Gus Van Sant and Ryan McGinley

in Conversation

GVS: So, you need to make a movie now—is that next?

RM: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it.

I just thought of a movie yesterday as I flew down here, and I’m going to try

to make it as fast as I can.

When you get your ideas, do you write them down immediately?

No, I don’t. I know you do.

I do it all the time. I’m pretty compulsive about taking notes.

Yeah, I’m always just thinking, “What the fuck is Ryan doing?”

Since I take them on my phone, people think that I’m texting. I have to tell them that I’m not, it’s just that I had a really great idea. When I go to the movies, I’ll bring a pen and a notepad with me sometimes and write down thoughts. It really helps my process. I feel like I couldn’t do it any other way. What do you do in your spare time? Do you exercise?

Yeah. I swim mostly.

I do yoga almost every day now. I started doing it a few years ago because I felt like I needed some balance in my life. I was working so hard and burning the candle at both ends. I felt like I was losing it. Yoga definitely helps me find clarity in my work.

It helps you to not go crazy?

I was just in California yesterday, and I was practicing in my hotel room. I have an iPhone application. It has a little instructor, and she tells you what to do. It’s pretty good. But when I’m on the road shooting photos I don’t really do it, because I’m so active—hiking, swimming, and running around—that I don’t need it. There’s something about being outdoors in the sun that keeps you feeling good and healthy. I never get sick on my trips. There’s a division in my life, which I’m sure is true for you too, where half the time you’re shooting and you’re surrounded by people constantly, and then for the other half of the time, you’re editing and you can feel pretty isolated. And you’re just weird.


I feel like there’s a similarity in the way we both work. We plan everything the way we want it, but we plan for it to go wrong. There’s a sense of contingency. 

Yeah, the happy accidents happen. You learn that. You realize the best parts are the things that go wrong. Then you try and plan the wrong things with control, so it’s a combination.

Yeah. It’s a tightrope act.

That’s why it can be exciting to use novices in a film, because they haven’t got any boundaries. So the chances that things are going to go wrong are better with those types of characters. Then conversely, the professionals can do a lot more, they can twist things into a billion shapes. So there’s that side, too.

I don’t really like working with professional models. I always try to work with people who haven’t modeled. They’re the best subjects. They’ll say, “You want to take my picture?” and I’m like, “Yeah!” and they say, “Really? Me?” It’s so amazing when you can see someone’s potential and how powerful their presence is and they have no clue of how beautiful they are. That’s my favorite kind of model. Someone who is unaware of how they look in a photograph. Versus working with a real model, which is a lot harder because they know what’s happening on the other side of the lens. They hold their body in cliched ways. They think about their posture or their pose, and their attitude is not as relaxed or free-spirited. It takes me longer to work through their awareness to get something that’s unselfconscious. It’s cool to photograph people who have never modeled, because when I take them on my trips, they don’t question it. Whereas more professional models think, “Oh, this is some weirdo shit.”

How do you find the amateurs? Do people e-mail you?

I have a casting director who finds people from all over the world. A lot of people do e-mail me, but it’s rare that I’ll choose a submission from online. Over the last five years, I’ve probably chosen two or three people who’ve e-mailed me. I get submissions

every day, and they’re always very amusing.

Oh, like people you know?

No, total strangers. People send me naked pictures of themselves. Moms, pierced people, aspiring models, college students, the whole gamut. They’re fun to go through actually. It’s usually one of the highlights of my day. The low point is when I get e-mails asking me, “What camera do you use?” and “What film do you use?” It’s pretty funny, I get at least three e-mails daily asking me that.

So . . . what camera do you use?

Haha. For the photos in this book, I used a Leica R8, a Canon 5D, and a Yashica T4.

What kind of film do you use?

Kodak Portra or Kodak Gold. Usually Portra. There’s the VC variety—“vivid color”—and it gives the photos really nice saturated colors.


So, earlier we were looking at a mock-up of this book. What do you think? Is there anything that stands out to you?

Well, it’s sort of the whole breadth of your career. I saw photographs that I had seen early on, from The Kids Are Alright, which is when I first saw your photographs. There’s the one where the naked girl is jumping in front of what looks like planets. Are they planets?

