Downtown

Nora Burnett Abrams, 2017

 

“. . .[The] residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” 

 

Ryan McGinley was born in Ramsay, New Jersey, the youngest of eight children, but he came of age in Manhattan and was raised by his fellow skaters, graffiti writers, artists, misfits, outcasts and outsiders whom he encountered in the specific neighborhood of New York’s East Village. He visited the city often as a child, first to visit his older brother, who was gay, dressed in drag and lived with his partner on the Upper East Side, and then, as a young teen, to skateboard and to experiment in all manner of adventures and altered states.

 

McGinley attended Parsons School of Design, initially to study painting, then poetry, and then graphic design, before taking a class with George Pitts titled “Nudity, Sexuality and Beauty in Photography.” Those three ideas are central currents coursing through McGinley’s work from 1998 to today, though they manifest in far-ranging ways. During the period of 1998-2003, the focused time period of this study, they appear intimately attached to McGinley’s own life [fig. 1]. In fact, the intimacy of lithe, at times nude bodies intertwined or isolated, and bathed in pure light—a signal aspect of McGinley’s photographic approach—in this body of work is born of the artist and his close-knit group of friends at that time. And to a certain degree, the twinning of his community and his work, that blending of his art with his life, and the fulfillment of photography as documentation of a life being lived, are a part of a long continuum of art enmeshed with life sited squarely—singularly—in Downtown New York [fig. 2]. 

 

One need not look too far back in history to identify a conceptual complement to McGinley’s cultivation of his Downtown context. Though McGinley’s work is often discussed in relation to photographers who similarly turned their cameras to the engrossing scene in which they lived, such as Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, a more apt counterpoint is the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. To put McGinley’s early work in dialogue with that of Basquiat’s is to foreground the absolute indistinguishability between the lives they were living and the art they were making. In this vein, McGinley’s photographs of his and his friends’ antics, experiments, dynamics and emotional rollercoasters advance several key aspects of Basquiat’s own early works [fig. 3]. And, ultimately, bringing the elder artist’s work to bear on McGinley’s underscores precisely the connection to and filtering of popular culture, the celebration of youth, the direct and raw immediacy, and the diaristic approach that so characterizes his photographs from this moment.

 

Their biographies might read differently, but, pressingly, they both came of age in lower Manhattan, a denizen of cultural and political permissiveness. It’s difficult to say whether the neighborhood shaped their lives or their lives gave color to the neighborhood, but, the very interdependence of the two—context and work, life and setting, art and life—illuminates the singular importance of this location as a muse and a stage for their creative impulses. 

 

The long and rich history of the East Village and much of lower Manhattan as a hub of activity for the counter-culture of the 1960s and its artistic freedom of the 1970s established a backdrop against which Basquiat and McGinley conceived their early work and realized it. This area’s storied past as a site of neglect, poverty, and ethnic diversity, enabled it to become a site for those operating outside of the mainstream to pursue their own paths [fig. 4]. One epicenter of downtown, the Bowery, was synonymous with Skid Row for much of the 20th century. But its “unsavory” character kept landlords, commercial businesses and urban developers away from altering its physical and cultural authenticity. And, it is this very authenticity that attracted the artists, writers, counter-cultural thinkers, activists and actors and enabled the neighborhood to resist the pressures of conventional authorities and systems of power. As Sharon Zukin notes, “From the 1950s through the 1980s most cultural migrants came to the East Village because they felt ‘different,’ and they believed the neighborhood was ‘authentic’ because of its concentration of difference. . . . In contrast to the high crime rates and drug dealers that made the neighborhood dangerous, the East Village offered a safe space to be as different as possible.” As the writer and activist Jane Jacobs noted in her landmark study, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the architecture and urban design of New York City’s downtown neighborhoods enabled life to take place on the street. Limited living spaces and a plethora of public gathering sites shifted socializing from the private home to the public street. It was on the street where relationships were formed, ideas conceived, and, crucially, communities connected. Jacobs’ analysis of the West Village could easily extend eastward as a way of better understanding not simply why Basquiat and McGinley emerged in this location, but rather, how their work came to be. Without the contingencies of downtown—the cramped spaces of tiny apartments, the lack of mainstream commerce, the absence of “official” culture, the historical acceptance of alternative approaches to lifestyle as well as creative practice—these artists would not have been able to produce the very works for which they received their initial distinction. Without context, there is no content. 

 

Basquiat first received much attention while operating under the pseudonym, SAMO©. A project initially conceived with his high-school friend Al Diaz, SAMO© (Same old shit) was his tag and he marked it all over the environs of the East Village and Lower East Side—the very confines of the burgeoning avant-garde community of artists living in New York in the late 1970s. Under the guise of SAMO©, Basquiat’s word-based graffiti often used the language of conceptual art to announce himself, introducing his signature amalgamation of contemporary art, popular culture, advertising, and slang as his own distinct voice on the street. His graffiti was poetic, political, powerful. It stung and it was funny; it startled and was smart; it was cool and familiar, all at once. Such commentary moved easily from the street to the artist’s notebooks, works on paper and, ultimately, his bold and expressively gestured paintings. He worked as a filter, absorbing information from multiple sources and reanimating it in varied ways that brought the spirit of the dynamic street life onto the paper of his studio. 

 

McGinley’s early works are similarly attached to the street life of a downtown New York that preceded gentrification. As Teddy Liouliakis reflects in this publication, he and Ryan moved to East 7th street (just 5 blocks south of Basquiat’s first permanent address since running away from home) “before it turned.” But before living there, McGinley frequented the neighborhood as a teenager, seeking out a space where his differences were accepted. The community he formed and which clearly formed him included skaters and graffiti writers, namely those from the Irak crew, a group which in fact was its own collection of outliers and misfits, who operated outside of “official” graffiti culture and whose character was formed by two personalities that challenged then-held stereotypes—the descendent of a privileged family (Dash Snow) and a gay, African-American runaway (Kunle Martins). Being so different bound them together. Importantly, by the time McGinley turned to photography, he was already thoroughly enmeshed in the Irak crew, though he himself did not write [fig. 5]. This is a key point because it makes clear that he was not a voyeur, sneaking around them trying to remain indistinct. Instead, McGinley’s photographs of Dash Snow and Kunle Martins in the midst of their action are pure and raw and explicit. He is right there with them. And, powerfully, his photos capture the thrill, the fear, the disbelief, and the ambition that drove the writers in the first place. 

 

Beyond the subject depicted in Dash Leaning Over the Edge or Dash Bombing [fig. 6], McGinley’s composition and other formal choices also exhibit a similar rawness. The prints’ graininess purposefully suggests a lack of refinement or finish. And yet, the balance of a lighted window with the light of Dash Snow’s other-worldly glow creates an arresting image. The raindrops on Kunle in Preparation [fig. 7] return the viewer to the rooftop of this photograph’s origin. The watermarks from the camera allow the viewer to feel as though the experience is unfolding and we are a part of this adventure. In capturing the antics of his transgressive friends, McGinley chose candor over theater—which is to say that he did not set up a stage on which they could be manipulated with light or action. Instead, he captured the drama already built into their lives, their own daily activities. Bringing the viewer as close as possible to the thrill, fear, jubilation, and anxiety of these moments is a hallmark of McGinley’s work at this time. It is the very essence, in fact, of what Susan Sontag declared in 1977 regarding the role of the photograph to suffice as or even to supplant the actual experience. As she wrote, “It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing. Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.” McGinley capitalizes on this notion of experience being supplanted by the photographic document. The texture of his work—its coarseness, its truncated or cropped frame, its single light source—speaks directly to Sontag’s point about our contemporary devotion to the photograph, so much so that it can stand in for, even replace, the authentic experience itself. 

 

In an early article on McGinley and his crew of downtown misfits, his photos were described as “documenting the life you are too busy to enjoy. He’s capturing the artists, writers, musicians and designers you’ve been reading about all day. You don’t need to destroy your liver and blow out your septum. You can get it all vicariously [through his work]”—a provocative testament to the seductive nature of his photographs [fig. 8]. Particularly with some of the more graphic works, such as McGinley’s “puke” series [fig. 9], in which he documented himself in the moment of wretching, viewers almost prefer the photograph to the experience itself. Abject and gripping, these photos bring the viewer so close to the experience, that it is only through the safety of the two dimensional print that viewing is protected from a barrage.

 

The “puke” photos also attest to a complete collapse between McGinley as artist and McGinley as subject. A key feature of his work from this time period is McGinley’s repeated turn of his camera onto himself [fig. 10]. He photographed himself in his room, on the streets, hanging out, getting beat up, having sex, being reckless, being introspective, being extroverted, posing, at ease, joyful, and in pain. He captured everything he did, from experiences to performances to emotionally impactful moments [figs. 11-13]. He shows himself bleeding, crying, cumming. He shows himself in love, in torment, and in drug-induced haze. This is a key point because McGinley is as vulnerable, as complicit, in the activities he documents, as his friends are. He is no voyeur, but rather, a willing, and brave subject himself. This is a moment for him of personal and creative liberation—both a coming out sexually, and a coming into or discovery of photography. This is a period of self-doubt, self-confidence, and self-loathing, all at once. And, with those images taken at moments of both pain and of ecstasy, he is trying to bring us in—bring us as close as possible to the emotion of that moment that he himself experienced. More than a breakdown between art and life, he presents a breakdown between artist and audience—a literal breaking down of the most private, intimate moments so that we can share in the jubilation and the sorrow, the adventure and the fear, of a life being lived

 

Certainly such actions and activities recur in any context that includes precocious teens and young adults, but the exigencies of downtown New York played an important role in this body of work because it enabled him to claim his experiences as his art. The work was born of the culture of permissiveness that permeated every street corner of Lower Manhattan at that time. A neighborhood with a history of acceptance and tolerance of transgression, experimentation, and, most importantly, a rejection of the mainstream, dominant culture—whether that is in politics, in architecture, in fashion, or in sex. The point here is that the environment conditioned the behavior, which, in turn, became the subject of his art and which brought his art into his life, marking them as forever entwined and irrevocably knotted together.

 

Turning the camera onto himself in such a diaristic, nearly confessional way, McGinley pioneered a type of self-portrait that seems to anticipate the smartphone selfie [fig. 14]. What McGinley identified and exploited, though ultimately abandoned after 2003, is the scrutiny of one’s self through the photograph. McGinley not only turned his camera on himself in moments of activity, but he also took hundreds of Polaroids of himself, posed and poised in his apartment and other downtown environs [figs. 15-19]. The profundity of his type of self-examination is made clear by the sheer volume he produced during this time period. 

 

Snaphsots of his daily life, the Polaroids were taken at all hours of the day and in all manner of dress or undress. Between 1999 and 2003, he took a Polaroid of every single person who visited his apartment, as well as countless others he met while out at night. He produced over 10,000 Polaroids of his friends, family, unknown visitors, and himself [figs. 20-22]. He would then arrange each photo on his wall, labeled with the name and the date of his subject. A photograph of McGinley and his then boyfriend Marc lying on his bed, Ryan and Marc [fig. 23], reveals the Polaroid series colonizing the walls around them. 

 

There is a visual rhythm to these images that becomes apparent when looking at them in a series. In nearly all of them, McGinley shot his subject against a stark white wall (it was actually a large piece of white material that he or a friend schlepped around each night to “stage” his shots). In some, the border of this screen is visible [fig. 24], making clear the setup that we are viewing and also revealing a key contradiction of this series: the idea of fiction contained within that most immediate, direct, candid of mediums, the Polaroid. Even when taking Polaroids outside, on the roof of his apartment building, all subjects are set against a plain white wall. The starkness of the background of course enables the personality of the subject to become more pronounced, more distinct and individuated. 

 

While some figures make silly faces or gestures, what is remarkable, is to see specific individuals who recur over the course of 4 years. A single individual transforms into hundreds of different personalities over time. Dash by a window, Dash on the phone, Dash drenched by rain, Dash debaucherous with a friend—the same person represented in the same way but the end result is a cast of characters [figs 25-29]. 

 

Documenting these characters relates nicely to the history of photography and ideas around the archive. August Sander’s un-sentimental profiles of German citizens from the 1930s is a notable forebear to McGinley’s project. His straightforward representations of bakers, teachers, steel workers, etc. subjected every figure to the same formal conditions. Cataloguing his fellow citizens in this way, Sander’s project made clear a diversity within the population but did so in the least invasive way. His series is a testament to diversity, but almost in spite of his efforts to create an impersonal, pseudo-scientific archive or database of the national population. 

 

Another precursor to McGinley’s project is Andy Warhol’s series of screen tests. Using 16mm film, Warhol shot “portraits” of hundreds of visitors to his studio during the years 1963-66. Dennis Hopper, Lucinda Childs, Allan Ginsburg, Salvador Dali and countless others stood in the same location in front of a fixed camera and, for a fixed amount of time predetermined by the length of film, participated in this project. Warhol’s series in many ways corrals the avant-garde of New York at that time. Using the same background and duration for each screen test belies the distinctiveness of each performer and rich diversity of character throughout the series. Taken as a whole, the screen tests offer a study in human behavior—the desire to present oneself in a certain way, to alter one’s personality before the camera, and the vulnerability of such performances on camera. 

 

McGinley’s series of Polaroids, offers a typology of downtown, youth culture. He documented the different types of kids who were in his life and who occupied or inhabited his environs: graffiti writers, skaters, artists, designers, models, druggies, writers. There is no uniform stance or position taken by his subjects, nor does the background reveal anything additional about the individual on camera. What the series does reveal is the (authentic) diversity of this scene. People of every different racial background populate this series and they are shown in various states of undress, provocative pose, prosaic or wild activity. Taken together, this massive body of work testifies to that cultural permissiveness which McGinley personally sought out, which was institutionalized in his lower Manhattan neighborhood and which then enabled these photographs to emerge. Without that setting of tolerance, McGinley would not have been able to document such wild, experimental, and riotous subjects.

 

In many ways, the Polaroid series offers a lexicon of McGinley’s own approach to photography that continues today. An isolated individual engaging directly with the camera, the single light source, exploiting the daylight to create a magical moment outside—all of these devices will become the hallmarks of McGinley’s studio work and his roadtrip-based scenes of nudes in majestic, natural settings [fig. 30]. Seeding this later work, the Polaroids establish a formal language that distinguishes the artist’s approach to balancing light, composition, and framing so that the starkness of an isolated subject becomes more vivid and provocative. Dan with the dog draped around his shoulders surely anticipates McGinley’s body of work that culminated in his Animals series; [figs. 31-32] images of Sam, standing in a ¾ pose and filling the frame suggests McGinley’s ability to endow his subjects with great integrity and gravitas in his studio [figs. 33-34]; Dash swathed in creamy natural light, seducing the viewer with his stare, presents an intensity of focus evocative of later studio portraits [fig. 35]; and his repeated “pose” of a subject with his arms out and serious gaze (see Kunle, Marc), evidence a developing gesture that will recur beyond the Polaroid series [figs. 36-37]. 

 

But, here is the rub: McGinley’s Polaroids curry in truth-telling, in objective fact. And yet, after surveying this body of work, one must ask the fundamental question: what is staged and what is real? What is a setup and what is authentic? And, crucially, does it matter? Sontag offers an important claim on photography’s position as a fulcrum between fact and fiction. She writes, “the camera’s ability to transform reality into something beautiful derives from its relative weakness as a means of conveying truth. The reason that humanism has become the reigning ideology of ambitious professional photographers—displacing formalist justifications of their quest for beauty—is that it masks the confusions about truth and beauty underlying the photographic enterprise.” Sontag’s “humanism” can be interpreted here as that quality in the photograph that enables the viewer to relate to or connect with the subject on a visceral, emotional level and, importantly, relate it directly to one’s own experiences. It refers to a type of connection to the photograph based on pathos and power. As she writes, “In humanist jargon, the highest vocation of photography is to explain man to man.” But the problem with photography, as she notes, is that it struggles with fact. And, McGinley’s Polaroid series is a monumental affirmation of this issue: for, the sheer variety of a single subject’s treatment over the course of four years, questions the very veracity of the image. Which photograph captures the “real” Dan Colen or Dash Snow or, critically, Ryan McGinley? Sure, they all might contribute, collectively, to an understanding of that person, or they might all function as an approximation of a character, an abstraction or even a caricature at times. Viewers might want to believe that the more solemn images are more “real” than the rowdy or jokesy ones, but who is to say? The very strength of this series is that it presents itself as fact, but in actuality, it is built upon a contrivance. As “real” and direct, as candid and “honest,” as these images might appear, they are staged, as the tape holding up the white screen so brazenly announces. 

 

Staging and more elaborate productions will become the hallmark of McGinley’s work post-2003. Much is noted about how there is a break in McGinleys work from the densely documented, heady days with his eclectic group of friends and the melding of nude figures into the natural landscape that has become his preoccupation over the last decade. But, there are of course threads of consistency that bind these series together: how he conjures a sense of optimism and freedom, a sense of exhilaration, and a sense of ephemerality—a consciousness about the brevity of each moment. David Rimanelli has discussed McGinley’s later work as approaching death, and frankly, it is quite possible to read the early work through this lens as well: as a foreboding of the rapid ascent and decline of young people falling rapturously in love not just with one another but also with altered states of mind, with restlessness, and recklessness. McGinley’s work of 1998-2003 details a personal adventure that kissed the tipping point from curiosity to perilousness; it is an elegy to the city that served as a backdrop and platform for enabling such an adventure to unfold. 

