Billy Riesing, aka “Ghost Lenz” when he’s wearing his photographer’s hat, tells hard-edged stories from a camera's-eye view. A well-rounded, self-taught creative with a businessman’s savvy and a sensitive eye for the grit and people of the street, Reising is invested in his subjects’ stories on a visceral and humanitarian level, and, in turn, he draws us into their lives. What does this committed denizen of the city think about as he shadows Denver’s urban salt of the earth? You can see his work at Artopia 2017, Westword's annual art party, coming to City Hall on February 25; his work is also in a show opening February 17 at VFW Post 1. In the meantime, have a peek at Reising’s world perspectives via the 100CC questionnaire.
Billy "Ghost Lenz" Riesing: William Klein. Much respect for who he is and his work. A renegade with a bold, authentic personality. His photos are manic, ferocious and intoxicating. He doesn't abide by any rules of photography or pay mind to how things are supposed to be done. He has shot some of the most iconic street photography and groundbreaking fashion photography. Self-taught with a camera. Trusting his eye and his instinct. And that's the way I'm wired.
When I started working professionally in the magazine business as a writer and editor, the light went on. I didn't want someone else providing the visuals for the story I was telling. And getting paid by the page versus by the word — big difference. So I invested money into a full 35mm setup — great glass, multiple flashes, radio transmitters, light meter and a backpack — and told myself, I'm going to learn to shoot professional photography in any setting. I set every piece of equipment on manual mode, and I learned. The pressure helped. I was primarily shooting ISO 100 color slide film back then, and there is no forgiveness in that. I either got the shot or I didn't. And if I didn't...there was no story to publish, no paycheck, no food in the fridge or heat in the home. My learning curve was exponential, and the photos got good quickly.
And I have been madly in love with the art of photography ever since. By itself, it is such a stunner. It is freedom and can sometimes say everything that needs to be said. And combined with writing...a very compelling synergy can happen. My hunger for storytelling is insatiable. And I see that in Klein's work. I don't think hunger can be taught. It's either howling inside or it's not.
The human condition is interesting to me. Always. It is my muse. Anywhere there are people, there is possibility: the potential to live kindly. To become self-aware. To feel triumph. To experience loss. To feel joy. To be free. To fall to despair. To get swallowed by darkness. To walk into the light.
The humans most interesting to me right now, and the ones I find most electric: everyone standing up for their human rights. In times of unrest, uncertainty, combustibility and venom, when there are people feeling betrayed and frustrated and violated, yet [they] choose to still maintain love in their hearts but take assertive action to fight for their rights: That's the climate for revolution, and these people fighting are beautiful.
I don't get caught up in that. I'm sure there are trends. I channel my energy into creating work that I believe in — cultivating opportunity, meeting people, building relationships. There will always be room for powerful artwork, and there is always a story to tell. Hustle, getting out there, getting the work in front of people — that’s important. Talent, a unique vision or voice, and exposure to a captive audience — that can flush trends to the gutters.
I will say: The power of print is present. I believe, partly because of the highly saturated online landscape and the volume of thin content out there, that the tangibility, the feeling of substance, that comes with holding a magazine, is more significant than ever. I think despite all of the information saying print is making its bed in the grave, now is the time for high-caliber print media to flourish. And I'm not just saying that because I'm brainstorming on starting a magazine.
I have two businesses. Ghost Lenz: It’s who I am. And it's my brand. I'm working purposefully to create images with impact. Street, documentary, creative fashion, portraiture, travel, musician and artist profiles: These are all areas I love to work in, and I think I'm successfully melting photojournalism and fine art into my voice. I'm developing relationships with galleries and other venues and collectors, doing shows, selling prints and building a book of business for commission work I'm interested in. I’m very motivated to be back in magazines, so I'm working on queries for projects I am doing. And the book, which I'm creating content for constantly, is a thrilling pursuit: a coffee-table photo book with some captions, poems, prose and letter-writing.
My other business: I am a consultant in urban real estate. The business model is very niche. I represent ownership in the sales of city properties — primarily vacant land, and buildings that their businesses have occupied, or that they've owned as an investment, or that they have lived in for years. Protecting sellers from the bad buyer groups out there, identifying good buyers with integrity, and getting the sellers to their objective. I am fortunate to be selective with the clients I work with and the transactions I work on. Thankfully, the properties we have sold have gotten developed or repurposed for positive use, although we cannot control that — but I wish we could. I take a holistic approach to the work. I show up in jeans and sneakers. I act as a consultant. My clients know that I am an artist. I am definitely an outlier in the business.
I brainstorm on doing creative work full-time again. I trust my instinct to know if that opportunity manifests. I feel that when I stepped away from photography and writing full-time, I betrayed myself. Deep down, I wonder if I broke my own heart intentionally, subconsciously. That heartache has made my hunger to shoot and write more ravenous than ever before. I feel this pulsing sense of urgency, and I'm producing my best work to date. I crave it. Being a photographer and a writer — that versatility is rare, and it differentiates me from those who do one or the other. My entrepreneurial sophistication furthers my possibilities. I'm geared to harvest opportunity and am committed to be true to myself. So as I continue to push myself creatively and get my work in shows and in publications and in the hands of collectors, my mind's eye is wide open.