It’s wallpaper of astronauts.

That’s an emblematic one that I really liked from that period, but I tend to like all your stuff. What year was that? 2002?

Yeah, 2002.

So I think that was the first moment. How old were you?


You were the young, groovy photographer. It’s like what Harmony Korine was. When he was first on the scene, he was nineteen. He became this thing because he was so young. In part, youth is attractive to the media because they’re always looking for the new thing. When you’re young, you have to be the new thing because you can’t help it. You just literally are the new thing. So you were that. You were making something that was being celebrated by old institutions. Like when Harmony was on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Or your exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. So there was this heat that came off it; there was this spin that came out of that celebration.

Yeah, it was a whirlwind. Everything happened very fast— interviews, books, magazines, galleries, museums. Suddenly, my life was very public. A lot of people still say they like my early stuff the best. I’m always a bit taken aback.

They do?

I feel like people say that with a lot of artists.

Well, it’s like how Orson Welles couldn’t beat Citizen Kane because it was the new thing. It’s the clarity with which you’re thinking: You’re not worried about what you’re shooting. The reason your photographs were celebrated was because they were innocent. You weren’t taking them so that you could put them in the Whitney, you were taking them on your own, for your own reasons. You were practicing photography, but you were working without the legitimacy of the system. After you’re accepted by the system, then all of a sudden it changes everything, and you kind of can’t get back to that innocence and clarity. I think every artist has that happen to them, and how they deal with it is kind of interesting. I mean, if you’re John Waters today,

would he conceivably take $20,000 and go make a film like Pink Flamingos? He could but there’s something that makes it so you can’t. And some artists actually do that, they try to retrace their steps, and it’s difficult. And there are some artists that escape the whole thing, and they’re made into an icon, like George Kuchar. He never seemed to care whether or not he became accepted by the established Hollywood scene. It was beside the point for him. He

was working very hard, and he was making all these amazing things and influencing all these people, but he never had to worry about his art because it was always operating under its own terms. There are a lot of artists like that. I don’t think that I’m one of those artists.

I remember at one point when I was on the set of Milk with you, we were talking about art and photography and filmmaking, and you said to me, “Well, I want to do what you do.” And I said, “Well, I want to do what you do.”

We should just trade.

People constantly ask me when I’m going to make a movie. I guess it’s one of those things that I just have to do at some point. There’s a quote of yours that I read when I was in college: “Making movies isn’t for dreamers, it’s for doers.”

I’m sure I never said that.

You did! I remember. I would spend a lot of time in the library in school researching artists I liked. I would make these binders of photocopied material from magazines and books about you guys. I could probably find it if you want to see it.

It sounds like a motivational quote.

It was very motivational.

Oh, I know what I meant. I think what I was talking about was that I sat around for years with friends, and we spent a lot of time dreaming. It always seemed to be easier and more fun to hang out at a coffee shop and bullshit for hours about what you were going to do. And the reason we never did what we said we were going to do was because they were film projects that needed like $100,000 and we could never find the money, so the only thing left for us to do

was to share our plans so we weren’t alone. It was like a little think tank. But eventually you do have to venture out and actually make something.

Yeah, sometimes I’ll find myself making art just for the sake of making things, to keep the wheel greased. I feel like half the battle is just being there. Just getting it together to get everyone to the location and set it all up. And once you’re there, you have an idea of what you want to do, but it can go in so many different directions, which is the fun part for me. I’ll often be shooting at a scouted location and I’ll think, “This is nice,” and then I’ll turn around and say, “Oh, this looks way better.”

Is it hard for you to arrange your shows?

What do you mean?

Well, let’s say you make a commitment to have works in four different places next month. Do you run into a problem where it’s, “Oh, well, I’ve got Madrid covered, but in Rio I don’t want to show the same thing, so I’ve got a good Rio setup, but then Japan—what am I going to show in Japan?” Do you ever have that?

No, because I’d never exhibit my work that much at one time. I usually have about two solo exhibitions a year and a few group shows. The way my work gets dispersed is pretty controlled. It takes me a long time to arrive at a picture I’m happy with, so I don’t have a ton of work to hang in a ton of shows at once. I’m a very rigorous editor, and I’ll only show what I think are the best images, which tend to be very few. I also think about presentation and size when I’m editing the work. I look at each photo in many different sizes and different color palettes, and for a show I spend a lot of time making shoebox maquettes and rearranging photos. It’s an ordeal.