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, “Downtown,” in Ryan McGinley: The Kids Were Alright (Denver: MCA Denver and New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2017): 15-24. 

 

 

Dan Colen & Ryan Converation, 2017

R: I was trying to think about the first time we met. I met you in Leonia at—what was that park?

 

D: Wood Park

 

R: I remember our moment when we had our “life” talk in the parking lot, and I showed you my art portfolio that was in my trunk. The painting of the digital man with the computer head, and the nude life drawings, my self-portraits and drawings of Kate Moss.

 

D: You secretly confessed to me that you had traced some of the drawings by using an overhead projector.

 

R: Yeah I used the overhead projector for so much stuff and it was so scandalous because there were also all these architectural drawings. I just desperately wanted to get into art school, and get the fuck out of the suburbs. I needed to make sure my portfolio was really good. And it worked, you know, Parsons gave me a free ride. But yeah, a lot of it wasn't my naked eye and hand.

 

D: After you left for college we had two gaps where we didn’t see each other; there was your first year at Parsons, and at the end of that year you had moved into Bleecker Street with the dominatrix, Cindy. And there was another eight-month gap when I disappeared to my first year at RISD. When I came to visit you at Bleecker Street, there was this advancement in your life. You'd become a New Yorker. I remember thinking you had developed a real city lifestyle. There were new people, new connections, drugs, nightlife, a new routine, a comfortability, you know. I feel like, with your neighbor Cindy, it was such a huge learning experience for you. She had kind of fallen in love with you and adored you. I guess in retrospect, she allowed this advancement that was beyond anything any 18-year-old kid could've done on his own. But to have some high-class call girl who just adored you connect you to nightlife and drug life and…

 

R: Gay guys! When you came to visit me early on I was too embarrassed to tell you that I had come out of the closet. That was the worst part of initially coming out, it's not that you have to do it once, you have to do it with everybody, and then there's people you don't see for months, and you're like, "oh my god, how am I going to work this into the conversation with this person." And then we just partied and I didn't get to tell you, and it was probably another five months until I saw you. I had moved to the East Village and told you. We went down to Cherry Tavern, and we were drinking there, and you said "what's up with girls" to me, and I was, like, "what? I'm gay, man.”

 

D: Yeah you were like “You don't know that?" And I was, like, "no, I don't know that." You were, like, "everybody's kinda gay here; he's gay," you pointed at Kunle, and then to Jack and I was, like, "what?" And it blew my mind. I thought we were straight skateboarders from New Jersey. You were so smooth with girls in high school, you had so many hot girlfriends. Like, if you, were gay, what did it mean for me? It was a big question; I didn't have to deal with you being gay, I kind of had to deal with me being straight. Even if I didn't want to ask myself that question, I ‘had’ to ask myself that question. I didn't know what I wanted my art to be about yet, I remember that crisis of identity was what I was really able to tune into.

 

R: You went back to school and made those jewelry paintings, which were about this mixed up personality. The hip-hop Cartier jewelry with the feminine script over them, I really loved those. You know, the one inspired by Jack Walls that said “You knew me for years.” I don't remember you ever leaving and going back to school. I feel like my life then was just one long day. I think every opportunity you had, you were down at my apartment.

 

D: Your apartment was where I needed to be. At RISD I was a horrible student—I wasn't connected to the department at all. I just knew that you and everyone else were my people, and everyone at RISD were not. Do you still have the silkscreens you were doing around that time?

 

R: Yes of course, I keep everything. I was using that small silkscreening machine made in Japan called ‘printing with Gocco.’ It was small so I could make the silkscreens in my apartment. That’s how my polaroid series first started. I had to isolate the person on a white wall to make a clean silkscreen image of their picture.

 

D: I was wondering how your Polaroid series got started. I remember you photographing me on the roof against the white wall for that. That was still when you were a graphic designer. You were applying those silkscreens like graffiti.

 

R:  What was it like getting your Polaroid taken every day for, about five years?

 

D: It was an awesome project to get to be a part of. Sometimes, it was annoying, but that's only like when you dragged me up the roof right when I woke up. There were a lot of moments like that, when you saw an opportunity of someone vulnerable, and you really just forced it. In general, I just loved it, and I think that you can see that in these.

 

R: Do you remember when I took your photo on the roof when you were high on Angel Dust, what did that feel like then, and what does it feel like now? That photo was purchased by The Whitney and is now one of the main images to illustrate their new exhibition at their new space.

 

D: That photo really defines a period of time for me where you weren't a studio artist, you were kind of this lifestyle artist. In reality, you spent so much time in your apartment, but your apartment was also the clubhouse, so you were editing and scanning and printing in there, like a studio, but that's also where we chilled and you made a lot of your early work. And the same for Dash, where his house was his studio, but we all chilled there too. My studio at that time was isolated. I'd trek out on the subway to Coney Island every day, and I'd spend many hours there, and then at midnight, I'd come back to the East Village and meet up with you guys and we’d start partying.

 

R: That photo of you was one of those nights.

 

D: Yeah, I got in at 2:30am, I went to Agathe’s restaurant La Poeme. The jar of PCP had been floating around the East Village, it was like ‘an entity,’ it was moving between people. It was famous, somebody would have it, and they couldn't handle it, you know, it was like ‘the ring’ from the Lord of the Rings. It was bouncing around, and somebody else would pick it up and have it for a week, but nobody had burned through it because it made them too crazy.

 

R: Yeah, Dash said he was too burnt out from doing it.

 

D: I hadn’t tried it yet, and I started doing it at 5am. I don't remember a lot, I remember I woke up, and someone’s unconscious, laying on the floor, and I honestly don't know, like, are they dead? Where am I? What universe am I in? I went into the bathroom, to try to look at myself in the mirror, and I saw that I was completely covered in sharpie tags, totally covered by cocks & Swasitkas that Dash had drawn all over me.

 

R: He had also written Boy George and Puke Dick (laughs)

 

D: I was, like, "what the fuck am I going to do?" I started walking back home with my hand against every wall on every street trying to balance myself so I wouldn't fall on my face. I also felt like the sky was going to fall down on me. So one hand was on the buildings walls, and one hand over my head, trying to balance walking one step at a time. I couldn’t find my shirt and I couldn't physically zip up the jacket, so I just left the house like that and I was totally freaked out. It was a hot summer morning in the East Village. The Puerto Rican guys were starting to play dominos and eat pork rinds. Joggers had just started running on the street, and at the time I could barely walk, and it was the longest walk of shame, I was so fucking scared that I would never make it to home. I was scared of the cops, I was scared of getting in a fight, I was scared of death. I finally got there, and I was so relieved.

 

R: I remember you gently tapping on my door about 7am, all I heard were whispers of my name over and over again. “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan…” When I opened the door and saw you I was scared for you but then I realized you were fine and I kind of thought it was funny and got excited. You looked totally insane and amazing, kind of like a sculpture. You were pretty much naked and covered head to toe in Sharpie marker tags, even on your penis. Dash had really worked hard on fully covering you. I wrapped a yellow crocheted blanket around you and brought you up to the roof. It seemed like you needed some air and I also wanted to document you with the beautiful early morning magic hour light.

 

D: Yeah, you were, like, "come on, lets get some air,” and I was, like, "I'm going to fucking die." And you were, like, "we're going to the roof,” and I was, like, "no, no, no," but, I didn't want you to leave me.

 

R: After we shot some photos I remember I gave you some milk in the kitchen because I had read somewhere that calms people down from angel dust. Then I slept with you in your bed, I had to hold you, until you eventually passed out, and we woke up at 2pm. Then you went right back to your studio, like nothing had ever happened.

 

D: Then I came back at 3am the next night and we did the PCP again! We did it in a taxi cab, and we were like, we'll never do that again! We just started smoking the PCP in the cab, which is crazy to think about what that did to the cab driver, because any whiff of those fumes would fuck you up, we were hot boxing him.

 

R: Yes you told me the cab turned into this concert hall, like Lincoln Center in the back of the cab.

 

D: That portrait of me is representative of so many things that have become bookmarks in my life. It is so representative of what we were up to. And it's really one of the only photos that you printed of me that's, like, art.

 

R: Do you remember seeing it at my Whitney show in 2003?

 

D: Man, it's crazy how different it all is. Back then I was just some kid high on PCP in a photo and you were some fucking kid, who they gave a solo show to at the fucking Whitney.

 

R: Do you think we understood ourselves as a group of artists back then?

 

D: When Dike Blair was my teacher at RISD, the advice he had for me starting to live as an artist in New York, was “there's no way to do it unless you just get a good group of artist friends, that's the best chance you've got.” You get a group of friends, and together, you try to figure it out. It's not necessarily about the work, but about this collective energy, and whose attention you can draw on, and from there you can show people your work.”

 

R: I love that advice, Dike was the teacher that you really connected with. He was kind of an academic artist, which I felt none of us really were.

 

D: Well, I feel like you were a photo expert, but in terms of greater art history, as a group, we definitely weren’t academics. Much later on when we met Nate Lowman and Banks Violet and Gardar Eide Einarsson, they were all grad students. They really knew art history. Our cache was that we were local. We came from here, we were all downtown kids, who were more in the scene. We didn't even know about historical artistic movements.

 

R: We had street cred.

 

D: But then you went and got a fucking show at the Whitney; none of us had a gallerist, none of us knew what any of this shit meant, then you got a show at the Whitney, and that's art history, that's the art institution. So it made something realistic. Until you did that, so many things were never going to be possible, and then it was almost like anything was possible. It was really important for me. Your early ambition and ability to do it yourself, and ability to connect, meet, and seduce, were massive inspirations to me. Even before there was anyone saying, "yeah, let's give it to him," you were just taking it. You’re first DIY show at 420 Broadway was inspirational. You felt like your photos were art, and you felt that someone should hang it and people should see it. You didn't know enough to know that that's not how you do it. So you just did it.

 

R: I’ve never even thought about that. . .

 

D: It was crazy to see. It just helped me be, like, “Fuck, all I need to do is take this shit seriously and believe in it. So let me just double down and really believe in it.” You were so committed to what you were doing, and took it so seriously from such an early moment. I don't think I had it in me to bust through the doors that you busted through. I was able to pick up the pace at a certain point, but I just didn't have the same style or social charisma that you did. I don't think I could've ever made it without watching your whole approach. And you were really generous with your connections, and that's what Dike was saying, you meet a friend they meet a friend. That's literally what happened, and beyond an inspiration, you jump-started me.

 

R: That means so much, Dan.

 

D: I think Dash also saw the style in which you were working—the camera, and how you molded situations and people into being your models, your subjects, into being your compositions, into being everything. He also saw that you didn't need a studio practice, like how you were operating everything out of your room in the apartment of 7th street. And we all saw how, once you got into photography, you wanted to learn every single thing about it.

 

R: Do you remember me building up my personal library early on, I was such an insanely voracious collector (laughs)

 

D: It was amazing. Yeah. None of us had books back then, but you would spend your last dollar on them. You know, it had a major influence on Dash.

 

R: Dash and I spent a lot of time looking at photo books together.

 

D: I did it with him with art. I know we both sat with him and just showed him stuff.

 

R: I think he was just so perplexed that we were so into it. Our situations were very different because of our backgrounds. I really had to take it seriously, make a career happen because if I didn’t succeed I’d have to go back to New Jersey with my tail between my legs and work at Starbucks.

 

D: You and I had to go to college. My parents worked their asses off their whole lives to make sure all their kids went to college. There were no vacations, there was no extra cars, everything was very basic. Every cent was saved for our college tuitions. Dash dropped out of school, we couldn't do that.

 

R: True.

 

D: What we learned in college was we saw people create, and we understood what it meant to make art because we got to watch other artists do it. Dash was hostile to art because he didn't know what making art was, he only knew what collecting art was, and he hated that, and he went on to try to defy that. He tried not to sell things, he tried to give things away.

 

R: He tried to throw things out.

 

D: I think we both showed him, like, "I don't do anything different than you, just at the end of the night I just spend the time to file these negatives and Polaroids away." I think that was a huge revelation to him because he didn't know that a record of his escapades could be called “art.” He was making his art before he defined it as such.

 

R: When Bruce Labruce came into our lives he taught us something different. He really helped mythologize us as the wildest, insane group of young artists living in downtown New York at that time.

 

D: He didn’t have to do that much man, we were! (laughs)

 

R: Yes, and having a journalist in our crew was cool because he wrote a bunch of early articles about us too. He wrote the seminal article about IRAK in Vice around 2000.

 

D:  If we are talking about influences lets talk about Jack Walls, my man.

 

R: Yes, of course! You read my mind, I was saving the best for last. It was so important for my development to hear all the stories about Robert Mapplethorpe from him. Since Jack was his boyfriend and he actually modeled in so many of Robert’s photos, I got to hear first hand how the legend actually worked.

 

D: In terms of photography Jack and George Pitts probably taught you the most. Two black guys twenty years older than you gave you your photo education.

 

R: This is true. With Jack I remember going to his loft party in 1998. I arrived at 4am and there was a Robert Mapplethorpe book on his coffee table. I was flipping through it and mentioned that I was learning about ‘that dude,’ and he opened it up to a spread and there was a photo of Jack in his Navy uniform!

 

D: Was your mind blown?

 

R: I couldn’t believe it was the actual person standing right in front of me. The photo was so stylized I almost didn’t believe it but he did have a strong resemblance to the person who was in the book, it couldn’t have been anybody but him. I was, like, "holy shit! You're actually in that book! That's you!” He said, “Yeah you dumbass, look there’s a bunch of photos of me in it." I was like, "but that's Robert Mapplethorpe, the guy I'm learning about in college, how is this even possible?" That was such a major headfuck, and it just opened my eyes further.

 

D: You understood that Jack was just a kid then, he was part of this photographer’s world and vision, and now here’s the real person standing in front of you.

 

R: I guess I just stupidly assumed everyone in Mapplethorpe’s photographs was dead but then within seconds I was making all these connections. He’s like, a famous piece of art, and a real living human being standing in front of me. I left that party baffled but also with a new best friend and mentor.

 

D: Yeah, Jack is just such a radical dude, being gay, a teenage gang banger, once in the navy, a poet, and black. Like, you couldn't have checked more boxes of coolness, and just being down to drink with us every single night. He also opened our eyes about what it meant to be a living artist.

 

R: Do you remember when Larry Clark was at the apartment all the time in 2002, and when he brought me and Eric to our first 12 step meeting?

 

D: It was when I'd gotten beat up really bad and you had brought him over to see my wreckage, as one of the many things you'd brought him over for, and I told my story to his video camera.

 

R: Yes, he was coming over that summer because Showtime wanted to make the movie Kids into a weekly TV series, so he called me up to help him develop it. He was just, like, "Ryan, your whole crew is what I should be writing about." One night he sat Dash, Donald and me down in my room and he was like, "okay guys, I want to talk to you. After interviewing you all, I want to let you know you're all drug addicts.” I wasn’t really expecting that. He was like “I don't do drugs, and I'm going to go to a 12 step meeting right now, who wants to come with me?" And I shyly raised my hand, like in grade school, and was like, "I guess I'll go," and Donald was, like, "I'll go," and Dash was, like, “Nah, I don't wanna go." Literally from that moment on was my journey into trying to get sober. It definitely planted a seed in my mind that I needed to chill.

 

D: Yes, I remember that.

 

R: From the Summer of 2002 and onwards, I just had my own crazy versions of trying not to party and was constantly failing, but I kept trying.

 

D: Right, that was all from that, wow.

 

R: Are there any photos that stand out to you when you think about the early 2000’s?

 

D: When you brought Lizzy to jump on the mini trampoline at bar The Cock. The picture of Donald with the giant hard on, The photo of A-ron sitting on the train tracks, when you took your first trip upstate in 2002. 

 

R: I mean, that trip was an important moment for me.

 

D: A little beginning of the end.

 

R: From when I moved to Manhattan in September 1996 to the moment I went Upstate to visit you in August 2002 I rarely left New York City. I was on a mission to becoming a ‘real New Yorker.’  That trip unlocked something from my childhood and the magic of nature. 

 

D: It was kind of the birth of your roadtrips.

 

R: Yes, at that point I was kind of a documentary photographer shooting Manhattan’s downtown artistic scene. The way that A-ron rallied that group of people together, rented a 15 passenger van, and got a bunch of young artists that ‘never’ leave the city to leave Manhattan and go Upstate, like, that moment, I was like...

 

D: You're giving that to A-ron, huh? I never thought about that, that's amazing.

 

R: I mean, he's the one that connected so many different communities downtown. He was like the best camp counselor, you know. He rallied 15 people together and was like, we're gonna go visit Dan, because we really missed you. We got into the van, and three hours later we were in a whole other universe. We left the city in the dust and were running in grass fields like little kids and it was so fun, and we were just on ATVs, swimming in rivers, and climbing trees.

 

D: Don’t forget, running naked through fireworks.

 

R: Yeah, I remember I had A-Ron make a pit stop on the border in Pennsylvania first to buy lots of fireworks, Dash really wanted to get them too. Dakota ran through them naked first, and a little touchstone of my work was born, yup, that happened there.

