Ryan Dorgan began taking pictures during his sophomore year of college, when a camera literally showed up on his doorstep. He’s now a photojournalist in Casper, Wyoming, where he spends much of his time taking pictures of the Wyoming landscape he remembers from a childhood road trip.
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Ryan Dorgan: I was born in South Bend, Ind., and grew up in a little town northeast of there called Granger, which is a stone's throw from the Michigan state line. It was a farming town back in the day, but has slowly been bought up and sold off to developers. I had a nice suburban childhood – we were far enough out in the county to enjoy quiet nights but close enough that the city eventually made its way back to us. My parents now have apartments and a shopping center practically in their backyard where the forests and fields I used to run around in as a kid once were. There's still a little patch of woods behind our house that I appreciate even more now when I visit home, though it's tougher to see as many stars these days.
DY: When did you first start taking pictures?
RD: I spent my first few years at Indiana University switching majors and having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but one day, a package showed up on my doorstep. My grandma had sent me my late grandpa's old Olympus OM-2n 35mm camera and I took my first intro photo class the spring semester of my sophomore year. I took mom's advice and got a job at the school newspaper that following summer and started studies in the School of Journalism my senior year. It was a late start, but it came at the right time.
DY: You now live in Casper, Wyoming. What brought you there?
RD: The American West has been this romanticized fascination of mine which all started with a family road trip when I was 10 years old. I remember seeing the Front Range coming into Denver for the first time on our way up into Leadville, and it was everything I'd ever wanted having grown up outside South Bend where the landscape experience was completely man-made and controlled. I spent my first 18 years in this totally strange and uninspiring environment that was a mix of endless cornfields, endless strip malls and endless cookie-cutter residential developments. What that little patch of forest behind my parents' house was to me as a kid, the West is to me as an adult. It was a place to escape from the rush and to be alone and to think and to explore, and that's what I've enjoyed since moving to Casper a little more than a year ago for this newspaper job. When my former photojournalism professor Jim Kelly emailed me to tell me about the job opening here, I looked up Casper, saw there was a mountain 10 minutes south of town, and had my mind made up immediately. That was all I really needed to know. So I can't thank Jim and my editor Alan Rogers enough for taking a chance on me and giving me this opportunity to live and work in a part of the world that finally feels like home after 15 years of dreaming about it.
DY: You work for the Casper Star Tribune, but from your website, it looks like you pursue your own projects as well. What kind of things do you tend to shoot when you’re not on assignment?
RD: I'm a bit of a wanderer, so I tend to wake up on my days off, grab my map, and just drive to places I feel I haven't explored or don't understand enough. The most important thing for me wherever I land in the world is to get lost and let the landscape and the people I meet help me come to understand my surroundings and the culture influenced by those surroundings a little better. That's really been the goal and the biggest challenge since moving west – to break down those perceptions and expectations that I'd spent my entire youth building up in my mind and to start seeing the West as it is – a present, living, evolving, and incredibly complex place. It's easy to move out here and gravitate only toward what's left of the old cowboy culture; we all want to think of the West as a place that time forgot, still filled with rough old ranch hands and wide open, unregulated expanses of land, but I've been amazed by how small a part of the current culture all of that is especially considering how much that imagery still dominates the lore and draw of the West.
DY: Many of your photos take place in rural settings. Is that the result of living in a largely rural state, or is there something about rural places that attracts you to photograph them?
RD: It's definitely a mix of both. Wyoming is pretty much as close as you can get to the definition of rural in the lower 48. You can drive west out of Casper and not see a single person until you hit Shoshoni, which is about 90 miles down the road and has a population of about 600 people. And with just over 500,000 people in the entire state – about half of which is public land – there's a whole lot of open space. Vermont, too, is an incredibly rural state, and it was there living on an old dairy farm after college that helped me I decide the traditional 'move to the big city and climb the ladder' route just wasn't for me. A lot of what led me to these places was the fact that I never felt at home in the Midwest because there weren't really many natural open spaces to escape to. Life was very safe and suburban and structured and everyone lived comfortably in their routine within that structure. Living and working in rural environments exposes you to people who have a respect for the earth in its natural state and the incredible power it has to turn our lives upside down at any moment. The mountains and endless prairies and brutal winds and harsh winters in Wyoming have a way of reminding you of your smallness and insignificance and short time in this world, and I think that's an incredibly important thing for people to experience.