Right. That’s interesting.

Earlier, we were talking about how Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy deal heavily with drugs and people on the fringes of society, and when I was younger I definitely felt like I was outside of society. I’d like to think that I still am. And I’m attracted to people like that—the people I cast in my photographs have those qualities. What do you think attracts both of us to these people?

I’m asked that question in the press all the time, so I’ve perfected answers. I don’t know whether they’re real answers or fake press answers anymore.

I have that too. So what’s your press answer?

Well, the answer I give, I guess it’s pretty honest—I think as a kid growing up I felt outside the system, maybe because I was gay. Even when I was eleven, we were little rebels, vandal types, like a lot of kids were. We had a little group, and we rung doorbells, snuck out at night, all that kind of stuff. Then, in the ’60s, you were naturally an outsider if you were a hippie. I don’t

know if I was a full-on hippie, but I connected to that side of the high school community, for instance. I was an artist. I was a painter.

Oh, at the Rhode Island School of Design?

No, in high school. And then at RISD, everyone was an outsider. It was like a convention of outsiders. But they were artist outsiders, not street outsiders. They weren’t like pool players or ex-cons, yet my films tend to be about street outsiders. But the answer that I give the press, which I think is also true, is that it’s a place from where you tell your story. It’s a metaphor, it’s not literally your life. Why you’re doing it is almost as rarefied as why John Ford shot

Westerns. Was he a cowboy in the Old West? No. Was he a cowboy? Yes. But in the end, why was he making Westerns? It’s a representation of his spirit, it’s a place from which he tells stories, not necessarily exactly who he is for his whole life. So I think I’m using it as a place from where I tell my story, at least in all these films. It’s a convention; it’s a place that’s distanced.

See, I feel like I am that cowboy in the Old West. There isn’t really much distance between me and my subjects, but I have the barrier of the camera. I feel like my camera probably saved my life. If I weren’t taking pictures, who knows where I might have ended up. The camera always gave me a safe distance from the situation,

especially in my earlier documentary work. That’s also why I usually need to get out of the city to take photos, because I need to remove myself and everyone from our contexts, from all our distractions and vices.

Yeah, it’s not like that for me.

I don’t think I could do what I do without living in downtown New York. I thrive on it, but I also need to get away from it sometimes too. When I first moved here, I never wanted to leave. But over time, I realized how important it is to get away. Such a big part of what I do is removing myself and other people from the city. Taking people to these beautiful and remote locations, being together for long periods of time, getting that intimacy, and doing all these intense activities together every day. In a way, it’s like a bizarre summer camp or like touring in a rock band or traveling circus. It’s all those things combined. Just taking everyone out of their element so you have their full attention.


Another nice thing about being on the road is that you’re forced to work because there’s nothing else to do, and the stakes are high. We’re always looking over our shoulder for the cops. That’s why I was saying before that I felt outside of society. I don’t think a lot of people who look at my photographs realize that what I do is often illegal. You can’t just go out and take nude photographs in public. We always have a lookout—an assistant posted with a walkie-talkie, saying, “Okay, it’s clear, you can shoot now,” and we’re always ducking farmers or cops who would arrest us for public nudity or trespassing. The way I work now is a lot like when I grew up skateboarding and dodging cops at skate spots. I skated every single day of my life from when I was five years old until I was eighteen. Once I went to art school, though, I realized it was either one or the other.

Skating or art?

Yeah, skating or art. That’s what it came down to. I could either continue skating every single day or dedicate myself to art. So I decided to give it up and make art. I went from painting to poetry to graphic design to photography, and I feel like all those things are elements in my art, and especially the spirit of skating.

Could you drop into a bowl right now?

Yeah, I’d be able to do that. But I wouldn’t be able to catch air, I’d just be able to probably get a little above the lip. I would fuck myself up. I was actually skating when I was in Venice Beach a few weeks ago. I just skated to go get something to eat, and I was bombing a hill, and I was like, “Whoa, shit”—because in my mind I can still do all the things that I did when I was a teenager. I also used to be an amateur snowboarder, and I competed all the time. Last year, I was snowboarding while making photos of some Olympic athletes, and I broke both my wrists at the same time. Do you remember when I had my casts?