 

D:  It was crazy that I decided to go paint upstate. I remember saying, I have to finish these paintings, I can’t do it in the city, and the fact that my decision brought you up there, that changed the whole direction of your work from that point on is really crazy. That’s what it takes, it takes a group, because even young kids don't have enough good ideas on their own. One person isn't going to make complex art, they have to react with their friends making other decisions that contradict their own logic, and defy their own assumptions and let them do bolder things. It’s important that artists break their own molds.

 

R: Do you want to talk about September 11th? Our crew was kind of born out of that tragedy.

 

D: We had this really diverse, eclectic group that came out of that. It wasn't about art, per say, it was about the city, it was about the streets. I think that the fact that you and I were just artists in this group of wild characters was important. I don't know if we were more so than others, but I think that defined us.

 

R: (flipping through photos) This photo of Sammy riding his bike downtown on 9-11 will be in the show. We were out the night before it until 5am.

 

D: I remember smoking dope with Kunle that night, in your bed.

 

R: I remember we went to sleep around 5:30am, the sun was coming up. Then the buzzer started ringing at around 8:30am, and it was that guy I was dating.

 

D: The librarian, man, the librarian.

 

R: He came upstairs, and was, like, "a plane hit the World Trade Center!” He was crying uncontrollably.

 

D: He was scared of all your friends. The two people in the universe the librarian didn't want to answer the door that morning were me and Kunle.

 

R: He was so hysterical, and he kept saying "a plane just hit the World Trade Center!” I was like “relax, you just moved to New York, stuff like this happens all the time, it's just a little airplane," and he was, like, "nooooo, you don't understand." And I went up to the roof with him, and we couldn't see the towers from our view, but I saw an insane amount of smoke, and I don't know if the second plane hadn't hit yet, or both towers had already been hit, so much smoke that I was like, "whoa, what the fuck is that, that's crazy,"

 

D: We just got our clothes on and ran outside and then downtown.

 

R: Yeah I just grabbed as much film as I could stuff into my pockets and started to walk through the streets and take photos.

 

D: I remember 1st Ave, and everybody coming up, I remember it super vividly, and we crossed over to 2nd Ave, and it was just crazy, everybody running Uptown covered in the soot.

 

R: It defined a new time.

 

D: It had an effect on everything we made, whether we knew it or not. It's in our work, our energy, our force was a product of that feeling we were losing our city, or we were building our city, were we losing ourselves, or building ourselves. That photo of me on the roof, my body covered in graffiti, scared, when I look at that photo, I think of the World Trade Center falling down. I don't know why, but to me, they're very connected.

 

R: We couldn’t have been that crazy if crazy shit wasn't happening around us, you’re right, our city was melting.

 

D: I think we really vented it ourselves, we had no clue what the goal was outside of our minds, we didn't know what the real version of what we wanted was, we just made it up in our heads.

 

R: And Dash was so fascinated by Bin Laden, obsessed with him.

 

D: I think what was important to Dash was so say that there is no such thing as universal moral compass. There are the powers that get to define what's good and evil to the majority of the world, but we know it's all bullshit. Dash was trying to say that George Bush was just as evil as Bin Laden. He wanted to fuck with good guys and bad guys in his work and life.

 

R: Those themes became such a driving force of his work, the way he collected New York Posts and turned them into art. All of his weapons that he turned into art. Sourcing human skulls and turning them into art. I remember he only wanted American skulls which were illegal and very hard to purchase.

 

D: Yeah, he just had such a great touch. He was able to tune in on ‘his’ special items, and fixate on objects that were amazing and do it with much intensity. I don't even know how to put it into words, honestly, what do you say about it?

 

R: I’d say that it was so important you decided to dedicate a year of your life to making an oil painting about his apartment on Avenue C. His apartment was art, it was a giant sculpture.

 

D: It described who he was in so many different ways, his meticulous nature, and also his ragtag style. The notes that guided his life were written all over the walls, it was crazy how fluid he was with objects and the uses of them, whether it was a marker for tagging or a marker for information, writing on the wall, writing on a piece of paper, stabbing the piece of paper onto the wall with a knife. Using that knife…

 

R: In a Polaroid.

 

D: Exactly. He was just collecting these things that were building up, and eventually turned into sculptures. The way you guys worked was show and tell, like your work was something we could look at all night long. Dash’s Polaroids or objects he collected, or your new zines, contact sheets or Polaroids. Just sitting on your bed on 7th Street was somehow a transformative experience.

 

R: Dash’s couch was the same place.

 

D: His apartment only went in this one progressive way, and it was living, it was like a plant, it had new leaves and branches. It was alive; if you brought something there, and left it, it became a part of the place.

 

R: (laughs) Compared to my room in our apartment, which was like the Dewey Decimal system at the library.

 

 

R: I have these dates written down, in the summer of 2002 you were in the barn, my Whitney show opened February 14th, 2003, your Rivington Arm's show opened September 2nd 2003, the ‘New York’ Agnes B show in Paris opened September 18th 2003.

 

D: By September 2nd I had worked for two years in isolation on 4 paintings, there was never going to be a 5th painting ready for the show Agnes held on September 18th. All of a sudden, it was like, hold on a second, all my friends are going to Paris! I said, “Agnes, I have some paintings," and I wrapped these blank boards in bed sheets, and said, "the paintings are in these bed sheets." I got to Paris and that was the moment I made the first spray paint “Holy Shit” painting, and that was a big, important moment in terms of what happened with my art the following years to come. I was only making these super slow works, and now there were these works that were more...

 

R: Gestural and quick, action painting kinda works. Actually very similar to tagging in a way.

 

D: Yeah, so that was the first one ever. That's kind of when Dash and I bonded more.

 

R: I remember him on our trip to Berlin. He was trying to get clean, but he would disappear, he slept out by the river one night, he was really trying. Right after that trip Lily accidentally overdosed and died, then Joey Semz from IRAK committed suicide by overdosing. Also Shawn Mortensen who Dash had lived with for a while in LA shot himself in the head.

 

D: When I first got sober, I remember I got 160 days, and I was, like, "man, if Dash only knew what it was like." 

 

R: Do you ever see that graffiti portrait of Dash on Houston and Allen Street above the Dominos Pizza?

 

D: Yeah, all the time. It just makes me sad. It's amazing that somebody climbed up there and did it. It’s obviously nothing grand, but it's perfect. From that intersection, if you look Uptown you see the Empire State Building, and if you look Downtown you see Dash Snow, it's cool.

 

R: From my apartment window, I can see the Manhattan Bridge, and I see the back of this billboard that has a huge SACE tag on it that’s been there probably since 2000, it’s comforting.

 

D: I remember the first time I went to Europe, and on my trip in Amsterdam I slept on the street one night, and I remember waking up in the early morning and there was a SACE tag, and what it was able to do for me at that moment was so huge.

 

R: It was like he was there, right? When I see a SACE tag now, it’s still like he’s here, a little bit.

 

D: Dash was a seducer, he seduced everybody, sometimes he could do it in a wild way, but he wasn’t ever a mess, he was seducing the whole time.

 

R: He and I were very connected because he was very comfortable in front of my camera, he really wanted to be photographed. He was born to be a star. He became such an important part of my work, because he was the adventure seeker. That was part of his DNA already from his graffiti bombing missions. I was always like,  “alright, let’s go.” Wherever we would end up, we’d sneak onto rooftops and climb inside subway tunnels, sneak onto the highline, crash a party, scale the Manhattan Bridge, go here, go there, which was the best way to take pictures. Then he was so psyched to be in front of the camera.

 

D: I wish that you had photographed me more. I wish I played more of a role like Dash. We all wanted to be stars, and you made us feel like it, that was huge. I knew what was happening, I knew that you were recording our lives, and that was thrilling. You turned us all into characters that were being watched by an audience, and we all wanted to have an audience.

 

R: They were our family photos. It’s funny, in this exhibition of my early work, a handful of photos are images of me that will be printed for the first time. Initially, I would never show them because they were so self-destructive. Pictures of my wrists bloody, pictures of me hysterically crying, pictures of my in the hospital or vomiting. Now that my life is so different I forget about how we all came so close death.

 

D: We got to survive, and Dash didn’t, but his contribution was equal. I guess the point of this show, is saying, “could they have ever existed without each other?” Could one of them have done what he did without the others doing what they did? Dash was your muse, he was like a little brother to me, and he was also a major influence on both of us.

 

R: He was a once in a million kind of person, he was brilliant. But, he always struggled so much with the title “artist”.

 

D: You don’t make the stuff that Dash made as obsessively as Dash did if you don’t want it to become a part of art history. You don’t make that shit. He was in turmoil about it, and he died because of that turmoil, but he wants us talking about his art, he wants his art to live forever.

 

R: Do you think that if he had gotten clean he’d still be making art?

 

D: He used to talk about getting out of the city, and going to India, or Africa, or somewhere. Who knows. He really did try, way before us, he tried many times, he tried before he died. He left his daughter behind, and I think he felt paralyzed to help her, or do better for her than anybody did for him. I think that was part of his demise.

 

R: It was such a tragic ending. It seemed like he didn’t feel like he could accomplish what he wanted to do, which was to be a good father.

 

D: When Dash died, my father called. I picked up the phone, and he was like, “is it true, did Dash die?” And that was the last time I really cried.

 

 

Ivan Vartanian. 2016

This Charming Man

Punctured bicycle / on a hillside desolate / will nature make a man of me yet?

1.

It has been a little over ten years since Ryan McGinley’s work erupted into New York’s photography world with his breakout exhibition The Kids are Alright, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003. This current exhibition at Tokyo Opera City assembles highlights from his career, evolving from its roots in underground scenes to oversized photographs of wide-open landscapes.

2. Visual Culture

Sing your life / just walk right up to the microphone and name / all the things that you love / all the things that you loathe 

Never more has the influence of media been a pervasive presence in daily life. This is in part a byproduct of the changing nature of media, shifting away from acentralized hegemonic broadcast source to something more egalitarian. At the same time, the divide between media consumers and media producers has been punctured by the spread of social media platforms. During this process—an era starting in the 1990s—participating in media became a means of selfactualization as media became interwoven part of our societies. So representation in media can be a matter of existence. The battles for representation in legislature are now superseded by representation in media. The United States of the 1990s was a generation of coming out not just for gays and AIDS awareness but for all cultures that were otherwise invisible in mainstream media, thereby changing subculture to culture in general. The zines made and distributed by Riot Grrrls, for example, was an example of how imperative it was to make their own media—an idea that was spreading rapidly. Seeing one’s own image in a publicly accessed media platform has gone from being a fluke or novelty to being a requisite proof of existence. The proliferation of new media has brought with it the potential for new voices. In this world, representation is a political act. That was the milieu that helped create the stage for Ryan’s work to shine. His early use of the zine as a platform to get his work out into the world is an example of using new media to generate a cascade of self-representation. Taking a photo was one thing but then also becoming an active agent in its dissemination became yet another. Eventually Ryan migrated away from being the autobiographical, habitual photographer to creating structured and composed images. But perhaps what allows him to do so is the magazine work that he regularly engages in, such as T Magazine of the New York Times. Despite the slowness and deliberateness of his work now, his ethos and photography is still very rooted in dissemination via media. In this climate of “my media is yours,” the models are also active participants in the photograph. The incidental people, their smallness on a large stage has a reverse economy now. It’s their smallness and particularity that gives them their strength when we consider the larger politics of representations that he is engaging because Ryan’s work itself has expanded to the level of being a form of media unto itself, a media that is widely seen and rebroadcasted to an even broader and divergent international community. His awareness of this and his use of this demonstrates the responsibility he feels in what he does as an agent for representation.

3. Photography for Walls

Hand in glove / the sun shines out of our behinds / No it’s not like any other love / this one’s different because it’s us!

Despite the intensely photographic nature of how Ryan interacts and processes the world about him, I am beginning to think that he ultimately has a painter’s 90 approach to context and advanced ideas about where a photograph belongs. His lush colors and rich hues are like buckets of paint thrown on walls to cover as large a surface area as possible. When Ryan was experimenting as a photographer back in the 1990s, photography as a genre was still considered less than painting, sculpture and such fine arts. Dedicating museum walls to photographic prints was still a relatively fresh prospect in most places and there was a recognizable schism between art and photography that photographers like Nan Goldin or Larry Clark traversed with a certain degree of controversy. Not only in form but in content too, Ryan’s work has pointed toward a fine-art direction from the outset. His strokes are large and sweeping while at the same time generating a tension in his subjects. The nudes of his recent photographs engaged in acrobatic maneuvers typify the never-gonna-die mentality of youth while creating a tension for what may potentially happen. That comfort with risk mixed with exuberance points back to the skater culture of his younger days. Such lightheartedness is an antiseptic to control, analysis, and categorization. With “The Kids are Alright,” when he put skater culture and the foibles of youth on the walls of a museum, not only was photography being shown with a new sense of gravitas but the underground subculture that was once peripheral and incidental had become mainstream. But viewing moments of such frivolity in isolation, within the configuration of a museum or gallery, is part and parcel of the photographic process. Recontextualization. How Ryan demonstrates an acute sensitive to this process is a great deal of what is happening in his work.

4. Photo-Play

Spending warm summer days indoors / Writing frightening verse / To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg / ask me, ask me, ask me

The litheness of Ryan’s models and the intimacy between subject and photographer intimates a type of sexualism that is brought into action through the camera as a device. Both parties, model and photographer, participate in a certain type of photo-play that has an erotic charge resulting for casual intimacy and the lack of sensationalism. The starkness of his nudes—absent are clothes or other markers that connote a social dialectic—and their isolation makes it feel as though the models are just goofing around in front of a mirror. Exploring. Uninhibited. But allowing the camera to view is an intimate exchange in itself; the comfort in being naked together is an excitement different from voyeuristic arousal or placid nudism. And that curious type of sexualism in Ryan’s work goes beyond sexual politics. Refreshingly, dealing with sexuality in this manner separates it from sexual identity. In the photo-play of Ryan’s images, we do not have a collapse of identity onto a sexual identity. You are free to be whatever you are, which goes beyond differentiation and labeling. These photo sessions with Ryan are a space for simplicity. Imagine that: sexuality liberated from shame, labels, politics or the compulsion to identify.

5. YEARBOOK

I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar / I am the son and heir of nothing in particular

For the few times that YEARBOOK has been shown, it has taken the form of a full-surround installation, like an enclosure. It changes a white-walled gallery space into a club, a notion that was reinforced by having a live band perform inside the installation on the exhibition’s opening night at the Team Gallery in New York. Nonetheless, this means of presenting his work is a subtle and simple recontextualization. This time, instead of putting youth culture on the walls as photographs, he’s modifying the space to serve a different purpose. The prints are pasted directly onto the walls like posters. With the prints flattened out prints in this manner there is extra space for the party that is about to spontaneously happen inside. Yearbook is a word that may not be familiar to a Japanese audience. Upon graduating high school, each student receives a hardcover book that includes headshots of all the graduating classmates. It’s funny to think that instead of debate club photos or rows and columns of headshots annotated with pithy sayings underneath, Ryan’s YEARBOOK is a more authentic portrayal of that time in one’s life. And in this context, Ryan would be the nameless yearbook photographer just doing his job as systematically as possible. The accumulation of images and the sheer volume of work represents the state of mind that the photographer has maintained for many years with this on-going, openended project.

6. Grids

Dear hero imprisoned / With all the new crimes that you are perfecting / Oh, I can’t help quoting you / Because everything that you said rings true

Ryan’s engagement with music is on the surface. In 2007, he followed Morrissey to his tour dates and photographed the audience members. Photographing attendees of music events became the basis for You and My Friends, presenting close-up shots of concert attendees. The prints are larger than life-size and the different colors of the individual images are from the lighting of the stage (not post-production effects). This series of photographs is quite antithetical to how he works with his subjects otherwise because he has no direct contact with or control over the models. This release from that control (the release of that control) is a definitive aspect to this project, even if his methodology for generating these images followed a strict regimine to create a consistency of composition, focus, and balance. The use of grids to organize color and format a display not only maximizes the use of wall space but points toward the artist and how he has chosen to step back. The rigid structuring represents the photographer’s working method while allowing for the different colors to be juxtaposed dynamically, indicating different states of elation that concert goers feel. That exaltation is beyond requiring an explanation and is solely an experience; exceeding reason but feeling so very right. Meanwhile, Ryan is shooting these people without their awareness of being photographed. What is it that he is searching for in their expressions? He’s closely examining them from a distance, making his photography both an engagement and a distancing at the same time. This grid of faces is a speculation. How could each person of a crowd of people, all experiencing the same thing, be locked into his own frame (of reference)? This is not a collective consciousness but rather each individual is alone in the crowd. And the photographer, observing this from the distance through a camera, is simultaneously aloof from this subjects but experiencing the same sort of isolated elation that they are.

7. Music

Can you squeeze me / into an empty page of your diary / and psychologically save me / I’ve got faith in you

Ryan uses music continuously through this shoots to relax his models and create an atmosphere that releases tension from the body or facial expression. But the relationship between photographs and music extends beyond the shoot, beyond a function of achieving an end. The relationship extends into the image itself. But how? The emotional response to a work—rather than something intellectual or based on rhetoric— are like fragments of lyrics that don’t add up or lead to a definition, conclusion, or some sort of point. And thinking of photographs as song lyrics (words written to accompany music) may be a more appropriate way of considering photography because lyrics sometimes get drowned out by the sound of music, or perhaps a vocalist is too breathy on stage or slurs a line, making the individual words incomprehensible. But through their repetition, hearing the sound over and over again, the lyrics register on some level and get lodged in our memory even before we realize they’re in our prefrontal cortex. The lyrics are there all along even if we didn’t know what they meant as we hum along.

