This month I have a treat for you: I interviewed Janet Ryan, photographer and KC Pioneers member. Ryan has been interested in BDSM since the early 1980s and photographed her first event in the leather community in 1987. A number of her photographs are featured in the Photography Collection of Janet Ryan at the Leather Archive & Museum in Chicago. In addition to her interest in the leather community, Ryan has worked as a location scout, prop stylist and food stylist serving commercial photographers. Ryan is yet another example of the wonderful diversity within our community.
1. How did you become involved with KC Pioneers?
I pledged the Pioneers in the spring of 2001. I’d known about them since I came out in leather in the late ’80s and was glad to finally have the time
to commit to them.
2. Has the KC Pioneers been the first leather organization with which you’ve been involved?
No, in 1992 I helped start a group … called National Leather Association: Kansas City, which was a local chapter of NLA: International. I served as treasurer of the local chapter, and we put on the first public Fetish Ball in Kansas City. I was staff photographer for Living in Leather, the annual conference of NLA: International.
3. You are one of the few women involved in KC Pioneers. How has the limited number of women affected your experience?
I was not the first female Pioneer. Nancy had been involved for many years before that, and when I pledged, there were several other women who were pledging or were members. The guys have always treated me as one of them, and they are my brothers in every way. They are a great group of men, whom I admire and love so much!
4. How long have you been in the leather scene?
The first SM photos I made were in 1981. They were self-portraits, but I did not know the meaning of it. Shortly after that, I was working for a feminist newspaper, and during an assignment for images of women in advertising, I realized I was a sadomasochist. I was looking at some photos that the lesbians disapproved of, but I found them very erotic. My first thought was, “I’m a bad lesbian.” This was during the era of extreme political correctness. I came out to my publishing collective shortly after that. They didn’t really understand, but they weren’t mean about it either. The first leather event I shot was at the 1987 March on Washington. There was a conference on Friday and Saturday and a leather contingent in the March on Sunday. It was a very important and pivotal moment in the national leather scene.
5. What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the leather community?
There are many misconceptions now. The biggest one seems to be around who the old guard was and what their traditions were. One example is the practice of awarding a master his cover (a certain military-style hat). Many people think this ceremonial recognition was widely practiced by the old guard. In a few instances, there was “earned” leather in old guard culture, but the first time I was aware of the practice of awarding a cover was in the early ’90s. Most of the old guard leather men I knew simply bought their covers at the leather shop. I think it’s a fine idea — it’s just a newer practice, not old guard.
6. How do you think that the leather community has changed/evolved through the years?
The leather scene at first was the same as the BDSM scene and predominantly gay male. As heterosexuals became involved in larger numbers, leather came to mean the gay SM/leather scene. The BDSM scene became predominantly a het or “pansexual” scene. Of course, there is lots of cross-over. I consider myself both Leather and BDSM-oriented and attend events in both parts of the community. Currently, gay leather men have gone back underground and are rebuilding themselves in a world not totally accessible to the public.
7. What event/s might you suggest a person attend if s/he were just coming into the local leather community?
The KC Pioneers do events throughout the year at Missie B’s, our home bar. We have a pie sale before Thanksgiving and staff one night of Missie B’s coat check throughout the winter. This spring was our 38th year, and we had an event called Trail’s End Run in May. Our runs are biannual so the next big run is in the spring of 2015. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and friend us on Facebook at KC Pioneers. We generally meet at 5 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month at Missie B’s. I’m grateful to Michal Burnes and the staff of Missie B’s for their longtime support of the KC Pioneers.
One of the newest local groups I’ve helped start is KC Kinky Women, for women who want to socialize and play with women. Contact us at email@example.com.
For other groups, check out FetLife.com. It’s the Facebook of the BDSM community. There are several groups in the area listing events there.
8. OK, I know that you are a photographer and have contributed photographs to the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago (I’m pretty sure I’ve shared some of these on my Facebook wall!). Why did you decide to begin documenting the leather community?
You posted my photos without my permission???? Just kidding! Which ones do you like?
I’m not on Facebook, hiding from my family and straight clients, although most know already! LA&M tweets and posts lots of my work, and I’m grateful for them keeping me visible. I’m not highly technical when it comes to the Internet and do not have a website of my photos because it just functions as a portal for people to take my shots and use them in ways I have no control over. Once an anti-gay Christian organization started posting photos of another photographer’s work on their website, which was scary because it looked like the photographer was working for a site that condemned the gay lifestyle.
One of the most important aspects of shooting in the leather world is to respect the people I photograph and respect their privacy. Jobs and kids are lost over public exposure. The Internet has made our private lives more public.
Back to the question: I had just graduated from art school and was doing very pretty, intellectual photography, but realized there was an incredible wealth of beautiful, interesting things I was seeing that weren’t part of my formal artwork. Having documented the lesbian culture of KC, it was natural to turn my camera toward the leather world I was discovering. And the rewards of that have been amazing; I’ll never regret focusing in on our wonderful community. It was also a great way to get an interesting woman’s phone number!!
9. You also work as a food stylist, arranging food for ads. What is the most challenging aspect about this type of work?
I’ve worked as a location scout, prop stylist and food stylist serving commercial photographers. I find it and make it look good; others take the photograph.
As far as food styling, it’s very competitive, hard to get work, and now that you can Google people, everyone knows what else I’m up to!! That’s why so many people in the BDSM world don’t use their real names any more or show their faces on websites.
10. What is the strangest food that you’ve ever styled?
Hard question to answer! Most of it is pretty common, and it’s fun to be creative and make it look beautiful. One of my clients is KCQ, a professional competitive barbecue team that competes at the American Royal BBQ competition every year. I style the foam boxes of food according to strict rules and photograph the entry before we turn it in. Part of our score is based on appearance, and I can help the team place higher among the 500 teams that compete every year. Perks of the job include bringing home lots of leftover smoked brisket, pulled pork, and side dishes like beans and key lime pie. I love to get paid to play with my food!!
Another question with another answer: What is the strangest prop you’ve ever had to find? I secured a commercial jetliner for a shoot for Sprint.