In Conversation: John Hryniuk
John Hryniuk is FFOTO's latest addition to our roster of exclusive artists. John began making photographs as an adolescent, going on to build a successful career as a commercial photographer and photojournalist. While taking on editorial assignments, he also pursued a parallel fine art practice.
John concentrates on making photographs that tell human stories in relatable ways. His observations of the absurdities of everyday situations suggest the fullness of his human subjects' lives - the wry smile of Anthony Bourdain, the playfulness of his Covid portraits, mischievous monks, cowboys, and street vendors.
To introduce collectors to these photographs, we asked John to tell us a bit about his background, his art practice, and stories behind some of his compositions.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
As a child I spent a lot of time flying with my father in WW II era DC-3s into tiny northern communities. I think it was that experience which inspired a sense of adventure in me. At 12 I purchased my first Nikon camera with money saved up from my first job delivering newspapers. I quickly realized that taking photos was something I was passionate about. Eventually I attended an arts high school and honed my skills to win a number of small local awards and then at 16 I started freelancing in Ottawa for Canadian Press. I was extremely fortunate to have learned from some of the best in the industry. In the 2000s I decided to move to Toronto and start my own commercial photography business.
How has working as a commercial photographer helped hone your eye?
I would say it’s more about being fortunate to have a good eye that has helped me become the artist I am today. Noticing things that other people ignore or disregard, and being able to compose and capture it, is what I believe makes a great artist and photographer. My background as a photojournalist has taught me to capture things quickly and simply when I need to. This skillset has helped me immensely not only with my commercial work but as an artist. When you’re a photojournalist you don’t have the luxury of having a team or large sets of lighting to help you so you work with what you have available.
Where do you find inspiration?
Much of my inspiration comes from photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Diane Arbus. Their ability to capture odd and unusual subject matter is something I’ve always admired. Mary Ellen Mark’s Indian Circus photo series is some her best work, in my opinion. I think her influence is evident in my recent pandemic portrait series. Other sources of inspiration come from my desire to wander the world alone for weeks at a time, in places like South America and the Middle East. Another unexpected source of where I find inspiration is my depression. Photographer Bryce Evans said it best: “You cannot see the light, without the darkness.”
Your Covid portraits have been gaining plenty of attention from the media. Rather than being dour, there's a lightness about them that have a "Keep Calm and Carry On" spirit. Did making these photographs help you process your own lockdown experience?
I was in an Ecuadorian surfing village when the pandemic started. It was there I started to notice changes in the environment around me regarding Covid-19. Face masks, social distancing and then temperature checks at the airport upon departure. Once home I witnessed Toronto’s usual lively energy diminish and every day while out cycling in the city, I met wonderful individuals adapting to their new realities. I wanted to capture both the real-life challenges of Covid-19 as well as the bright spots. My motivation was to convey through the images a variety of emotions, not the least of which include: isolation, despair, distance, hope, love and resilience.
I think you can see the resilience theme in one of my favourite portraits entitled “Covid-19 Couture” which is a portrait of a local fashion designer I met while waiting to buy groceries during lockdown. His immense pink feathery jacket with accompanying large fedora, pink pants and face mask was perfect subject matter for the series. His fashion statement during what felt like a very dark time certainly lifted my spirits that day. Thankfully he was more than obliging to have his photo taken.
What are you working on now?
As an LGBTQ2Si person, it’s important to me that I apply my skills to tell the stories in my community. I’m currently working on a portrait series about Canadian couples who remain in the closet due to family expectations, cultural, or religious reasons. It's work that's in-progress; I'll be ready to share it soon.
What's next for you?
Travelling to somewhere remote as soon as pandemic travel restrictions are lifted. Just me, my camera, my laptop and a light backpack.
You've got great stories about how you make your photographs. What are some of your favourites?
"Chef Anthony Bourdain": Bourdain wasn’t nearly as famous as he would become when I took this photo of him. He asked me where I thought would be a good place to take his portrait and I jokingly told him “on top of the stove.“ Shocked by the smell of his burning jacket, he immediate jumped off, glanced around, turn off the gas and continued on with the photo shoot as if nothing had happened.
"Moscow Street Kittens for Sale": While on assignment with the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office on a trip to Moscow I had some down time and took the opportunity to visit Tverskaya St., which is Moscow’s version of New York’s Fifth Avenue. From Babushkas selling kittens, to street vendors peddling polaroids with a live monkey, Moscow has never failed to amaze me with its photo opportunities. They should name a street after Diane Arbus in the city only because of the many photo opportunities there.
"Call to Prayer": Wandering through remote places is my passion. I had just spent the day following Thai soldiers through the jungle near the border with Myanmar when we came upon rural Chang Rai. This photo was taken at the bell tower of a Buddhist Temple in Northern Thailand. We arrived at this temple just as a young monk was preparing to ring the bell as a call to prayer.
"Captured Cowboys": I was driving through the United States a few years ago and decided to spend some time in the amazing rural western town of Cody, Wyoming. I timed it so I would arrive prior to their 4th of July festivities. This was one of the most unusual images captured during that trip. The theme was “wild west“ and these kids were put in a fake jail on a tractor trailer and into the parade. I don’t think they were very happy about it.
"Mayan Festival": I love visiting Central and South America because of the vitality of the culture and the many colourful festivals they have. Guatemala is full of colour and I think it would be next to impossible to photograph anything in black and white and do it justice. This masked man on the island town of Flores was dressed up to celebrate the area’s local patron saint.
"Monkey Man": This is one of the first street photos I took at age 12 in Ottawa. It’s always been one of my favourites. I often wonder what happened to this man and his monkey...
View our complete selection of photographs by this artist at FFOTO.com/JohnHryniuk