8. Friendship

Take me out tonight / Where there’s music and there’s people / And they’re young and alive

Let’s consider the photographer’s work in association with the artistic output of two close friends of his. By just simply describing the work or methods of two artists that influenced Ryan, perhaps this will stimulate alternative ways of seeing Ryan’s work. Dash Snow (b. 1981 – d. 2009) was a graffiti artist, someone Ryan considers an inspiration to his own work. Snow made Polaroids nonstop and through that they formed their initial connection, he was also always with a camera in hand and shooting. Snow’s Polaroids of his life and world capturing the nightlife of New York City, with its sex and drugs. And 92 being out of control and defiant were prominent features of Snow’s character. A Polaroid, if you’ll remember, is quite different from the digital cameras of today or even film-based photography. It’s all just one take and Snow’s short life embodied that grasping at life, creative and equally destructive as it may have been. Dan Colen (b. 1979) is a painter who is a childhood friend of Ryan’s from New Jersey. They lived together for about ten years after moving to New York. Colen’s early paintings were done in oil with a considerable degree of verisimilitude of quite banal scenes but to which he introduced the magical, such as the figure of Jesus Christ or his deceased grandfather. In the ordinary is the presence of the extraordinary. But Colen changed this style of painting and started to use chewing gum to apply color to the painting surface, effectively trading the serene control of the brush with clumpy and clumsy blobs of color. His paintings went from being representations or metaphors to sculptural presences that spilled out of the canvas frames, the weight of their own presence more physically real than visual. Colen traded control for something more dynamic. He created a structure that allows his artistic intentions to be modulated by lack of control.

9. Expanding Universe

Last night I dreamt / That somebody loved me / No hope, no harm / Just another false alarm

The scale of the images and the wonderment that Ryan presents do not diminish the figures of his human subjects to oblivion, even as they instill a sense of awe. Ansel Adams showed us Yosemite Park with its majestic mountain range under an almost boundless sky. Adams demonstrated the capability of photography to point toward the transcendent. Photographer Minor White worked with similar ideas, though his palette relied on a more immediate repertoire of motifs found in everyday life, which all had some palpable scale relative to the human form. In particular White’s Frost on Window (1950s) represents how the simple and quotidian could signal an expansive universe within our midsts. For Adams, though, the human form as a unit of measure is imperceptibly small in the pristine scenes he photographed. In Ryan’s images, on the other hand, the world and the larger universe has a place for us— even if the shivering cold can seem inhospitable and we are helpless aliens exploring a terrain where humans aren’t meant to enter. In his most series of photographs, “Fall & Winter,” the world is colorful, bright and even surreal. Massive water structures are suspended in motion, allowing for a temporary, clear space of reflection and presence. The motifs are quite dramatic and farreaching but his model’s poses are serene and composed, presenting a mindset of crystalline purity.

 

 

Interview Magazine: Ryan McGinley Interview with Mike Mills (12/01/16)

In 2003, at the age of 26, Ryan McGinley had his first major solo show in New York—at the

Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, after more than a decade of the art world

strategizing and promoting young artists as instant masters worthy of career-size

retrospectives with what is often still embryonic material, that fact may not ring as

particularly astonishing. But I remember the opening night of that show in the uptown

Breuer building, passing through the gallery alongside so many downtown friends-all of us

still struggling with our art and lives and wallets in the city—and the strange swell of pride we

felt that night for McGinley's antic, over-the-edge photographs hanging in such an esteemed

institution. It was an exhilarating, hopeful feeling that bordered on validation. One of us—

through hard work, a refusal to bend to etiquette, and an ingenious eye for his own

surroundings—had made it. It is difficult to imagine the careers of many of the artists who

sprang from McGinley's orbit—several of whom appeared in his early photographs, like Dan

Colen and Dash Snow—without McGinley's encouragement and success. You rarely get to

pick the artistic pioneers and figureheads who come to represent your time or generation, but

McGinley had captured—gorgeously, hypnotically, unflinchingly—the wonderful, doomed

wilderness of New York and youth that we knew and believed in as our own.

Of course, the photographic work of the New Jersey-born, New York-made artist had its

historical antecedents; those range from Larry Clark to Nan Goldin, both of whom also

brilliantly managed to create radical social tableaux with still images that seemed soaked in

the madness and euphoria of their moments. But for us, it was McGinley's prints that got to

the heart and the heat of a giddy, semi-lost generation caught in the aftermath of the AIDS

epidemic, in the era of 9/11, and in the increasingly policed, gentrifying urban sprawl that no

longer safeguarded individual freedoms and dizzy misbehavior. Behavior is really the crux of

much of McGinley's output: How do we behave in the intimate spaces we create with friends

and lovers, on rooftops or behind locked apartment doors, beyond the lens of judgmental

eyes, in the safety of other oddballs and rogue performers like us? McGinley's subjects, even

when clothed, feel stripped, and because of this, they are at once beautiful, frightening, and

honest. Today, we are highly attuned to the fact that cameras are all around us, constantly

monitoring our behaviors and canned reactions; but for a time, it seems as if McGinley's

camera created a temporary, portable free zone in a post-Giuliani universe where personal

conduct was allowed to run wild. McGinley offered a stage without any need for staging or

rehearsal; the results could be perceived as anti-selfies in their celebration of more authentic

selves. And if any viewer found the conduct portrayed in the work "perverse" or

"disgusting"—vomit, cum, blood, drugs, blow jobs, bruises—it only indicated the social

hygiene instilled in such a viewer's prudish sense of humanity.

This February, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver will open "Ryan McGINLEY: The

Kids Were Alright," an exhibition of McGinley's early photographic archive, complete with

some 1,500 Polaroids never before on view that the artist took in downtown Manhattan

during his years in art school. A corresponding monograph is out simultaneously from

Rizzoli. In these early images, we see an artist building his visual vocabulary and testing out

the contours of his aesthetic and style. More than mere juvenilia, these images stand as a

testament to McGinley's ability to draw out his subjects' personalities and turn the camera

itself into an active participant in all manner of intimacy and play. (I can personally attest to

McGinley's appreciation of play; I distinctly remember being at the East Village bar the Cock

in the early 2000s, when McGinley planted his Yashica T4 camera in my hand so I could take

a photograph of him with the priapic, nude go-go dancer on the bar.) McGinley, now age 39,

recorded a time in New York that no longer exists, but unlike many photographers, he did

not let his first successful chapter define his career. Among other projects, he went on to

create lyrical odes to travel and formal nude studies. Recently, his friend, the artist and

filmmaker Mike Mills, met up with him in New York to talk about those young, uncertain

years when he was finding himself as an artist and a man. -Christopher Bollen

 

RYAN McGINLEY: Where are you staying while you're here?

 

MIKE MILLS: The Standard in the East Village. It's like I open the windows and I'm looking

at Cooper [Union].

 

McGINLEY: [laughs] A trip down memory lane. You went to Cooper, right?

 

MILLS: Yeah. I always kind of dissed it and never did any alumni stuff. The students were

rad. The organization itself was like going to the Port Authority. There was no love.

 

McGINLEY: That's the thing about Cooper; it has no structure. A lot of artists need structure.

 

MILLS: But there could be a little love, not just, "Fuck you." But I was there starting in '84.

My first year, one kid shot another with a BB gun. And the reaction was, "Maybe you should

go to a hospital ... I think there's one uptown."

 

McGINLEY: Stuff like that still happens. This guy I used to photograph a lot got kicked out

because he did a performance in class where he called his mom and told her he was

committing suicide. And then he just walked out of class. I was like, "Wow."

 

MILLS: We had some of that, too. There's a fair amount of fighting among arty white boys.

It's a weird thing.

 

McGINLEY: Art school thugs!

 

MILLS: A lot of that's coming out of pain and confusion, but not in a great way.

 

McGINLEY: Pretty much all of the work for this new book was made when I was at Parsons.

 

MILLS: When I was looking at it, I was tripping because I hadn't seen many of your Polaroids

before.

 

McGINLEY: I've never shown the Polaroids.

 

MILLS: That's what I thought. And when I was looking at them, I was thinking, "This stuff is

so friendcentric. And deeply intimate. What's it like for you to look at these now? Because

New York is such a different entity today than when I was running around Ludlow or

wherever.

 

McGINLEY: Well, the cool thing for me about moving to New York was that I got to create a

new family. I was growing up in the suburbs; I was one of eight kids. So I did have a

community when I was younger, but all of my brothers and sisters were older. Basically, my

mom had seven kids in seven years, and then she had me 11 years later. So when I was born,

my oldest brother was 18. And my youngest brother was 11. By the time I was 7 or 8, everyone

had moved out. I went from being with ten people all the time to being an only child. It really

freaked me out. And then when I was a teenager and realizing I was gay, my brother was

dying of AIDS. He came back home to live with my family. This was before AZT. He died—the

worst. And since I wasn't out to people, I was living this lie, you know? I couldn't wait to

come to New York to reinvent myself.

 

MILLS: To come out, too. You weren't out to your family at this time?

 

McGINLEY: No.

 

MILLS: Not even your brother who was dying at home?

 

McGINLEY: Well, no. I thought that he, his boyfriend, and all of the gay guys he was

around—who helped raise me—were all dying. At the time, I just associated being gay with

having AIDS, because the only gay men I knew were all dying of AIDS. You just turned on the

TV, and everyone was dying of AIDS. This was like '92, '93, '94.

 

MILLS: When you say these adult gay men helped raise you, what do you mean? Like your

brother's scene?

 

McGINLEY: Yeah. When I was young, before he got sick, I would come into the city to visit

him. He went to art school at SVA and did odd jobs. His boyfriend was a Barbra Streisand

impersonator—as a full-time job.

 

MILLS: That's a fun job.

 

McGINLEY: I remember before his boyfriend would perform, my brother would sometimes

do a number as the Wicked Witch of the West.

 

MILLS: Did your brother turn you on to all the things that were going on in the gay

community?

 

McGINLEY: Yeah, he turned me on to art. Because I was pretty Irish Catholic Jersey, the

middle of the line. We grew up in a pretty upper-middle-class neighborhood, but when there

are eight kids, we were told we were near poverty. Taco Thursday nights and fish on Friday

because we were Catholic. There was no luxury. I never got on an airplane until I was 18. We

drove everywhere. My dad was like, "Waste not, want not."

 

MILLS: What did your dad do?

 

McGINLEY: He was a traveling salesman for Owens Corning fiberglass.

 

MILLS: My mom was a traveling saleswoman, among other things. And my sisters are ten

and seven years older than me. So I know what you mean. But to be the eighth kid, that's oldworld

shit. [laughs]

 

McGINLEY: I know. I think about it a lot now. My dad was in the Korean War. He got shot

seven times. He had seven bullet holes in him. And out of his troop of 35 guys, he was one of

nine guys that came back. And when he came back from that he had seven kids in seven

years.

 

MILLS: One for each bullet hole! Was your brother out to your parents before he got sick?

McGINLEY: No. I mean, he was so flamboyant that it was just obvious. And the day that he

graduated from high school, he moved to New York City. It was the same way with me. I

knew my ticket out of the suburbs was art school, so I worked really hard to develop my

portfolio and get a scholarship. Parsons gave me a full ride, so I was like, "Okay, I'm making

it to the city."

 

MILLS: You needed that. If you didn't have the full ride, you couldn't have done it.

 

McGINLEY: No. Because art school is so fucking expensive. [laughs]

 

MILLS: I was such a fuckup. I wanted to be a professional skateboarder, and I was very far

from being that. I wanted to make it with my punk band, and I was very far from that. I just

didn't respond to school. And then all of a sudden, I was like, "Skateboarding and the punk

band didn't work out, what am I gonna do?" I was like, "I can draw!" I just started drawing

my brains out. And that was the plan—or the third plan, really—to get me out of Santa

Barbara. But I think I had a much easier time. I can't imagine being gay went down well with

Irish Roman Catholic, New Jersey vibes.

 

McGINLEY: It was never really discussed. Like, even to this day, my mom will ask me about

my boyfriend and say "your friend." And I'll say, "You're disrespecting me. He's not my

friend; he's my boyfriend. He's much more than a friend. You have to stop calling him my

friend."

 

MILLS: To this day. Wow.

 

McGINLEY: And she's like, "I'm sorry." But that's how it went down then. Like, if my brother

ever brought anybody home, it was his "friend." Whereas all my other brothers and sisters, if

they brought somebody home, it was their boyfriend or girlfriend, and it was taken more

seriously. I should preface this by saying that I was never raised with anybody telling me that

gay was bad. I was never told, "Fags are going to hell." You just didn't talk about it.

 

MILLS: How old were you when you started visiting your brother in the city?

 

McGINLEY: 5 or 6. This was in the '80s.

 

MILLS: So we crossed paths. [laughs] Do you think anyone sensed that you were gay when

you were a kid?

 

McGINLEY: No! Nobody. But when I told my mom, she said, "I knew." And I said, "How did

you know? When?" And she said, "I knew when you were in high school, and bottled water

had just come out. You came up to me with a bottle of Evian, and you said, ‘Mom, bottled

water is the best! I love it so much.' I knew you were gay at that moment."

 

MILLS: [both laugh] That's hysterical. Bottled water was your tell. I should be super-gay by

those standards. What art did your brother turn you on to before you went to Parsons? What

were you looking at?

 

McGINLEY: He definitely turned me on to Keith Haring. He was a fan of what people were

making downtown—Basquiat, Warhol. And then there were the heavy hitters I was looking

at, too—Pollock, Rothko, Picasso. And through my family, I was turned on to all of the

religious painters. My dad sort of fancied himself a painter at one point. And we had these

pictures at our house that he painted, like Bob Ross-style pictures of dogs running through

the forest. Everyone was always like, "Your father is very artistic."

 

MILLS: Did he support that artistic side of you?

 

McGINLEY: They were supportive. And from a young age, I was always the kid that won the

supermarket contest for a Smokey Bear drawing. I was voted most artistic in school. Stuff like

that.

 

MILLS: I did the yearbook. And when I graduated from junior high, people would line up for

me to do band logos. I could draw the PiL logo perfectly.

 

McGINLEY: In high school, my art teacher really helped me develop. We got super-close.

And she took me under her wing because my brother was dying then. I almost had to repeat a

year because I was at home with him most of the time, kind of nursing him and making sure

he didn't kill himself. She just let me be in the art room a lot.

 

MILLS: That was an intense time for you, not just dealing with growing up, but being there

for your brother.

 

McGINLEY: Yeah. We used to have to put a chair in front of his door so he wouldn't leave his

room at night to go upstairs to grab a knife to stab himself. Because he tried that. I remember

one time I was working at the public pool: I came home and he'd drunk, like, five bottles of

wine and had taken all of his medicine at once. It was so weird. I couldn't touch him because

I didn't know if the wine was blood. I called an ambulance, and they pumped his stomach. It

was rough, dude.

 

MILLS: That kind of experience makes me see how you've become so totally out in every way

emotionally. Your photos represent that. They have this kind of openness. You include

yourself. You don't hide behind the camera like some photographers do. And that's really

vivid in your work. Your love and interest in people is really front and center. There are other

photographers who've taken pictures of subcultures, but that work is much colder and

sometimes almost meaner to the subjects. I never get that vibe from your photos at all.

Sometimes you are having sex with your subjects, but even when you're not, you kind of are.

You're really involved.

 

McGINLEY: Yeah, there's a heavy intimacy.

 

MILLS: Do you think your openness and willingness to talk about everything and being

willing to share it and that sort of desire for intimacy has anything to do with the time you

spent with your brother?

 

McGINLEY: Yeah, totally. Because it was such a secret in the suburbs. When I had to wheel

him around in a wheelchair through the neighborhood, we weren't allowed to tell anybody he

had AIDS. We told everybody he had cancer because we were worried that people would egg

our house or something; that people would retaliate against us. So I think from that secrecy

and from my own personal emotions of knowing I was gay, I was holding in these two giant

secrets, holding them in so hard, that when I came to New York and found my scene—which

is all the people in the new book—I was able to unleash all of that secrecy. Discovering all of

these really awesome people was just the best. And that spiraled into being like, "I'm not

going to hide behind anything. I'm going to put every aspect of myself out into the world and

try to convey it through photography." Actually, I didn't study photography at first. I went to

school for painting my first year, poetry my second year, graphic design my third and fourth

year, and photography my fifth.

 

MILLS: So it was at the end of all those years at Parsons that you shifted?

 

McGINLEY: Yeah. When I first started at Parsons I was really into graffiti and skateboarding.

The first year was transitioning out of that and realizing I had to dedicate my life to

something else. I kind of had to put down the skateboard. From 8 to 19, I was skateboarding

every single day. That was my life. I worked at a skate shop. I watched skate videos. Then I

realized, "Okay, I got to tone this down and take this art thing seriously." I think the driving

force when I moved to New York was the fear of going home with my tail between my legs.

Because a lot of people, even my parents, thought, "Art school, I don't know. We'll support

you but the success rate for artists is really slim."

 

MILLS: I got that talk, too.

