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Tableaux Vivants: The Photo Composites of Ryan Schude

By Alyssa Coppelman

Ryan Schude’s Tableaux Vivants photo series is a brilliant combination of eye candy and substance—these intricate, deftly crafted images are typically composites of many photographs and layers, but each seems to capture one evocative instant.

Although a few images in the series were achieved in one take, Schude may shoot as many as 100 photographs for an image; five or six of those photos usually make it into the final image (the most he has used is 15). And the Photoshop tools he relies on are the same ones he learned when he was first starting out with Photoshop, in 2001. “The retouching is a fairly simple process of adjustment layers for curves, color, and saturation, and then a blend of the composite frames using layer masks,” he says. “The camera is locked off and everything is shot and lit at the same time, so I am not cutting people out and moving them around; they are naturally blended into their real background, which I believe is key to keeping the image looking real.”

Each image in the series is its own story, though Schude says they have themes in common: “Humor, action, strife, and conflict pop up quite a bit.”

Photo composite by Ryan Schude, image of a small house with a scene of a domestic argument.
Photo composite by Ryan Schude, image of a summer camp by a lake
Photo composite by Ryan Schude, image of a crazy pool party.

Credits from left to right: Ryan Schude in collaboration with Justin Bettmman, Ryan Schude in collaboration with Lauren Randolph, Ryan Schude in collaboration with Lauren Randolph. (Click to enlarge.)  

After beginning photography as a sports reporter for his college newspaper, Schude became interested in street photography and went on to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2005, he made the first image of his Tableaux Vivants series: “In 2005, I threw a Christmas party with the intent of having a couple there stage a fight that would end in the girl throwing her glass of eggnog in her boyfriend’s face. We practiced one take outside against the fence without telling the other guests, and then went into the middle of the party where we were fortunate enough to capture the perfect impact in the first attempt.”

Photo composite by Ryan Schude, image of a woman throwing eggnog in a man's face at a holiday party.
photo composite by Ryan Schude, photo composite of a domestic argument at an apartment complex.
photo composite by Ryan Schude, moody photograph of an empty swimming pool

Credits from left to right: Ryan Schude (photo captured in one take), Ryan Schude (photo captured in one take), Ryan Schude in collaboration with Dan Busta. (Click to enlarge.) 

Schude’s work draws easy comparisons to that of Gregory Crewdson, about whom he says, “He is an obvious inspiration to myself and a multitude of artists creating work in a staged, narrative realm. Within that broad definition, I also enjoyed one person’s allusion to a ‘poor man’s David LaChapelle,’ whom I may share more similarities with surrounding intent and execution.”

Schude finds his inspiration in the locations themselves, where there is, he says, “…usually a visual key that opens up the possibility to what narrative might take place there in a hyperbolic hypothetical. For example: diner, waitress, tray, food, spill, marching band. Maybe the last one is a stretch, but that is generally a common formula: simple stories with absurdist, aesthetic twists.”

photo composite by Ryan Schude, of the aftermath of a frat party.
photo composite by Ryan Schude, of a family camping in a Winnebago
Photo composite by Ryan Schude, of friends at a campsite.

Credits from left to right: Ryan Schude in collaboration with Lauren Randolph, Ryan Schude, Ryan Schude. (Click to enlarge.)

Shoot days are generally 12 hours long, ideally with a prep day to pre-light. He also spends a couple of weeks on preproduction and about 10 hours on retouching. About the many photos involved in each composite, Schude says, “I always at least try and get it in one shot and could easily settle for one of the many takes we shoot, but the reality is that it would be a waste of a beautiful technology not to take advantage of our options.”

To see more of Ryan Schude’s work, visit his website or his Behance portfolio.