Build shelters and assisted-living facilities for battered women and children and for the homeless. Plant community gardens internationally. End global famine. Create sanctuaries around the world for stray animals of every kind. Fund mental health and addiction counseling centers. Bankroll organizations that have the sophistication to battle the plaguing deceit and abuse of power that live so fruitfully today in the bodies of authority. Construct creative spaces and art foundations worldwide to give brilliant minds of all ages a chance to nurture their creative spirits. Set my close family up so they can actively pursue their muses. And Griffin the dog and I, we’d be constantly stamping our passports, shooting photography, writing, drinking espresso in the world's dreamiest cafes, making photo books and giving them away so people could share in what we saw and experienced.
I love this city. Been here for thirteen years. Shooting street photography creates deep threads in my relationship with Denver. Out in the streets, I feel close to the people, to the history, to the ghosts walking down the sidewalks and staring at me from windows in old buildings. I do wish there was more cultural diversity. I live in the beating heart of the urban core — it’s a must for me. People laughing, screaming, church bells echoing, howling dogs, airplanes overhead — it’s the city's symphony.
I'm a block from Colfax, a few blocks from Civic Center Park. That's my neighborhood. Right now I feel very connected to our city. She is beautiful, and I'm grateful to be here. I enjoy not knowing where G-Dawg and I will end up. We are minimalists. I have Gypsy blood, so I smile at the idea of us plunging into the bohemian life: freelancing, hopping from country to country. It's a possibility. All my lenses, flashes, transmitters, mirrorless camera body, light meter and MacBook fit in a backpack. Griffin carries a light load. Only other bits we need are my wits and a wi-fi connection to send the content out.
What's the one thing Denver could do to help the arts?
At the top of the list, the most obvious and critical: affordable, safe spaces for artists to work, collaborate and exhibit. The Ghost Ship tragedy — gut-wrenching. And I know many of us can relate to working or living in a space like that.
When I lived in Philly, we rented a rundown warehouse to live in and run a magazine out of. It’s what we could afford. Seven different artists lived there, and we had so many people over to hang out, create art, skate, have fun — it was our scene. And it wasn't safe. Would I do it again? Absolutely. With the gentrification and development going on here, it’s crucial for Denver artists to be able to stay in the city. The efforts, work and passion of the artists help shape Denver's identity and fuel it to thrive.
The city's slush fund is getting fed on the development going on, all of the market activity. Permitting and huge spikes in property taxes are two cash cows. Healthy dialogue between the city and the creative community is imperative, followed by the city proactively allocating funds to get existing spaces up to code, to repurposing buildings for creative work space and to build new ones. The creative community is the lifeblood of Denver. People who don't believe that are part of the problem.
Mark Sink. His talent and work and history and experience — all remarkable. But it's also how supportive he is for Denver photographers, and the Denver art community collectively, that gets me. He cares so much and wants to help create opportunity for local talent. Such a selfless pursuit to further the careers of local artists.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
I'm prepping for two big shows that are both raw street documentary photography — work I hold very close to my heart. Down in Denver opens February 17 at the VFW Post 1 in the Art District on Santa Fe. They've got such a beautiful gallery upstairs, and it has been sitting dormant. This show is bringing the space back to life. Twenty percent of print sales will be donated to Alternative Solutions Advocacy Project (#stopthesweeps #movealongtowhere) to help fight homelessness in Denver. PrettyMouth is playing a live set. Free admission. We are doing a raffle — winner gets a print — and all raffle ticket sales are getting donated to ASAP, too. Westword's Artopia is a week after the Down in Denver opening. Psyched to be a part it. I belong at this one. I am repping Colfax...and Colfax, I love her, she is my sweets. Jolt is curating Artopia. I have big respect for him, what he stands for, and for his work.
Late spring, I'm heading overseas for two, three weeks to shoot on the streets. Probably flipping a coin to decide on Prague and Budapest or Japan. Those are my next two trips. Then I’ll come back here, finish a spooky fashion-fusion project I've got going, shoot on the streets of Denver, submit content to magazines, and continue to work on the book, which I will either self-publish or shop to select publishers.
I'm not going to pinpoint one person. There are many gifted Denver artists. So I will say it's the entire Denver art scene. There is deep talent here, in a variety of mediums: street artists, painters, photographers, ink masters, comedians, filmmakers, musicians, writers, mixed-media, illustrators, sculptors. It's a tight network of lovely and gifted creatures. This is an exciting time to be an artist in Denver, and we are definitely on the map for artistic hotbeds. The more we support one another and our respective mediums, the stronger we all are. And the more our city supports the artists, the more beautiful and diverse Denver gets.
Down in Denver, a Month of Photography 2017 exhibit featuring work by Billy "Ghost Lenz" Riesing, opens Friday, February 17, with a reception from 6 to 11 p.m. at VFW Post 1, and runs through April 7. On Saturday, February 25, Billy Riesing will join the rest of the Denver artist team representing Colfax Avenue at Artopia 2017; tickets are available at the Artopia website.
Learn more about Billy "Ghost Lenz" Riesing and his work at his website and on Instagram.