 

McGINLEY: I think I was just fucking scared. I put all of my time into art because I couldn't

go back to Jersey and work at Starbucks. Now I look at these photos from that time, and

there's so much energy in them and so much adventure. It was so good for me, because I met

a lot of people when I moved to New York who were gay and my age, and they were alive and

thriving. That was the first time I really had a peer group. I sort of had an identity crisis when

I first came out. I didn't have a community of artistic people I identified with because I was

coming out of skating and graffiti, which is really—

 

MILLS: Homophobic.

 

McGINLEY: Yeah. Or just hetero.

 

MILLS: Not the graffiti scene as much, but the skating scene is straight-up homophobic I

would say.

 

McGINLEY: I guess you're right. So finally I met Earsnot. I knew him from skating in high

school, and I would always seem him at Astor Place. Then someone said to me right when I

came out, "Earsnot's gay." I literally couldn't believe it, because he was so tough. So I went

out looking for him and hunted around for a few days, and I finally caught him at Astor

Place. I was so scared to ask him, but I just went up to him. He was like, "What's up, Ryan?"

And I was just like, "Um, are you gay?" He's like, "Yeah, man. I am." It was like a religious

moment, like I had found somebody who skated, who did graffiti, who was into Wu-Tang

Clan, into the same stuff that I was into ...

 

MILLS: And it sounds like he didn't have any shame about it.

 

McGINLEY: No. I mean, he had his own life. He was homeless at the time. He had run away

from home. He boosted. He stole for a living. He was living on the street, sleeping on the

subway, stuff like that. He had his graffiti crew called Irak. That was Earsnot's and Dash's

crew. That's how I met Dash Snow. And from there, I met all these people. That's when I

really started to feel good about myself and feel like I had friends I could be honest with and

that were into the same things I was into. I didn't have to be friends with people who were

into pop music. [both laugh] I'm trying to think who the pop stars of that time were—Britney

Spears? I just didn't identify with that.

 

MILLS: I was never in any graffiti scene, but people I know who are in it tell me it can be very

exclusive—or at least not very inviting. Like, "You're not legit." What was that scene like?

From the outside looking in, it seems like you guys were all so nice to each other.

 

McGINLEY: I saw Earsnot fight a lot of people on the street. That was his thing. People

would be like, "Yo, you're a faggot." And he was so big and strong that he'd fight everybody,

and he would always win. Then he would say, "You got your ass kicked by a faggot. Go fuck

yourself."

 

MILLS: How did they know he was gay?

 

McGINLEY: Because he was out. It was just word on the street. People just knew. And I think

the Irak crew were the most up around the city at that time, so graffiti people were like, "Who

the fuck are these kids who are just tagging everything every single night?" They really

became super well-known in the graffiti world. And that was at the time that I started taking

photos and publishing them in magazines and books. And it sort of grew into a legend. There

were stories in Dazed & Confused and Vice about this crew with the gay leader. Their

shenanigans and adventures got sort of mythologized, maybe through these photos.

 

MILLS: How did the Polaroids happen? Because that happened before you started shooting

Irak.

 

McGINLEY: My Polaroids came out of graphic design. When I was in high school, I used to

make these silkscreens with this little Japanese machine that I bought at Pearl Paint called

Print Gocco. You make this silkscreen at home with it. Then in college, all my friends were

graffiti writers, but I never wrote graffiti. I wanted to participate and do something cool on

the street, so I'd make these portraits of people. I'd isolate them on a white wall, make a

silkscreen of it, and do these portraits in bathrooms and all around. That's how I started the

Polaroids. I photographed a bunch of my friends against a white wall, so I could have a clean

background for the silkscreens. I did maybe the first 20 or 30 for these silkscreens. And then

the silkscreens kind of died out because I didn't have much of a life in crime as a graffiti

writer. But that's how I got into photography.

 

MILLS: Do you remember your first camera?

 

McGINLEY: I remember in Big Brother magazine, there was an article that Earl Parker wrote

about the Yashica T4. It was like, "The T4 is the best camera. Send me some money so I can

get a new one." That magazine was my Bible at the time, so I got a Yashica T4. And that's

what all these photos are shot on.

 

MILLS: I still have mine in my garage.

 

McGINLEY: It is such a beautiful camera.

 

MILLS: I looked through the essays in the book, and what I found impressive is how

obsessive everyone says you were about taking pictures. How you'd just wake up and start

shooting, how frequent it was and how you made it safe for everyone. You just did it all the

time and really integrated it into your own life and the life of your friends. The consistency

was part of the success.

 

McGINLEY: Most of these photos are pretty documentary. I'm a fly on the wall. They're just

what was happening around me at the time. I never really set too much up back then. But I

did need some sort of structure at first in order to be able to shoot my friends, just to have

some control in saying, like, "Okay, every time you come over to my apartment, I'm gonna

take your photo." And it was that thing of "Stand up against the white wall." That sort of

opened the door to be able to take all the rest of the photos, if that makes sense.

 

MILLS: Yeah, I know what you mean.

 

McGINLEY: I was scared to do set-up shoots with people because that felt too real to me—

like, I don't think I really owned being a photographer at the time. If you asked me then if I

was a photographer, I would probably say, "No, I'm a painter or a poet," because that's what I

was studying at school. But somehow the repetitiveness of shooting those Polaroids was one

foot into being more professional about it.

 

MILLS: I can totally see how the Polaroids opens the door, like, you come in the door, you get

a Polaroid. Were you shooting every day?

 

McGINLEY: From '99 to '03, basically until my first show at the Whitney, I was out every

single night, and I would shoot, like, ten rolls a night. And the Yashica was so perfect because

it was so small, it would just go in my pocket. I didn't have to be the photographer with the

camera around his neck. I would throw a few rolls in my socks and go out and just shoot.

When I was in art school, the photo kids were separated from the rest. If you did sculpture or

painting or graphic design, you were all taking the same classes, but the photographers just

went straight into photography. I had some friends who were in photography. And I was

always like, "Whoa, what's up with that?" The thing that really got me was, one day, my

friend took a photo of me, and it ended up in zingmagazine. I was like, "What the fuck? She

just took that photo, and now I'm in a magazine. This is crazy." Then she blew it up, made a

poster-size print of it, and hung it up at Parsons. And I was like, "You can make posters?"

Growing up, my room was covered in posters. I was like, "I want to make posters." So I asked

her to show me how. That was the thing that really got me. I was studying graphic design at

the time, when negative scanners and all that stuff was coming out, and you could do it all in

your apartment. So I would shoot, make contact sheets, scan all the cool negatives, and make

all these zines and books of my photos to give to my friends. I was really into zine- and

bookmaking from skate culture.

 

MILLS: I remember I was out with Andre [Razo] and Athena [Currey] at some bar on Second

Avenue, and you came up to me with a book you made.

 

McGINLEY: That was my handmade book. That would have been around 2001. I hope you

still got it. That's a good one.

 

MILLS: I do. We didn't know each other, and you came up to me. You were very sweet, you

said something nice about my work, and you were so frickin' enthusiastic in a totally

charming way. I was like, "Who is this person?" And then I loved the photos immediately. I

would never have the bravery to do that. Like, my punk rock vibes, you can't do that for some

reason. I was truly impressed, and it just suited your soul so perfectly. It was just honestly

you. And it goes hand-in-hand with your photos.

 

McGINLEY: I was definitely ambitious about giving the book out. And I knew you were part

of Alleged Gallery. Alleged was my church. In, like, '95, I was skating at the Brooklyn Banks,

and Mark Gonzales was there, and we were like, "Holy shit, it's the fucking Gonz." And then

he was like, "Oh, dudes. Come with me! I'm going to look at some paintings!" He brought me

to Ludlow Street. And I think it was the David Aron show actually. I was like, "Oh my God,

skaters are artists." Before that, I hadn't made the connection between skaters and artists.

Artists were in MoMA. Then I realized my best friend's sister was an intern there. She would

sweep the gallery. That was sort of my in. When I moved to the city, I would attend every

Alleged opening. I started to learn about everyone who showed there—you, Barry, Ari,

Harmony, Terry, Simone Shubuck, Susan Cianciolo. I saw that show you did, "Hair Shoes

Love and Honesty" [1998]. I was like, "I don't know what I'm watching or what these people

are talking about, but I really like this." So I started to look you up. You were designing for all

the bands I was listening to. And I was really into X-Large and used to wear all of the clothing

and go to the shop on Avenue A. I made the connection that you were that dude. So when I

got some work together and made that book, I really wanted the people I admired to see it.

 

MILLS: I have a 4-year-old son, and I hope he's like that. Because it's just so right on.

 

McGINLEY: The cool part about New York is that you can do that. You can talk to all the

people you admire.

 

MILLS: The punk scene I grew up with was somewhat snobby about ambition. You always

had to shit on yourself. That was the m.o. It's not really healthy. But so much has changed.

Now when I'm in New York, it's such a trip. Do these photos feel ancient like that to you?

 

McGINLEY: When this project came along and the museum in Denver asked me to do a show

of my early work, it really forced me to go back and edit all the Polaroids down and dig into

my archives and look for stuff. And there was a lot of stuff that I was scared to put out there. I

was going through a tough time when I took them. We were all drinking and doing drugs,

and it was very intense. And now, looking back, a lot of people died. A lot of my close friends

have committed suicide or died of heroin overdoses. I guess coming out of that time where I

was making work that was not thought out at all; it was just raw and was about what was

going down.

 

MILLS: From my high school punk scene, so many people died. A surprising amount. I look

back and think, "Oh, that was a time of wildness that helped us find ourselves." But we

weren't as sophisticated as you guys in terms of drugs and stuff. Our drugs were pretty

normal. Some people went all the way, and somehow in Santa Barbara in the early '80s, they

found crack and didn't come back. When I look at all the wildness and feralness in these early

photos, in a way, it's beautiful—you all are just fucking beautiful. But there's got to be that

other side for you, too.

 

McGINLEY: Just being friends with people now for over 15 years, you realize what we all

came out of. What we came out of was the intense feeling of growing up. It sounds kind of

cliché, but it's true. Every single person in these photos came out of some kind of an intense

home experience. And what I really believe is that there are no coincidences anymore. That

me and all of my friends in these photos are magnets to each other. You find the people that

you need to find. There's this gravitational pull. Whatever emotions you're going through,

you somehow seek out the people that are going through similar emotions or that maybe

have something you need. But I also look back, and I think, "Holy shit, I was a fucking

madman."

 

MILLS: Totally.

 

McGINLEY: I spent all of my money on film. I remember I would do these set-design jobs or

transcribe or just anything to get, like, a $100 check and go immediately to Adorama and buy

expired film. I remember using my brother's credit card at CVS all the time. He was like,

"Why are you sick all the time?" Because I was buying Polaroid film. And I was like, "I just

really needed a lot of medicine." [Mills laughs] Right now I'm really trying to identify my

obsessive behavior and to calm it down. Because this book has over 1,000 Polaroids, and

that's a really tight edit. I've shot thousands and thousands of Polaroids over the years.

 

MILLS: The book really gives that feeling of obsession.

 

McGINLEY: The thing about being a photographer that's so cool is that you get to

participate, but you also get to disappear. The camera is in front of your face all the time.

MILLS: As a normal person, I can be kind of shy and awkward. But when I'm directing, when

I have a job, I'm like a super-lovey Italian person who will just come hug you all the time. I

change a bit.

 

McGINLEY: A camera gives you a purpose. I also think a lot about control nowadays, and I

really want to let go and just be more in the moment. The camera gives you some control. In

a lot of ways I look at these old photos, and I don't know if I would have been able to

communicate with these people on this level if I didn't have a camera. I think I would still be

so shy. When I moved to New York, I was still in the closet. And when I got my first

apartment, after the dorms, I moved in with this dominatrix. We developed a relationship,

and one night, she said, "Let's fuck." I was like, "Uh ... I don't know, maybe not tonight." And

she was like, "Ryan, every guy in New York wants to fuck me." [Mills laughs] She was like,

"What's wrong?" And I was like, "I don't know." And she was like, "You're gay, aren't you?"

And I was like, "Maybe." I called her recently and thanked her. We hadn't spoken in years. I

said, "Thank you so much for helping me. Because if it wasn't for that, it probably would have

taken me another two or three years to hook up with a guy." She forced me to do it. She said,

"We're going out, you're going to point to guys you think you're into, and I'm going to sort it

out." In true dominatrix style.

 

MILLS: You've got to make this movie. First half is you and your brother, the second half is

that. It's fucking insane. But those stories are so beautiful. That she was giving you access to a

braver, weirder world.

 

McGINLEY: She was just so nonjudgmental. That's really the people I was looking for, and

those are still the people I'm looking for.

 

MILLS: You mentioned that there were a lot of people in these pictures that have since

passed away. Does it make you sad to see them?

 

McGINLEY: The person I think about most is Dash Snow. Because he was really into being

photographed by me, and we had this relationship that was like artist and muse. It was

awesome to find somebody who was so open and excited to having me document their life. I

feel like my boyfriend at the time was always annoyed by my camera. He was always like, "Oh

my God, put the camera away. Do we have to shoot every time anything happens?" But Dash

was down. And since he was a graffiti writer, he was out every single night bombing. So I just

followed him and his life, and we developed this super-close relationship. I think about him a

lot, and now just really looking at all these photos of him as a young guy ... I don't know. I

think about if he was still alive, what he would be doing. I see his daughter, and I look at her,

and I can see him in her. I think about how much he influenced me. We really influenced

each other. But he has his own style of photography. You can see just how different his world

was in his Polaroids than my world. His was so much about darkness and despair. But in

other ways, our work is similar. It's like two different views of a scene. There are several of

my early boyfriend in those photos. I just remember how excited I was to have a boyfriend

and be in love and to document it. There's a lot of love in those photos.

 

MILLS: That's your thing. Often what's going on is really rough, but it's so sweet, too. Really,

there is so much love coming from the camera.

 

McGINLEY: This book goes up until 2003 when I had my exhibition at the Whitney. That's

right about the time that my friends stopped being models for me. Partly that was because

people started to get their own lives. This was some sort of Peter Pan art school period, where

we really didn't have any responsibilities. And it didn't matter if you were poor or wealthy.

None of that stuff comes into play until later. We were all really just operating on the same

level. But then people started to become artists or musicians or gallerists. Like Dan [Colen]

became a painter. And that's when I started to hire people to be models. Because right after

that Whitney show, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't just continue to be downtown

shooting out and about at night." I was trying to stop drinking and doing drugs. And I just

needed to figure something out.

 

MILLS: That's brave that you just tried to do something different than the thing that you

were so rewarded for.

 

McGINLEY: It was hard, but there wasn't any alternative. People knew who I was in New

York. And it was also the rise of the internet and blogs. Everyone started to have a camera.

That's when I started to travel outside of New York and go into nature.

 

MIKE MILLS IS LOS ANGELES-BASED FILM AND MUSIC DIRECTOR. HIS NEW

FILM, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, WILL BE RELEASED AT THE END OF THE MONTH.

 

 

Stefano Raimondi, 2016

The Four Seasons

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them …. We do not realize how far and widely, or now near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. …. There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate – not a grain more. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads – and then we can hardly see anything else. A man sees only what concerns him.

                                                                                                                                                                      Henry David Thoreau – Autumnal Tints

 

Renewing a myth

Ryan McGinley is certainly a charismatic artist. I remember his recent opening in New York at which I only succeeded in getting close to him after several hours because of the crowd of people persistently around him, for the most part young men and women who recognized a point of reference in him, his history and his work. To my mind, what makes Ryan even more special is his innate ability to grasp – and in some cases anticipate – the esprit nouveau of the moment, to tell a story and contribute with it to the creation and renewal of a myth that, on the basis of its etymology, from the Greek mythos, means argument, account. 

Through his works, Ryan succeeds in creating what Pearce, the scholar of social communication, calls “shared meanings” and what in every culture must be continually renewed so that social life may be regenerated. This process of renewal, which inexorably calls into question the previous values, was performed in pre-agricultural societies by particular classes – artists, shamans, priests – who explored “other” realities for the benefit of the community, then translated their new understanding into a language comprehensible to the majority. However, modern Western society – and its procedural, if not instrumental, approach thrown into difficulty by the meanings it proposed – was a factor in the formation of a post-nihilist and demythicized social reality, drained of ritual, strongly individualist and governed by commercializing cannibalism. Today, now that the role of moral authority held by the “wise men” in traditional societies has been exhausted, we find ourselves having to confront this crisis of shared meanings on an individual basis, and to build stories dense with significance on which to live. As argued by Rorty, these stories can only occur “in the experience of the individual and his social microworlds” and be developed “in an ethical and/or aesthetic manner”. What McGinley contributes to creating and that gives enormous value to his work is therefore the creation of what is called “collective memory”, in other words a narration able to form the heritage of beliefs and values with which a people identifies. And of course his visual word is embraced as authoritative and trenchant, grafting itself onto a series of reflections current in today’s society. 

Ryan manages to constitute what Hillman called the “narrative plot that gives meaning to the world in which man lives and to the stories entwined within it”. This is an atypical story that, unlike myth, is not handed down either orally or in writing, but visually, through photographs. Beyond the myth of Eternal Youth, McGinley updates the myth of the “noble savage”, which reached its peak during the Enlightenment and Romanticism before being largely criticized and withdrawing, defeated by its confrontation with the progress and civilization in which it inescapably found itself. 