Yeah. But even a seasoned snowboarder can break his wrists.

Yeah, but I got out there and I was going big when I shouldn’t have been. So yeah, I don’t skate anymore, but the way that I make photographs is the same exact way that I skateboarded. I’m using the landscape creatively. I go to a spot, see the potential of what’s there, and come back with my friends and make it happen. I used to videotape skateboarding too. Whenever people ask me how I started making photographs, I tell them about how I got a Hi-8 video

camera when I was a sophomore in high school and videotaped all my friends skateboarding in New Jersey and New York City. That’s how I realized I was really interested in watching people.


It’s weird, I’ve documented all these intimate experiences with people I’m close with. A lot of my early photos are actually just my life. And over time, some of these images have become well known because they’re republished and exhibited all the time. So I’m

constantly reminded of my first loves or friends who have passed away. It can be really intense, so over time I’ve learned to divorce myself from the images emotionally. Do you ever feel that way about River Phoenix when you’re screening My Own Private Idaho?

No. I pretty much have a complete appropriation, so the person that goes into the film just becomes part of the film, and even though personal memories can cross my mind, I see River in Idaho as the character that he’s playing.

What do you think it is about youth that you keep coming back to? My friend always jokes that I have arrested development. Do you feel like that?

I think that’s part of it. But I think that the arrested development is really just part of being youthful in your way of thinking. I always remember the Marx Brothers saying that they felt like they were fourteen. I think they had to feel that way, or else they’d never have been able to be the Marx Brothers. As an artist, you’re trying to have a playful mind. I think for me, the youthful characters are just the most interesting part of life.

A lot of people ask me if I’m going to continue photographing young people as I get older. It’s a hard question for me to answer because, well, I don’t know. Maybe. I feel like youth is what I’m most interested in because it’s a time in your life when there’s so many possibilities and so much confusion and anger and optimism, and it’s all wrapped up together. But I never know how to answer that question.

Yes, it’s complicated. For example, there’s a couple that took photographs of water towers—

Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Right, and if you had asked them, “Are you going to continue to shoot water towers for the rest of your life,” they might have said, “Oh yes, of course,” because that’s their deal. So if you’re shooting people ages fourteen to twentyfive— that’s sort of my age group—then maybe that’s your deal. It’s a more common orientation than water towers, I think. Otherwise, you would see a lot of water tower art. Some people paint barns. I think that’s a New England

representation of tranquility, but you can see tranquility in your photos of young people. I don’t know how to answer it either.

Whomever I’m photographing, I sort of fall in love with, or rather my camera falls in love with them. It could be a boy or a girl, because it’s all a fantasy. It’s fiction. But people still look at photographs like they’re one hundred percent real. There’s this idea that the image I’m showing them is documentary, and so they project their own ideas about what’s going on. People will come up to me and say the weirdest things about my photographs.

Oh really?

Yeah, they’ll describe something, and I’ll be like, “Are you sure you’re talking about my photo?” And they’ll say, “Yeah, you know, the one where the person’s running from the burning car.” Where they got that idea, I have no clue. But just getting back to what I was saying, I feel like there is a sense that you really have to love someone to photograph them. Not in an intimate sense, but I have to fall in love with someone with my camera to make really good pictures of them. It’s almost like I get hypnotized watching them.

A lot of times with my lead characters, my attention becomes absorbed by them. I’ve noticed that especially with Matt Dillon, Sean Penn, River and Keanu, and Mike Pitt. But when they’re out of costume, they’re totally different people.

I always feel like my models look sexier with clothes on. I’m spending so much time investigating their bodies and having them do all these strenuous activities while nude, so when they put their clothes on, I’m like, “Oh wow, you look great.”

Well, clothes do make people sexier.

Yeah, it’s funny, and it’s always shocking to see that. Okay, so you’ve worked with a lot of people and you’ve probably met all your heroes. Do you think that you should meet your heroes, or do you think it’s disappointing?

It depends on whether your heroes want to meet you.