Platinum curls fall over a mother’s shoulder in a 1950s dream kitchen. She beams at her sons as they feast not on pot roast and potatoes but finger salad and eyeball spaghetti. The rot on their zombie faces is beautifully lit, the scene clicked into permanence at just the right moment.
Jenn Burkart and Ryan Reason have a reputation for nailing the moment, their Square Shooting studio known for images that are as smart as they are evocative. They met in a photography program at the College of Southern Nevada more than seven years ago, immediately recognizing each other’s drive. Breaking out in gallery shows with gutsy, experimental work, they’ve maintained their edge through two years in business Downtown, and they’re not about to get comfortable.
In two short years you seem to have taken off in the world of commercial photography, shooting major players and places in Las Vegas. Why do you think you’ve made such headway in a town that’s so photography-centric? JB: We put in a lot of work. I don’t think it’s luck. The benefit of being in business for yourself is you think, “this is the only thing I want to do, so whatever it takes, I’m doing it.”
RR: I agree. We know there’s one path, and the more focus, drive and attention you give something, the more it pays off. The only luck I’ve had is in meeting Jenn. It’s rare to meet someone with your same work ethic and vision, who is leading the charge. We push each other. It’s teamwork.
Do people assume you’re married, or is your sibling dynamic obvious? JB: Ryan always likes to say, “We’re married, but not to each other.” I think having a male perspective and a female perspective helps us make decisions. We spend a ridiculous amount of time together. We work all the time, plus we still like to socialize with each other, so we ride bikes around with friends and hang out, too. Any time you spend that much time with someone, you can’t help but be yourself and let your guard down. You do become almost like family. Luckily no one has been stabbed yet, so that’s good.
RR: (laughs) You’re magical. No, we get along very well and enjoy each other’s company. But just like anybody you spend a lot of time with, you have your moments. The thing is that it’s just us, so we are forced to work everything out. We have to reach a middle ground and communicate.
You’re known for your conceptual work, which depicts everything from freak-show scenes of lunatics and their teddy bears to sugary-sweet portraits of cupcake ladies. What informs it? RR: We have some great partnerships with creative people who let us run with concepts. We do pretty frequent work with SquidHat Records and for Cockroach Theatre. We try to take a grand idea and boil it down to a single image, so someone can tell from the image what they’re getting into.
JB: We’ve done pinup projects, collaborations with Skin City, but my favorite shoots always involve people. So when we have a long list of assignments that don’t require human subjects, we try to experiment. The other day, I shot a wet look because I hadn’t done it before. I try to keep my camera from becoming “just work.”
RR: True, when you start learning photography it’s all, fun, fun, fun, but when you start a business, you have to force yourself to have those fun moments of learning and growing to focus on the craft and not get bogged down in, say, invoicing. We made our name in our early gallery shows and conceptual work, so we still like to experiment to keep it fresh.
When concepts are more straightforward, do you feel the same thrill? JB: We get a lot of inspiration from our commercial work, which takes us to unique places, from backstage at The Beatles Love to Nellis to shoot a pilot in front of a jet to inside the hub of the High Roller.
Is Square Shooting’s Downtown location important? JB: Part of the advantage is being centrally located. We shoot offsite and go in a million different directions. Downtown Spaces is perfect for us because of that. More importantly, though, it’s really as simple as community. I started hanging out and working Downtown, and the next thing I knew, I was running into people and talking to people who supported each other’s projects and shared ideas.
RR: I 100 percent agree. As a native, I know Las Vegas has a reputation for its lack of community. People often go to work, stop at their corner bar to watch their favorite sports team from another city, and go home. I know I’m generalizing, but you feel like people often don’t know their neighbors. I was looking for more, and when Downtown started to change 10 years ago or so, I was onboard.
Any favorite shots? JB: Growing up my mom had a ton of Norman Rockwells around the house. I’m not a fan, but for a Blackbird [Studios] show, I recreated one of the shots. It was the same setting, true Americana. But there was one key difference: the kids and mom grinning at each other were zombies. That’s held up for me, in terms of favorites.
RR: The still I did for the local production of Machinal is one of my favorites. It’s still hanging at the Artifice. I take guests from out of town there and casually mention that it’s mine. (laughs) I also like the 18b sign pieces I’ve done. Those are my two most well-known shots. I’m a sucker for being well-known.
What’s next? JB: The first year we were on our own, the City [of Las Vegas] did a call for a project for the Office of Cultural Affairs to highlight 25 architecturally significant buildings in the Downtown area. There were 40 or 50 applicants, the best people in town. We didn’t think we had a chance, but we were notified that we were selected. Ryan got to hear how loud I can scream that day.
RR: I was pretty excited, too. As a native, I’m so proud to be a part of this city that I love. To be awarded a contract to shoot a highlight reel of what there is to love—it’s too beautiful and heavy. It’s the culmination of our history and where we’re going: gallery shows to commercial work to a project that combines the two. So that opens September 17th at the City Hall Chamber Gallery.
JB: We’re also doing a very challenging project for the RTC’s new building at Decatur and Sunset. They want to make the interior feel like a cityscape, so we were asked to take stills that would then be blown up to scale, the size of the actual building. We’re up to the challenge, and looking forward to seeing the results. That’s the best part of this business: new challenges.