These and those

The story of these four seasons arises through an infinite series of cycles and references that begin in a very distant reality in space and time, specifically in those very famous compositions by Antonio Vivaldi that, according to a recent survey, are the most often played in the world of music around the globe. Written by the Venetian composer before 1725, the year in which publisher Michel-Charles Le Cène of Amsterdam issued “Il Cimento dell’Armonia e dell’Invenzione” – the collection of works that contained them – the Four Seasons are a typical example of ‘programme music’, highly descriptive compositions that were particularly prevalent in the Romantic period. The descriptive focus in Vivaldi’s music is translated in Ryan’s photography into the emphasis on colour, and his attempt to create a specific setting that captures time and that can itself be captured by the artist. 

Vivaldi’s musical and poetic scansion of nature – the composition is based on four sonnets – is in many ways mirrored parallel to and within McGinley’s visual representation. Thus, when Vivaldi’s sonnet speaks of Zeffiro dolce Spira, mà contesa / Muove Borea improvviso al Suo vicino,1 there is an immediate correspondence with works like Ivan (2013), the lines Fà ch’ ogn’ uno tralasci e balli e canti / L’ aria che temperata dà piacere2 are well represented in the work Wet Blaze (2013), and the stanza Aggiacciato tremar trà neri algenti / Al Severo Spirar d’ orrido Vento, / Correr battendo i piedi ogni momento; / E pel Soverchio gel batter i denti3 expresses winter as it is represented in works like Plotter Kill Storm (2015). The decision to make reference to the four seasons even from the title was induced by the need for immediate communication of a universal scenario, that of nature, to which the seasons are still directly connected, and of the music that runs through the works. Furthermore, there is an important subtext that may help us to create an initial connection that will lead to an explanation of the works as the renascence of the myth of the noble savage. 

From Vivaldi to Rousseau

Venice was a familiar setting, not just for Vivaldi, who was born there, but also for Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Geneva 1712 – Ermenonville 1778), the Swiss philosopher, writer and musician, who found himself in the lagoon city in the service of the French count and ambassador Pierre-François Montaigu between September 1743 and August 1744. Rousseau’s admiration for Vivaldi, whose fame did not diminish among the French even after the composer’s death, took material form in his rearrangement of Spring for flute in 1775. It is to Rousseau and his interest in nature, as well as to his philosophical reflections on “savage” cultures, that we owe renewed interest in the scientific study of the myth. Rousseau lived during the Enlightenment and is in some way the father of the Romantic era in which the myth of the noble savage became permanently established, though the expression had already been coined in 1672 by John Dryden in The Conquest of Granada. The central idea of Rousseau’s philosophy was that man’s original goodness has become lost because society has corrupted our “state of nature”, a term he uses to mean the condition experienced by savages who live in accordance only with the laws of nature. These concepts resulted in the theory of the noble savage, the theory that the best condition of life is exclusively that of pre-civilized man. A letter included in the first of Rousseau’s philosophical writings, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, offers a harsh critique of civilization compared to man’s natural state. 

Man in his natural state instinctively finds the right balance with the world in which he lives. For Rousseau, the entire moral structure of civil society is therefore an arbitrary and artificial imposition of a code of behaviour that overlays and cancels an intrinsic moral correctness. The noble savage acts in accordance with his instinct, whereas society gives preference to rational thought that leads to the cold calculation and cynicism typical of modern civilizations. Rousseau’s thought chimed perfectly with that of Thoreau, an ideological son of Romanticism.

From Rousseau to Thoreau

As has been said, Rousseau and Thoreau (Concord [Mass.] 1817 – 1862) were respectively the father and son of Romanticism, and though no evidence exists of the former’s influence on the latter (no books by Rousseau were found among Thoreau’s belongings), a form of thought is clearly discernible in Thoreau that both runs parallel to and diverges from that of the Swiss philosopher. Although both loved to lose themselves in nature alone and enjoyed their flight from conventional society, analysis of their texts shows how, for Rousseau, this behaviour resembled being an exile, having been banned from the society he criticized, whilst for Thoreau it represented the path of a wayfarer journeying along the boundary between society and nature. To me this passage seems decisive when it comes to reflecting on the work of Ryan McGinley, who does not exclude society from nature but allows man-as-nature to take back and use society itself. Above all, it is through this passage that the myth of the noble savage seems to slowly mutate into something different and more current – as is shown by its popularity in American counterculture and in particular among the Beat Generation, which viewed Thoreau’s experience as a strong desire to return to nature as a reaction against the growing modernization of American cities: it seems to mutate into a collective desire for the care for and integration of mankind into nature without excluding society but, on thecontrary, by involving it. Works like I-Beam (Bolt) (2015), which shows an enormous road train that transports an I-shaped cement girder along which a nude is running, are representative of this relationship, as is Red Beetle (2015) in which a nude body lies on top of an old car half-sunk in a lake, which puns on the double-meaning of the word “beetle”, referring to both the industrial name of the car and the natural significance of the insect. But where Ryan makes broad reference toThoreau is in the writer’s narrative alter-ego apparent in the pages of Walden, the story of the period of two years, two months and two days (1845–47) that the author spent in a cabin on the shore of Lake Walden to embrace nature closely. Some of Thoreau’s sentences could refer to both: “Most [people] go in and shut their doors, thinking that bleak and colorless November has already come, when some of the most brilliant and memorable colors are not yet lit”. And these late-autumn colours could be the same, seeing that the woods of New England and surrounding territories of New York, where McGinley took most of his autumn and winter photographs, are on the same latitude and only a few hundreds of miles distant. But McGinley is sincerer in man’s relationship with and integration in nature – I dare say at the limit of the mimicry that can develop in an almost unhealthy relationship between the two elements – as we can see in the manner of representation. Both man and nature are captured in their essence: man can only be naked to live fully in nature; his nudity is spontaneous and almost inevitable in a setting that is an extension of Eden – it would be interesting to study the parallels between the McGinley’s photographs and the representation of Eden in the left panel of the Garden of Delights by Hieronymus Bosch – that is to say of a reality that is mythical and therefore universal at the same time. In McGinley’s photographs, both man and nature are young and filled with life and energy, and, looking at these images, even the more extreme ones, we experience a neo-Romantic surge of sensations we have either already known or that we would like to know. This is the magnetic fascination of a transversal and multicultural language that takes us back, one and all, to a desire for freedom, lightheartedness and life.

23 May 2007

In this new, more vital, mimetic, lighthearted and reconciliating relationship that arises between man and nature, there is probably a significant date: 23 May 2007 is the day on which, for the first time in the history of mankind, the number of people who live in cities exceeded the number who live in the country. It is forecast that before 2030 60% of the world’s population will live in built-up areas. The first time that the urban population outnumbered its rural equivalent took place in the United States in 1910, the year in which the global urban population was only 14% of the total. It is inevitable that a century’s head start on this epochal transformation has had a direct and significant effect on American society and culture, and that it was here that the first forms of a new dialogue with nature appeared that then spread across all of Western society. There are many ways in which attempts are made to relate this development, one that is still in construction and full of hidden dangers, first and foremost the risk of transforming myth into a fashion, that is to say transforming ethics and morality into a consumer object. Attempting to counter this danger is the work of Ryan McGinley, with its history, references, beauty and renewed myths.

 

 

Ryan McGinley: Some Bold Seer
by David Rimanelli, 2015

“Very early in my life it was too late.” —Marguerite Duras, The Lover
“You’re gonna regret not texting me back when I drop this selfie.”—@badgalriri

What’s more thrilling than the beauty and energy of youth? What could be more compelling than bearing witness to the sex and death drives merged together in the specific type of reckless abandon that can only be realized by bodies unencumbered by the anchors of time? It is a freedom that, once found, moves inexorably towards the future and inescapably towards loss—at the height of our charms we are, after all, edging towards the precipice of terminal decline. Consider a picture of yourself when you were young and thought you looked your best, or your happiest, or one reflecting a moment of intense aspiration and ambition, a feeling that happiness and success were realizable. Maybe some people get it; most decay into indifference and boredom, or worse, crash into misery and madness. Every picture of a young beauty is a picture of a corpse in potentia. Tear off the luscious fuckable flesh and display the filth of rot and bones because we’re gonna party like it’s 1348—the Black Death. That creepy prince is having a ball at his castle in the hills. Definitely struggle for an invite because it’s the last party you’ll ever attend, the last one that matters.
Though often regarded as an artist whose work is characterized by its relationship to contemporary youth culture and its attendant beauty, Ryan McGinley’s work also examines precisely the opposite. This is perhaps particularly evident in McGinley’s photographs of gorgeous redheads because of art historical precedent: the prototype for all of them, regardless of what they’re doing or what sort of expression crosses their faces, is Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52), the ultimate beautiful dead ginger girl. McGinley’s photographs have a savor of necrophilia, crazy as that sounds. Or, maybe, not so crazy—“counterintuitive.”
Millais’s contemporary John William Waterhouse painted another anguished though still briefly living beauty in his painting inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1833 poem “The Lady of Shalott.” The painting (1888; pg. 8), which is named after its subject, illustrates the following lines from Part IV:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain,
and down she lay;
The broad stream bore
her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Tennyson was, among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an especially prized source; Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Hunt illustrated the 1857 edition of Tennyson’s works, and Waterhouse’s painting on poor Elaine of Astolot, or rather the Lady of Shalott, was the third inspired by her. Demonstrating a nineteenth-century (and particularly Pre-Raphaelite) preoccupation with medievalism and Arthurian legend, the poem details the story of a young and beautiful woman cursed to regard the outside world only as it appears in reflection from a tower that overlooks Camelot. It is the appearance of Lancelot in her mirror that causes her to reflexively turn her head and look directly out of her window—a gesture that at once renders her both free and moribund. Understanding at once that the curse has been set in motion, she flees her tower and runs towards a small boat upon which she writes her name. Drifting down a river in pursuit of Lancelot and finally presented with the romantic possibilities of the outside world, Shalott dies. 
As Bram Dijkstra writes in Idols of Perversity:

Late nineteenth-century painters
loved Tennyson’s combination of
incipient madness, self-destructive,
passive yearning, and a beautiful
dead woman floating downstream.
William Holman Hunt,
for one, did all he could to catch
the nuances of the poet’s affecting
narrative. Working diligently
on various versions of this theme
between 1850 and 1905, he
depicted the Lady of Shalott at
the moment her “mirror crack’d”
and the “curse” of passion came
upon her, a mad longing to merge
with the image of Lancelot whipping
her body into a frenzy, and
causing her hair to stand on end
as if charged by the electric shock
waves of her need.

The Lady of Shallot suggests, quite literally, the idea of drifting away, the seepage between youth and death, the edge between madness and desire; it is an investigation of a strange form of temporality that is simultaneously languorous and hurried. This series of compatible contradictions is one of the cornerstones of McGinley’s practice, and his images often thrill us precisely because they depict the ambiguity of dialectical margins. Fraught with out-of-frame peril (nude bodies hurtling from great heights, confronted with a rush of rapids, set adrift in endless oceans), McGinley’s work feels ultra-alive because it is so very very close to death. The work Starry Eyes (2013; pg. 207), for instance, depicts a young woman crouching nude in a pool of water with the flash of a firework falling over the foreground. The embers are captured at the precise moment that they drift over her face, rendering her eyes two bored golden holes. The ecstatic sex/death paradigm that McGinley presents us with feels akin to some kind of Dionysian rapture— is this woman going to fuck you or kill you? McGinley’s conscious reference to this type of ambiguity repeatedly reinforces in his work a particularly nineteenth-century understanding of the relationships between beauty, sex, and death. Taking its cues from the laudanum-fueled sexual madness of Bronte’s Catherine on her deathbed, from Edward Munch’s ravenous vampire, and from Waterhouse’s The Siren, McGinley’s Starry Eyes is thematically charged with all of the dichotomous elements that informed the fin-de-siècle femme fatale: an archetype developed in tandem with that of the Angel in the House, a warning against the dangers of liberation.
The most vivid and the least moribund photography of our time is typically closely allied with pop culture and fashion, and as such it inevitably carries at least an underlying camp electroshock. In the video for Rihanna’s We Found Love, we discover immediate evidence of McGinley’s cultural vitality. Not only is the artist’s hand evident in director Melina Matsoukas’s aesthetic treatment of “landscape,” but it is likewise immediately locatable in the video’s conceptual treatment of youth, recklessness, hope, and loss. The video, which contrasts anemically lit interior spaces with full-bleed expanses of grassy fields and exploding fireworks, quotes the traditional gestures evident in McGinley’s frames. The juxtaposition of the video’s imagery with the subtext of the song—that moments of perfection and beauty rest hidden amid the wreckage of our lives—reference the underlying duality evident in all of McGinley’s photographs: this moment has passed, let’s remember its death forever.
The hopefulness of the hopeless place, in McGinley’s case, is couched in his utopian unification of nature and the youthful body, a place where wilderness and human desire meet on equal ground. Our response to these photographs is dependent on our understanding of their very improbability; much like Shalott is cursed and sucked into her death as the direct result of her desire to believe in freedom, so are we compelled by McGinley to contemplate the possibility of happy lives and happy endings. The subjects of these photographs are, however, already gone, inching incrementally away from their images as depicted in print as soon as the aperture closes.
For an artist so seemingly relentlessly contemporary and now, McGinley’s work is steeped in the sensibilities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: on the one hand, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic and weltanschauung, and the other, Pictorial photography. Emerging during late nineteenth-century debates regarding photography’s role in science and art, Pictorial photography sought to imbue a medium previously utilized as a means of pure representation with the seriousness of intention and vision accorded the fine arts, using formal devices characteristic of the painting of the time. The early exemplar of this movement, Henry Peach Robinson, refused the decisive moment of the single camera exposure, and instead chose to compose his images from many individual negatives, each one a carefully staged scene. Later, Pictorial photography would soften in the outlines of photographic images in an attempt to emulate the softness of charcoal drawing or impressionist painting, but Robinson’s images retain the impossibly precise detail of large format photographic negatives. Robinson’s “combination printing,” with its image clarity, deliberation in composition, and photographic believability, is most evident in Fading Away, his most famous image. This haunting work, created from negatives of diverse figure groups, scandalized the audiences of its time for its convincing portrayal of a beautiful young woman at the moment of her death, her sickbed surrounded by devastated onlookers, a subject which is hardly uncommon to paintings. The sense that photography can insert itself in some genuine way between life and death remains overwhelming even now, and McGinley’s awareness of the photographer’s ability to strengthen this effect through art-directorial dabbling is rooted in these earliest Pictorial traditions. 
Robert Demachy, a leading figure in the French Pictorialism movement, was keenly invested in affirming photography as a fine art distinct from amateur and commercial photographic image making. Demachy was specifically focused on the development of nonstandard processes, chief among these the implementation of gum bichromate, which allowed the introduction of color and brushwork into the photographic image. The orange pigment present in Demachy’s roseate Struggle (1903; pg. 10) is meant to evoke sanguine, a reddish chalk often used in life drawings. The coloration, texture, and formal composition of the image could easily be mistaken at once for a McGinley. Sand Rollers (2013; pg. 15), for example, although produced more than a century after Struggle, bears all of the hallmarks of its ancestor—the reddish color, the aching torsion of the figure, the hands buried in or scratching witch-like at the chthonic soil.
McGinley’s work gains force from the sensation of immediacy, and yet he follows the trajectory of the photographic medium itself by enhancing spontaneity through formal means. Jacques Lacan, a scholar of the tragi-comedy of misrecognition and illusion, was not long satisfied with reflections, and he insisted on the role of signifiers and of words, making a sequence of arcane graphs to diagram the pathways of desire (right). The graphs are marked by leaps and falls, not unlike McGinley’s fireworks; they begin at the bottom right, then head up to encounter a chain of signifiers, slowing and arcing back down and to the left. As they fall back to earth, they encounter the chain of meaning once more. The process of engagement with McGinley’s figures echoes this template, the energy of the unconscious the beauty of nature, the pictorial, but it’s a temporary set up: as soon as there is movement, a series of encounters with the limits of language begins.
McGinley’s subjects leap, their grace captured by a photographer; we never see them fall. Along Lacan’s graph, the chimeras of the ideal ego wait on the right, and the ego ideal stands to the left. The men and women who populate McGinley’s images are flawless: you want to be them, to possess them, you want them to want you. As Slavoz Zizek interprets the structure of fantasy in The Sublime Object of Ideology: it is the answer to the question, “Che vuoi?” or “What do you, the Other, want of me?” When he continues— “In the fantasy scene, the desire is not fulfilled, ‘satisfied,’ but constituted (given its objects and so on)—through fantasy we learn ‘how to desire,’”he might be describing this very body of work.
Zizek completes the picture: “Sharpening the paradox to its utmost—to tautology—we could say that desire is a defense against the desire of the Other, against the ‘pure’ trans-phantasmatic desire (i.e. the ‘death drive’ in its pure form). This third graph in Lacan’s schema remains open; two arrows curve upward into nothing, and the space between them is labeled “desire.” “Che vuoi?” It is the question of one who suffers from anxiety; where does anxiety fit here, when fearlessness appears to be what is signified? But then the expiration date on that perfection becomes the signifier of an impossible gap between utterance— perfection, and uttered—death.

