As a photographer and aspiring writer, I’ve asked myself a few times before, “What subject or person in photography hasn’t been done to death, and is worthy of an article I’d actually read myself?” The answer, I found, is a formula.
Take a young, talented photographer. Give him an idea, unlike any other you’ve encountered in the field. Make him passionate about the idea, add in nerves of absolute steel, have him don a clown mask, and turn him into a ghost. The result? Tom Ryaboi.
Tom, or “Roof Topper” as he’s affectionately known in the back alleyways of the photography industry, is one of the originators of the “roof topping” phenomena, which involves finding a way to the tops of buildings and other structures that are normally not accessible to the public, and capturing the spectacular views provided there.
I had the opportunity to speak with Tom recently, to learn more about his incredible work, his plans for the future, and yes, the origin of the mask.
Originating from Toronto (where he still calls home), the twenty-something Ryaboi is known for his photos taken at dizzying heights and off-kilter angles, but has an impressive portfolio involving other forms as well.
Tim Gilbreath: Tom, some of my favorite shots of yours aren’t “roof topper” shots at all…did you begin in travel photography before the risker stuff? What other photography forms and types inspired you, and which do you consider your preferred forms?
Tom Ryaboi: Yes, i picked up the camera when I started travelling. Although I think I was a photographer long before I ever had a camera. When I finally did get my hands on one, I couldn’t put it down.
I think street photography is at the heart of all the photos I take. It’s photography at its purest, there are no redo’s. The moment is there for a split second and then it’s gone forever. The street is where i get almost all my inspiration for photos, if I’m in a rut or a slump, I hit the street to find photography again.
TG: I’d think Toronto is a great city to get those street shots and enjoy a little variety?
TR: Definitely, the city is a great place to shoot street, many pockets of varying cultures.
TG: So where was the transition into adding rooftop photography into your repertoire, and how did that get started for you?
TR: I loved climbing things as a kid, I started with the kitchen fridge when i was 2 years old. I continued to climb things into my teens, then I discovered girls and forgot about it for a little while. A decade later when I discovered photography I started climbing things again.
Toronto is a pretty flat place, so I climbed buildings, mostly construction sites. It became sort of an obsession, and a challenge, now its a sickness!
I asked Tom some specifics about how he pulls off his gut-wrenching shots, and expectedly gave me a great (and short) answer.
TG: Getting specifically into the roof photography….it sounds like there isn’t any fear involved on your part…and that you didn’t do this to help conquer any fear or phobia. Many of the places appear to be either extremely difficult to get into…how do you manage to get into areas that are usually off-limits?
TR: A lot of trial and error, and a little bit of luck!
TG: From a statistical standpoint, what is the highest point you’ve been at for a shot?
TR: Not that high, just over 1000 feet. Unfortunately we don’t have higher (in Canada) just yet.
TG: Some would say, that’s high enough! Have you ever had any close calls? Any situation where you prepared for a shot and thought, “oh sh*t, this might not have been a good idea”?
TR: Yes, a couple of times…recently while shooting on a crane, about 700 feet in the air.
I was up there shooting when gusty winds started to hit really hard and the crane started to move violently. I had a moment where I thought, “what the f*ck am i doing here, what was I thinking?” But then it passed and I kept taking photos, that shot ended up being one of my favorites.
Note: You can see Tom’s nausea-inducing shot of this incident here.
Tom also gave me a hint of what is upcoming for him, and what we might be able to expect.
TG: So it sounds like most of your roof photography has been limited to Canada…have you shot any of these outside of the country? Do you have a list of locations you’re itching to shoot from?
TR: I’ve shot a bit in Chicago and Southeast Asia, but all the big towers are going up in China and the Middle East. I will be making my way down there in the coming year.
Some of Tom’s photos..namely, his self-portraits, bear a hint of mystery, as he always dons a mask, never showing his face. Of course, I couldn’t resist seeing what information he was willing to share.
TG: I’m sure you knew I was going to ask this one…what is the origin of the mask, and what is its purpose?
TR: Well, I’m a little protective of my identity, not for legal reasons, but because I think the photos should stand for themselves. Who cares what i look like? But the newspapers and magazines are always insisting for a smiling head shot. At first it started as a joke when i sent a local newspaper a photo of me in the mask. It’s kinda taken on a life of its own since then.
TG: Ok, for our equipment nerds….what equipment do you prefer to shoot with? Lenses? It doesn’t look like you are able to use a tripod for every shot.
TR: I shoot with two camera bodies; a Canon 5D Mk III and an Olympus OM-D, as well as a Benro tripod. My favorite lense right now is the Sigma 35mm 1.4.
My final question involved Tom’s preference concerning his own work. We all know, as photographers, that we’re our harshest critics, and it’s hard to pick our favorites.
TG: Alright Tom, finally, discussing your favorite photo of your own..is there a particular shot that you put above all others, one that embodies your work as a whole?
TR: My favorite photo has yet to be taken; I always like to think that my best work is ahead of me. Having said that, I have always liked “Ode to LG” (shown below).
You can see more of Tom’s work at his official website, www.tomryaboi.com.
What did you think of Tom’s methods and results? Which are your favorites? Have you ever attempted “roof topping” yourself? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section below!