gaining momentum and a long term relationship in Chicago was wrapping up, he knew it was time to make a bold move. And New York was the only place that made sense if he was going to give photography a genuine shot.
“The day I moved to New York is still one of the best days of my life. It was like a movie. I closed on my condo. I shipped my boxes. I had a one way ticket. I was closing the chapter on that, leaving a career. It wasn’t like I was leaving bad things, but I was going toward something better.”
Not that it wasn’t scary. He left a cushy lifestyle behind. “You go from expense accounts, gold Amex cards, and paying cash for an Audi to not being able buy a pair of shoes.” He was starting from scratch in every way. Though he’s had a camera since he was a seven-year-old, he’d only been dabbling in fashion shoots up to that point. Moving to New York, he said, was like being fresh out of college, all over again. “I’m 34 but I feel like I’m really 22 because I just graduated to another life.” And though he’s done well (thanks to a ton of hard work) he still feels like he’s got a steep curve ahead of him. “Photography is the most accessible art and the most difficult art to be truly great at.”
For his first couple years in New York, Ryan kept a few digital strategy projects running on the side. But this year he dove unequivocally into his art—and hasn’t had a moment of regret. “I love photography. I don’t go to bed thinking about marketing strategy—I fall asleep thinking about art. This year I’ve made less money, but I’ve pushed aside the uninspiring social strategy and rebrand stuff I was doing before.”
He shoots on three cameras—a Contax G2, a Pentax 67II and a Canon 5D Mark III—and he shoots non-stop. “Luckily I don’t smoke or drink a lot because I spend at least $1,000 a month on film or processing,” he says. He’s incredibly hands-on—creating moodboards, scouting locations, often sourcing his own stylists, hair and makeup, and models. “Yes, I work every day, but it’s with cool people with similar interests. I’m not punching in punching out. I get to get up, wear cool clothes, shoot beautiful people in the world, drink free beer and take pictures. I’m not selling MS 2010 to a healthcare company. Now I work more, but it’s on my schedule. I’m in my shoebox apartment working every day but I like what I do so it’s not really work.”
Ryan is constantly creating projects to stretch himself. He has book of portraits in the works and on any free day will coordinate a shoot for himself. That, on top of a slew of new work coming out in the new few months, point to the fact that he’s definitely not slowing down.
Why so much hustle? He is not shy about his ambitions. “I want to be a 1992 photographer—I want to shoot portraits and editorial campaigns. I want to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone. I want to shoot Vogue. I’d like to get to the point where I take fewer pictures that mean more.” He wants to get back to those days where the name of the photographer matters as much as the name of the model. “If you want to be a great photographer, you have to be a business—it has to be your personality.” He knows that in order to get there, he himself needs to be one of those storied, coveted brands that inspired him in the first place. And he probably won’t slow down until he gets there.
Click to view more of Ryan's photography.
Written by Amanda Lee Smith.