“In front of the photograph
of my mother as a child, I tell
myself: She is going to die: I
shudder… over a catastrophe
which has already occurred.
Whether or not the subject is
already dead, every photograph
is this catastrophe.”
—Ronald Barthes,
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography 

Blue Flip (2012; pg. 61): a man’s body hurls improbably through space, either towards or away from an evening sky. This form, hovering for eternity, reflects back at us, as all floating signifiers do, a rapidly cycling series of possibilities. As in Waterhouse’s depiction of Shalott, what we do not see, cannot see, is what awaits the subject at the edge of the frame. Is this the literal death of Tennyson’s heroine, or simply another example of Barthes’s photographic catastrophe? Are these two places, ultimately, precisely the same? The cosmetic appeal of McGinley’s surfaces trap, or rather stall, our gazea blazing sky and a young body, the imperfect beauty of a surface wound, a flash of fireworks or a tumble-down hill, and all of these elements disguise the subtext of loss that echoes throughout the artist’s work. Distracted by Millais’s spray of forget-me-nots and poppies, we lose track momentarily that we are witnessing Ophelia’s death scene, that she has floated away, that she is gone as soon as we have found her. McGinley’s subjects are likewise lost to us, never the same as they are at the moment of our meeting, hurtling through time at the same moment that they are trapped in space.

 

 

Ryan McGinley: Parsons Commencement Speech, 2014

Everyone always says it helps to picture you all naked to calm my nerves. Well, unfortunately, that’s another day at work for me. 

  Greetings and congratulations to the Parsons graduating class of 2014, and to all the teachers and families of these young photographers. Thank you to the esteemed faculty and administration for inviting me here today; it’s truly an honor. To all the proud parents, thank you for supporting your daughters and sons in the arts. Your support of creativity is honorable and beautiful. Sometimes, you have to do things in life you are afraid of, and for me, this speech is definitely one of them. I approached it the only way I know how, as a photographer.

  In preparation for today, I stopped by to see the space, to scout this room, and get my bearings. When I got here, I remembered this building from when I was a student. It was the computer lab, and on my way out I recognized the security guard, Luis, from my time here. There was something so comforting about that to me. It made it seem like it wasn’t so long ago that I was here.

  In my fifth year here—yes, I was in school for five yearsI took a class with George Pitts. The class was called “Nudity, Sexuality, and Beauty in Photography.” It had such a big influence on me that I’ve adhered to those three words throughout my entire career. I remember my first day in his class. I was wearing a Cramps t-shirt, and he said, “You and I are going to get along just fine.” George celebrated my outsiderness. Thank you George, you truly changed my life.

  Before that happened though, I came to Parsons to be a painter. Then in my sophomore year I fell in love with the Beatniks and switched all my classes to poetry without telling my parents. When they found out, they told me that if I wanted to stay in school, I had to choose something I could “fall back on.” So in my third year, I settled on graphic design. That decision led me to start shooting my own photos for all our assignments. I bought a Yashica T4, a small little point-and-shoot camera, that I carried around everywhere in my pocket.

  When I got that first camera, I got my wings. I started to relate to the world in a new way. It gave me permission to ask, to not be shy, and to step outside of what was accepted. I was addicted. Photography ended up being a combination of all the different majors I had considered. It brought together the color palate of painting, the emotion of poetry, and the balance of design. I started to sneak into the Parsons darkroom after a friend taught me how to use the enlarger. Every week I’d buy expired film for three dollars a roll at Adorama. I remember the man at the photo lab would always tell me the same dumb joke, “What did Cinderella say when she left the photo store? Someday my PRINTS will come.”

  I once bought a pack of 50 sheets of 20-by-24 photo paper. It was a big investment at the time, so I knew I couldn’t spare a single sheet. I spent all day in the darkroom trying to print each image meticulously. That night, when I left the building on 5th Avenue, I had my hands full with the big box of photos, my backpack, and some food. It was windy, and in an unexpected gust, the top of the box flew off, along with all my prints. I watched them billow and spiral down 5th Avenue. Then, I spent the next hour trying to collect them. I walked from 11th Street to Washington Square Park, and even found some by West Broadway and Houston. Even though I knew they were all dented and ruined I had to gather them because they were all naked pictures of my friends. So remember, always tape your photo boxes shut, or to be more current, always password-protect your hard drives and cell phones.

  By my fourth year in school, I was shooting every day and every night. I photographed every little thing, all my food, doorways covered in graffiti, and my friends and roommates. I tortured my first boyfriend, Marc, by capturing each moment of our relationship. I was obsessed with documenting my life.

  So that’s my advice to you: find something to be obsessed with, and then obsess over it. Don't compete; find what's uniquely yours. Take your experience of life and connect that with your knowledge of photographic history. Mix it all together, and create an artistic world that we can enter into.

  If you only like shooting cell phone photos, then do that. If your dad works at a construction site that looks cool, use it. If your mom breeds poodles, then put them in your photographs. Use the camera to take what you know that others don’t, what you can access that others can’t, and the people or things you connect with, to construct your own world. Be busy. Seek and find a way to do what it is you want to do. Identify what that thing is and do it. Don’t stand around too long having conversations about it. Do it. Refine it. Do it more. Try it a different way. Keep at it until you break through to the next level. Don’t talk or think yourself out of doing it. Put one foot in front of the other and let it happen organically.

  In my last year, all my friends in the photography program were having their thesis shows here at school, but I wasn’t a photo major. My friends Jack and Lenny had a connection to an empty loft in SoHo that was soon being turned into a clothing store. They let me hang about 30 poster-sized photos in there, and that was my first show. It was called “The Kids are Alright.” I had learned how to make handmade books in my graphic design courses, so I made my own catalogue to go with the exhibition. I made one hundred copies on my home printer, and I had an assembly line of friends help me bind them right up until the opening. I mailed some of those books out to artists I admired and magazines I read, and people started calling me. I got my first editorial job with Index Magazine. They said they liked my photos and gave me an assignment. The first shoot was with a little unknown band from England. My friend Amy was interviewing them while I was taking pictures. I was so nervous that I shot for 20 minutes without film in the camera. 

  On my next assignment, they flew me to Germany to photograph an electronic musician. I was scared the whole flight, and had a terrible stomachache. I had to figure out how to make a photograph that looked like the intimate images I was making of my own friends. I had to make strangers look like a part of my world.

  When the musician arrived with his girlfriend, I asked them both to take their shirts off, and I shot them lazing around the hotel room. The magazine loved them, and I realized I could make intimate pictures of strangers. It was a breakthrough for me. I found that most people liked being photographed; they like being paid attention to and being told to do things they normally wouldn’t do. I learned that all I needed to do was ask.

  Say yes to almost everything, and try new things. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to work hard. Do your pictures, don’t try and do somebody else’s pictures. Don’t get lost inside your head, and don’t worry what camera you’re using. I once heard the legendary indie director Derek Jarman had 3 rules for making his art films: “Show up early, hold your own light, and don’t expect to get paid.” That always stuck with me. Approach art like it’s your job. Show up for photography every day for eight hours. Take it as seriously as a doctor would medicine. Take photos of everything. If you are working hard, really hard, opportunity will come. And when it does, you better be ready for it with your camera in hand.

  Remember, it’s romantic as hell what we do. See the beauty and uniqueness in this world. Be a keen observer of life. Photography is about questioning, and the root of the word question is “quest”. Keep seeking out whatever it is that excites and inspires you. Make it your quest. Be very open to the idea of chance and surprise. Respect and honor your artistic insanityIf you work hard enough, you’ll experience the happy accidents that are the art. Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2014.

- Ryan McGinley

 

 

Bill Powers, 2013

Bill Powers: People say that in the world of photography you can go from fine art to fashion, but not so much the other way around. Has that been your experience? 

Ryan McGinley: Fashion photography for me is something I sometimes do for fun. It's fun to play dress up, it's always a good time. I'm lucky as a photographer to be able to experiment within the many categories in my field. I like being flexible and I'd never want to be pigeonholed since the medium is so adaptable.  For a sculptor or a painter it's harder to do that.

You enjoy the bigger range of possibilities.

Exactly. As a photographer, you can direct a music video, you can photograph one of your heroes, you can shoot a fashion story: all those things are available to experiment with. I like to see how other people operate, to learn their tricks. The way I normally work with my own team is very hands on: it's tents, it's campfires, it's smaller budgets. Everything is guerrilla and most of the time illegal since we're shooting people naked. Life is short so I want to try to do everything, I want to lead a very eventful life and be able to connect with a wider audience sometimes. 

Give me a few tricks of the trade. Like how they say it's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

I never ask for permission. Ever. But when you take a risk, there can be consequences. If we can get in trouble, that's how you know it's an adventure.  

Have you been arrested before?

Yeah, in Lake Eerie, PA. There were eight people naked on jet skis. I wasn't full-on arrested, but I got a thousand dollars worth of tickets and the cops were just looking at us like, What the fuck? 

How do you get someone naked for a photograph who doesn't want to be naked?

I have never done that in my life. That's so not my approach. A lot of people think, as a photographer, you can kind of coax someone into doing something. But not nudity, that's pervy and that's not me. I'm straight up, This is what i'm doing, I want to photograph you nude, here's my work. I let the work speak for itself and most people I ask are game.

I did not mean it in a pervy way. I think part of that reaction is the fault of American culture where we've equated nudity with pornography. You can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see all kinds of paintings and statues of the human figure, but then if you put up a Larry Clark photo people freak out. 

Americans have a lot of hang-ups with nudity. I mean, everyone gets weird about it. Whenever I'm out shooting with a group and someone stumbles upon us they always think we're filming a porno. 

Are there a lot of pictures of you naked?

No. I'm not a part of my work. You know, I'm better behind the camera.

I guess that separates you from, say, a Juergen Teller or a Terry Richardson. 

It's not about me. What I'm doing isn't real, you know, it doesn't relate to the real world. It's a fantasy world that I'm creating and it's completely assembled with certain people that I've chosen to photograph and locations where I've chosen to shoot. It's definitely people that I feel represent my spirit, but it doesn't have to do anything with me personally. Like Suge Knight said at the ’95 Source awards: "To all you artists out there who don't wanna be on a record label where the executive producer's all up in the videos, all on the record, dancin’.” That's kind of my philosophy. I don't need to be all up in the pictures. 

Do you agree with the notion that every picture is a self portrait though?

Every picture has my handwriting, my DNA, within it and I'd like to think it's recognizable as my own but I wouldn't necessarily say it's a self portrait. 

In the same way that the record industry was radically fractured with music posted online, have we seen a rupture in photography with things like Tumblr and Instagram? 

I don't think I would have ever been able to do what I did if the internet was booming when I started. Ten years ago there were barely any blogs so no one was thinking, Where is this picture gonna end up?  The way photography is evolving with all the platforms to show your photographs is changing the face of the medium. Also how you can take a picture with basically every apparatus you own. 

It seems so much harder to break through now.

I think it's still about having a voice and a recognizable style, showing people your interests through the camera. The only thing that's hard is that developing your voice and your style takes a lot of practice and that's kind of what everyone in the world is doing now is practicing. So yeah it's going to be interesting to see who stands out from that. You've got to have that compulsive intensity and obsession to stand out from the crowd.

And what do these advancement in technology do to photography on the whole?

Well, I can tell you what the slow and steady approach to releasing images out into the world did for me. It gave me time to think about the work. Put it on the wall and give it time to breathe and think about what I was doing and what the pictures meant to me. It gave me time to develop my voice and a world around the photos. Rather than just immediately post it on Facebook or Tumblr.

Because social media has created a whole generation strung out on right now and really feeds a collective narcissism on this level we've never known culturally.

Yeah. I think it's cool though, I don't want to come off as a hater. I mean I'm a major participant in looking at photos online. I really love the kids who are continuing the tradition of photographing downtown NYC, the new generation who are out every night making it happen and immediately uploading.

An artist like Nate Lowman can make paintings and then make sculpture, rephotograph an image and it doesn't necessarily have to look signature to his work, but with photography it seems harder to deviate from your accepted style. 

Photography is limited, but it's also limitless. You can put anything in front of your camera as long as you have a strong language. Photographs let you reinvent your self in another way. I can build my own pseudo-reality in photography. Since it's a photo, it really happened and people will always respond to that. Like any good artist you just have to have a consistency of vision. I'd like to think I'm bringing poetry to the adventure of outdoor photography.  Why I became of photographer is to observe the human spirit, to be a radical explorer,  to join the circus and run away from home. Photographers get to go places and do things. Painters make all the big money so I guess it's a trade off. 

Do you see more of an emphasis on physicality in photography now because everyone with an iPhone is a photographer? There's less reverence for the image and a focus on the photographic object. Recently I saw some collages you'd made at the Frieze Art Fair and I wondered if that was partly the impetus.

The collages are a way to keep my work evolving, keeping up the curiosity, and experimenting. For me they go back to school yearbooks. The tradition of cutting up your personal photos and gluing them all together. It was really fun to go through all my photos over all the years and gather the information to make them. There is a lot of energy in them. I think of them as little naked mosh pits. Making them was was totally insane. Spending time obsessively cutting up tens of thousands of images and making big seas of tiny naked people. In the end no one can do what I do, because no one's as crazy as me, man. Not in the sense of I'm crazy, but in my brain there's a prison riot going on and it has to do with photography. It's all that I think about and how I view the world. I eat, sleep, and breathe it. I don't think I'm employable in any other way. It's just this intense, compulsive dedication to something. I'm married to it supreme and beyond anyone or anything. 

I imagine that can be lonely.

Oh it's totally lonely, being so passionate about something that feels more important than anything else in the world, and it also takes up all my time. You have to learn how to function as a human being and to relate to people without a camera. See there's this box of magic that I have, and when it's in my hands I can relate to people, have discussions, go on adventures and ask for anything. Without it I have a hard time operating. 

Didn't your art dealer once tell you not to shoot anything for like three months as an experiment?

Yeah, he said, "Sit on your hands and don't move." I tried but I'm not very good at it. It's hard for me to not be working. I've got a big passion for the experience. There are so many things to do, so many things to see. I don't bring my camera around with me in day-to-day life anymore. I'm not that compulsive with shooting everything that is happening in my life. There was this point in the beginning of my career when I was exploring my style so I was shooting everything from my food to doors covered in graffiti to- 

People doing illegal stuff?

Yeah, tagging down in subway tunnels or hanging in Tompkin Square Park or getting high with someone in a bathroom. 

Is it true that you go to a concert almost every week?

Yeah, totally, in New York I'm always going to shows.  My entire life I've been going to shows. My first show was Guns N Roses at The Ritz in ’88. Then I followed The Dead around for a while in high school. I used to see all the punk shows at Maxwell's in Hoboken in the ’90s because I sold tickets for them. Then attending close to a hundred Morrissey shows and seeing many outdoor festivals every year. 

 Is it you searching for some sense of community?

Sometimes I mistake lyrics for my true feelings. I get so wrapped up in the band and seduced by music. There's this euphoria. That's the best, when you're at a show and you know all the words and you're singing along, screaming the lyrics, at the top of your lungs. When the loud music is completely disorienting and the crowd is jumping around you. Being pushed and pulled in the heart of the audience. Losing your mind in the moment and everyone bathed in the colored stage light. It doesn't get better than that. The most beautiful sensation is closing your eyes and dancing. That's what I want my photos to feel like.

And that's how the kids looked in your “Grids” show. They all looked hypnotized. 

Yeah, it's like a religious experience. That's my religion. My mother goes to church every Sunday and I go to shows. 

With your road trip images, one of my favorites is the naked girl in a wheat field running away from the camera. When I saw that picture I immediately thought of “Christina's World.” Do you consider Wyeth an influence?

Of course, Wyeth's favorite subjects were the land, his people, the barns, the stormy skies, and the crop fileds. I think I definitely share a similar aesthetic and have been influenced by his work. I actually spent a lot of time at the MoMA when I was younger staring at that painting. I always thought my photograph was kind of like if Christina got up and ripped off her clothes and hightailed it through the field.  

Edward Hopper said that early in his career he would have a canvas filled with lots of different elements and then as he matured it was a process of clearing out the frame. It became more about distilling.

Gotta rearrange the furniture. It's moving everything around to simplify the photograph so it's really about the emotion of the action. So the clutter doesn't distract you. My favorite landscape to shoot in is White Sands in New Mexico because it's so minimal. Just blue sky and white sand, that's it.

That same image I mentioned in relation to “Christina's World” also strongly echoes the cinematography in “Days of Heaven.”

Yeah, I love Linda Manz’s voiceover narration, and all the walking through those wheat fields. Golden crops blowing in the wind shot during twilight. I love how Malick only uses natural light and shoots mostly during the magic hour. And Sam Shepard's so cute in it. 

Can we quickly tell the story about when you almost met Terrence Malick?

I was in Austin at the ACL music festival and I saw Christian Bale being filmed. Then I saw this guy in a Stetson hat, sunglasses, and a big beard and I thought, huh, where do I know that guy from? You know, because there's really just one image that exists of Terrence Malick.

Is that true?

Yes, he's been using a press photo of himself with this hat and this big beard since 1973. So I Googled that picture to get it fresh in my mind and I thought, Holy shit, it's Terrence Malick. That's like seeing God for me. I was about to walk over and I had about a three-second window after they finished the scene, but as I was approaching I locked eyes with Christian Bale and he just burned through me with this look like, Do not even think of coming over here. And there are all those videos on Youtube of him being psychotic, so I got shook. All that stuff flashed through my head and I thought, I don't even want to talk to you, I just want to shake Terrence Malick's hand. I didn't get to do it and I regret it.  

