Ryan Pfluger, Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Princeton Architectural Press (here). Hardcover (8 x 10 inches), 224 pages, with 100 color photographs. Includes a foreword by Janicza Bravo and an essay by Brandon Kyle Goodman. Design by Natalie Snodgrass. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ryan Pfluger is a queer artist originally from Flushing, Queens, who currently works and lives in Los Angeles. Over his career as a commercial photographer, he has photographed many notable figures, including Barack Obama, Alicia Garza, Angelina Jolie, Naomi Watts, and others. In his personal work, Pfluger has turned toward his identity, and often examines human interactions, including his own relationships with men and particularly his father. Having had a difficult childhood, Pfluger says that photography was “a way for me to meet people that were outside of the safe mental bubble I had created for myself.” His intent as a photographer is to enable the “instinctual desire for people to feel seen, thoughtfully and lovingly.”

Throughout 2020 and 2021, during both the pandemic and the national political upheaval, Pfluger took two cross-country trips to photograph queer, interracial couples around the United States. The series has taken shape in a photobook titled Holding Space: Life and Love Through a Queer Lens, tracing the stories of 100 queer couples and reflecting on the challenging reality of intersectional relationships. Holding Space is Pfluger’s first photobook. Released by Princeton Architectural Press, a publisher with a broad scope (not just photobooks), the book liberally combines both photographs and writing – it is more than a picture book, it is “a hybrid of non-fiction, memoir and photobook.”

Holding Space has a generally conventional and unassuming design approach. A tipped-in photograph of a couple, Jari and Deniz standing in a lush meadow and gently holding each other, fills most of the cover, with the title underneath. The back cover features blurbs and praise for the book, a rather unusual element in the photobook world. The page turns in the book follow essentially the same structure – each photograph appears next to a journal entry written by the couples pictured, where they often speak about their love in “a world that doesn’t always love them back.” The printing of the book doesn’t give true justice to Pfluger’s remarkable portraits, as the paper doesn’t feel right and the colors appear too faded. But perhaps the book’s more accessible price point is another factor that was particularly important to Pfluger, thereby making the book available to a wider audience.

As Pfluger started working on this series, he wanted the project to develop organically, without curation, so he turned to social media to find his subjects and collaborators. He says that 95 percent of the couples featured in the book reached out to him and wanted to be included in the series. As he was shooting the series during COVID, it was particularly important for him to make the people feel safe and comfortable. The couples in his images indicated where they wanted to be in their photographs, be it in public, in their home, or in a more specific location. 

Pfluger’s photographs are often delicate and deeply moving, and always very intimate. Their soft color palette and warm light amplifies a consistent sense of joy and care. The portraits, starting with the one on the cover, depict couples gently touching or passionately kissing, and their gestures evoke closeness and love. There are images of couples embracing on a sofa in their home, standing on the roof of their apartment building in Brooklyn, posing outside in a park, floating in a river, walking on a beach, and climbing a tree, and several couples asked to be photographed in the intimacy of their bedroom. Each portrait is paired with the couple’s stories, including words in their own voices, with a freedom to share what they wished. Seen together, these portraits and stories gather feelings of how we relate to each other. 

Some subjects share their struggles in navigating race and gender, their difficulties expressing themselves, or their feelings of being misconstrued and stereotyped. And at the same time, these are also stories of love, of being heard, of finding one’s community, and of belonging. As an example, Griffin and Matt are photographed at home with their two kids, capturing them as they share a snack on the sofa. “Each of us in this picture – whether by choice or by circumstances – was brought together to be new: to escape broken families or to envision how we can improve what we came from,” shares Matt. 

In another portrait, Cynthia and Ren are photographed outside against wooden fence planters. Cynthia sits on a bench and holds Ren who is standing next to her; their heads touch. They both had negative experiences in their previous relationships, and now feel peace with each other. “Love can be easy with the right person”, writes Cynthia. In yet another picture, a young couple, Colby and Michael, are photographed up close shirtless as they gently embrace, protecting each other, while looking straight into the camera. This image channels both vulnerability and strength, and it is also a photograph of love. 

Holding Space reminds us that the queer community is vast, filled with many stories of love, loss, and belonging . Pfluger says that he hopes this book will make people listen – he says that “the amount of times that I myself made my own judgments about people or things before I met them during the course of this work was very humbling.” The combination of Pfluger’s portraits and the stories told by his collaborators create a nuanced narrative, delivering a heartwarming and soulful message. Holding Space requires both deep reading and seeing, listening and learning, and rewards that effort with a timely dose of genuine intimacy and humanity.

Collector’s POV: Ryan Pfluger does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar). 

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