Another instance of that was at Harold Hunter's funeral, right? Harold was famous from the movie KIDS and his coffin had skateboard wheels on it and you wanted to take a picture but you were worried it would be in bad taste.

I didn't know necessarily if I wanted to take a photo, but I thought that image-- of my friend, who dedicated his life to skateboarding so they put his coffin on skateboard wheels--was pretty amazing. 

Do you think the Ryan McGinley of ten years ago would have taken that picture?

I'm not that kind of photographer. I'm not the guy at the protest who needs to take a picture of the cops going crazy. I'd rather photograph the protestors. 

When you die, do you want to be buried with a camera?

Sure, the magic of the camera that can set you free, even when you're dead. I think I would like to be cremated. Maybe a little sprinkle of ashes over the East Village, a little in New Jersey and then some in White Sands. 

Does it surprise you, having known Dan Colen from when he was 15 that he winds up being one of the biggest painters of your generation?

No.

But the odds are pretty slim though that two dudes moving to New York from New Jersey both make it, no?

How did it happen that Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, Phillip-Lorca diCorcia, and Mark Morrisoe all came out of Boston within a seven-year period? 

So it happens in waves?

I think we all help each other out. I remember being the first one out of my posse to get attention. It's just like a rapper, you pump your crew. And I was just like, Oh ,you're here having a studio visit for the Whitney, come to the other side of my apartment and check out what my friend Dan's doing.

Is that for real?

Maybe not that exact occasion but in the beginning I was pumping Dan and Dash hard, because those were my homies and the world needed to know how talented they were. I remember A-ron Bondoroff said, when I had my show at the Whitney, he was like, this is really cool for you, but it's even more cool for us. That was something that was really important, that it gave my friends more opportunities to be seen, because we definitely were a downtown art gang. But Dan and I knew each other when we were young. We found each other in New Jersey because of skateboarding. When you're a skater, maybe not so much now because it's commercialized, but in the early ’90s being a skater was being an outsider. You were a punk. You were an outcast. It was like playing Dungeons and Dragons or being gay. You had to find other people. The first time I met Dan, he was like, Check out my drawings, my dad's a sculptor, come over to my house. And I was like, Yo, I'm taking life-drawing classes, here's my Cubist painting that I just made. We vibed so hard. 

When KIDS came out did you like the movie?

Yeah, because we knew Leo Fitzpatrick. In high school I worked for a skateboard shop called Surf n Turf in Hoboken and Leo worked at another skate shop called Premiere. We knew Leo because he was a sick skater, he was inspiring, he was one of the best skaters out of Jerz. We would skate all the time with him in parking garages and around the mall. 

Did Leo's success ignite a spark of opportunity for you guys?

No, it was Hollywood. Even now when someone's on a movie screen and you're watching it, it's just so otherworldly. Leo got a great opportunity from that movie. Put him on the acting path and got him around the world and he didn't have to ever get a real job.  

Will we see a feature film from Ryan McGinley some day?

Yeah, an independent feature for sure. I've got some plans to make that happen in the next chapter.

Why do you think it's so rare for artists to break out and make movies? Steve McQueen has done it, Schnabel's done it, Cindy Sherman tried it. Why is that such a difficult transition?

Your brain has to work in a such a specific way that is so different from the way you are normally used to working. Movies are unforgiving. You can fuck up everything and make one good photo but not with a moving image. It's also such a long-term project. A good movie can easily take 5 years out of your life to make. Imagine working on one piece of art for that long. That's intense. It's hard to switch those gears. Ten years ago I wanted to have enough work to make a substantial coffee-table book. That's something all my heroes had.  

So now you have your coffee-table book. Do you think that's one of the dangers of your dreams coming true, then you have to stare down the bigger questions beyond that.

I have to remember everyday to keep pushing myself and putting myself in uncomfortable situations. To not stop looking and to keep exploring beauty. I've been working 12 years now at a 24/ 7 pace. I've got to always remember not to become too comfortable for fear of becoming irrelevant. You've got to watch out for that creeping privilege. I want to sustain a creative career for at least 50 more years and connect with an audience decade after decade. I'm a "lifer" in photography, dude.

Is there somebody that's a blueprint or a mentor for you?

Different people work in different ways. When I was younger a lot of my role models had died young. Now that I've passed that point in my life I'm thinking about who the new role models are, the ones who lived to be eighty years old and just had a great life.

Who were some of your role models before?

As a teenager, I was rebelling against suburbia. It was Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison. I really loved Basquiat too. I think for the most part everyone in that group died at 27. It's the Saturn Return thing, when you first cross a major threshold and enter into the next stage in life. A lot of people can't take that challenge so they end up dying. I think now my role models are people like Neil Young, Cathy Opie, and Woody Allen. I like Avedon's career. He died with a camera in his hands, making photos. Helmut Newton was leaving the Chateau Marmont, going to a shoot, and had a heart attack. Berenice Abbott is cool, because she did so many different things throughout her career. She photographed all of her crew in Paris in the 1930s. Then she moved to New York and photographed the city being built up. Then she went to MIT and made scientific photographs there. Something about that is really amazing. 

What's the Mona Lisa of photographs?

I would say Thomas Eakins’s Study in Human Motion--the model jumping nude, the famous one. I've always had that as a postcard tacked to the wall for most of my life. I think it kind of sums up everything that I'm doing.  

 

 

Out of Bounds: Photographs by Ryan McGinley

by Sylvia Wolf, 2012

Ryan McGinley’s studio is lined with bookshelves stocked floor to ceiling with first-edition photography books, vintage pornographic magazines, rare vinyl records, and DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters and classic cinema. Alongside are over 300 binders of negatives, contact sheets, and Polaroid SX70portraits of friends. This archive of cultural artifacts and personal work is what one might expect to find in the hands of an artist twenty or thirty years his senior as evidence of lived experience, but McGinley is in his early thirties. His youth is partly responsible for his fascination with earlier art and popular culture. McGinley’s generation has more access than any before to visual history and is aware of previous styles and behaviors via fashion, advertising, music, and the movie industry, which regularly recycle subjects and motifs from the past.

McGinley traces his eclectic tastes to the varied lifestyles and trends he was exposed to as a boy. The youngest of eight children, born on October 17, 1977, to an Irish-Catholic family from Ramsey, New Jersey, he grew up with a wide range of influences: his father’s passion for the stock market, one brother’s zeal for dressing in drag, one sister’s avid commitment to cheerleading.1 During high school, he spent late afternoons hanging out with teenage skateboarders in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, often filming them with the family’s Super 8 camera.2 He made his first photographs in the late 1990s for assignments in graphic-design classes while he was a student at Parsons School of Design. Shortly thereafter, he began taking color pictures of his friends and lovers with an obsessive fascination for recording every activity, no matter how intimate or insignificant.

In 2000, at age twenty-two, McGinley mounted a one-week show in a SoHo storefront and produced a fifty-page book of these images, The Kids Are Alright (the title is from a 1979 documentary film made about the rock band, The Who). For his first desktop publishing venture, McGinley produced 100copies, which he gave to his subjects, sent to photographers he admired, and submitted to the art and culture magazines he read. Communicating with a variety of viewers through photographs on the printed page merged McGinley’s interest in photography and graphic design. It also gave him a forum for getting his work seen.

The Kids Are Alright and a subsequent publication put out by Index Books in 2002 contain photographs of McGinley’s extended family: his father flashing the peace sign, his friend Sam riding through ash at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001.3 Some images feature emblems of classic American fashion—jeans and Converse basketball sneakers, for example. Others depict the kind of behind-the-scenes bad behavior that has been called “insider documentary,” a genre of photography that has become increasingly popular in recent years.4 Characterized by grainy, color, 35 mm pictures that resemble casual snapshots, this style of photography gives audiences a privileged peek at the artist’s inner circle. From the safety and comfort of photographic distance, we see then-notorious graffiti artist, Dash Snow, teetering on a ledge as he tags a building, or McGinley’s roommate reeling on angel dust.

McGinley is not the first photographer to focus his camera on his own generation or on subjects outside the mainstream. In 1971, Larry Clark’s images of teenage drug addicts from his hometown in Oklahoma were published in the book Tulsa. Nan Goldin chronicled the revelry of her circle of friends in New York’s Lower East Side starting in the early 1980s, and Wolfgang Tillmans has spent over a decade photographing European youth. While McGinley’s pictures may remind us of such work, his subjects appear to be having much more fun than those of his predecessors. With images that are charged with spontaneity, candor, and exuberance, he adds a freshness and a fervor to the genre.

Some of McGinley’s pictures have the unrefined look that is characteristic of the snapshot aesthetic associated with insider documentary. Others reflect an acute sensitivity to light and an avid appreciation for classical form. In a late-night image of a friend hunched in an elevator, for example, fluorescent illumination reflecting off the metallic walls dulls hard-edged details and renders a cool, misty mood. By contrast, a photograph of two sleeping men surrounded by a patchwork of bed linens and plaid flannel shirts is shot with a flash, which flattens out the scene and gives it the glaring harshness of a mug shot. Still, there is an exquisite beauty in the marble white skin of these lithe young men, and a grace and abandon in their postures that recall the erotic charge of the sleeping shepherd Endymion in eighteenth-century Neoclassical art.5

Looking at subjects who are unaware of our gaze is one of the fundamental characteristics of voyeurism, and a principal appeal of photographs such as these. So, too, is being privy to sights or subjects that are at once explicit and ambiguous. A close-up view of a bulging crotch sprayed with semen refers to sex between two men, but leaves the specifics of the act and the identity of the participants unknown. Is this a diaristic picture of one of the photographer’s sexual encounters? It is worth noting that McGinley, a gay man, most often photographs heterosexuals and in so doing maintains a certain psychic distance. Rather than respond to the sexual energy between subject and photographer (as Robert Mapplethorpe or Nan Goldin have done), McGinley selects sitters for their physique. “I’m interested in the body types I find in 1970s porn. There you see ordinary men and wholesome women who resemble the boy and girl next door.”6

As a counterpoint to the chiseled, beefy bodies of male models glistening with skin oil or the perfectly toned female figures seen in contemporary fashion and advertising, McGinley’s subjects are androgynous, with milky skin and sinewy bodies—not unlike McGinley himself. At roughly six feet tall, with a lanky frame, light brown hair, and ivory complexion, McGinley is sweetly handsome. In demeanor, he is genuine and earnest, seemingly without guile. It is easy to see why his friends are fiercely devoted to him. McGinley makes everyone he comes into contact with feel the warmth of his good will and the allure of his childlike curiosity. It is hard to believe that this one-time altar boy with impeccable manners would take a syrup used to induce vomiting (Ipecac) so that he could produce a series of photographs of himself puking, as he did in the late 1990s. But therein lies the contradiction that makes McGinley’s work from this period so compelling.

While these pictures depict badass behavior and high-risk taking, the photographs also reflect McGinley and company’s pure delight in seeing these marginal activities captured on film. The camera, in effect, is a catalyst and a trigger for action. McGinley’s subjects, most in their twenties, are willing collaborators. Drawn from skateboard, music, graffiti, and gay subcultures, they perform for the photographer and expose themselves with a frank self-awareness that is distinctly contemporary. While each new generation embraces sex, drugs, and rock and roll as though theirs is the first to discover the rush of rebellion, McGinley’s crowd indulges in this rite of passage with the full knowledge of how identity can be shaped on film.

This breaking down of boundaries between public and private spheres of activity, and the obsessive self-examination that characterizes McGinley’s early work, anticipate the era of YouTube, where video clips made without attention to craft by anonymous amateurs are posted for all to see.7 By the time the video-sharing website was formed in 2005, however, McGinley had already begun to move away from the kind of photography that dominates The Kids Are Alright, and he was seeking new challenges. McGinley says of this shift, “When I first started making photos, nothing was set up. I was like a fly on a wall. But then I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen any more.”8 His impatience prompted him to adopt a directorial practice that created opportunities for photographs, but still allowed for the element of chance. An image of a young redhead, for example, was staged in a downtown club that McGinley selected for the cosmic wallpaper and graffiti in the men’s bathroom. He brought in a small trampoline and a model named Lizzy, who disrobed and leaped on cue for the camera. The result is a freeze-frame composition that has the primitive energy of paintings by Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

McGinley further explored shooting on location in August 2003, when he was invited to bring some of his models to the Vermont residence of a friend and benefactor. The estate offered generous accommodations and ample grounds—all of which became locations for pictures. McGinley photographed his clan cavorting underwater in lakes and the indoor swimming pool, or rising and falling in daylight and at night from a trampoline positioned in an open field. Whereas his previous images depicted his friends in Manhattan engaged in reckless behavior, here the kids are displaced, out of their element. They respond to the camera with an animal energy that was released in part by McGinley’s prompting and in part by their being transported from New York’s steamy summer heat to an idyllic landscape in rural New England.

That summer McGinley developed several motifs that would inform his current work, from picturing figures in nature to orchestrating multiple models’ actions. When a long-time friend, cinema director Mike Mills, asked McGinley to shoot movie stills during the making of Mills’s feature film Thumbsucker(2005), the photographer gained added exposure to the possibilities of directing action in front of a camera. He also came to appreciate the discipline required to shoot a film, which involved working all day, every day, in many locations. In the summer of 2005, McGinley set out on the first of what would become annual three-month trips made across the U.S. with two vans, from eight to ten models, and several hundred rolls of film.

The itinerary of these journeys is determined by the type of landscape McGinley seeks, as well as where he can find friends along the way—White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, for example, or the southern California desert home of fellow photographer Jack Pierson. Once on site, McGinley’s cast of slim young men and silken-haired women strip down to socks and sneakers. When not hiking for hours to get to a remote mountain pool or crowding into a pine tree at night, McGinley’s band of merry nudists may be bungee jumping or leaping through fireworks with abandon, jubilation, and a hint of hysteria. In the evening, his models engage in recreation to pass the time. A game of truth or dare results in the black eyes seen in the next day’s photographs. Other tomfoolery includes drinking contests and walks in the dark led only by the flashes of McGinley’s cameras.

In their decorative and lyrical hedonism, these pictures call to mind the eighteenth-century French garden parties—les fêtes champêtres—in Rococo paintings by artists such as Jean Honoré Fragonard.9 Images of figures frolicking in nature can also be found in the work of nineteenth-century British photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and American artist Thomas Eakins, who depicted naked boys and men swimming or lounging waterside in imagery that appeals to the homoerotic imagination.10 More asexual are photographs made in the 1920s by German naturalists as part of the movement Frei Körper Kultur (Free Body Culture). Members of the movement celebrated their belief in the harmony of the human body with nature in pictures of naked men and women engaged in athletic activity outdoors.11 Similar images can be found today on websites geared towards contemporary naturalists. McGinley remarks, “I love, in particular, the photographs of nudists engaged in normal activities—cleaning the house, for example, or teaming up for a three-legged race at a colony picnic.”12

McGinley draws upon all of these sources for ideas. He also looks to National Geographic magazine (his first exposure to nudity as a boy), sports magazines, his collection of U.S. Camera Annual, and paintings by artists he admires, including Eric Fischl and Alice Neal. Before embarking on his summer road trips, he scans or downloads reproductions of interest and constructs makeshift books. He shows these staple-bound compilations of appropriated images—he calls them “inspiration books”—to his models before shooting sessions to prime the pump. He also plays music as he photographs to get them in the mood and give them license to experiment. Although some sessions are planned with storyboarding, his models’ spontaneity and McGinley’s reactions to the unexpected are critical to the success of these pictures. Consequently, the element of chance plays a significant role in the outcome, which affects how he works.

On a good day, McGinley photographs in three locations with up to thirty rolls each. This results in thousands of negatives made over the course of a summer, which he edits down in the fall to a few dozen images that will be enlarged. Because his shoots take place at all hours of the day and night under varying lighting conditions and involve several models in action, McGinley uses photographic film, not digital cameras. “Film allows me to respond to a situation instantly and record subtle nuances of light and atmosphere. I can also experiment with the film, which you can’t do with digital technology. Film also captures the way light falls on skin and gives a physical, tactile feeling to the picture. And it has that great color.”13 Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of this work is its expressionistic palette. Sometimes unlikely hues are achieved through double exposure, as when McGinley opens the back of the camera and exposes the film to different kinds of light, then reloads the film before setting out to work. He also shoots through water or smoke, which provides a veiled transparency that enhances the otherworldly quality of his pictures. This results in a sfumato effect, where smoky transitions between colors and tones soften the detail and create curious, mysterious perceptions of depth and volume.14

If nudity in the outdoors suggests primitive innocence, nakedness in underground caverns conjures a mortal’s fall from grace. McGinley’s recent seriesMoonmilk (2008-09) pictures chalk-white figures huddling in dank caves or hurling themselves from ledges dripping with stalactites. Unlike his idyllic scenes of pastoral beauty, a different, more ambiguous form of adventure (darker, more primordial sensibility) is at work here. Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) comes to mind, as does the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale, and visions of Hades in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Using strobes, colored gels, portable generators, and exposures lasting up to two or three minutes, this body of work is McGinley’s most physically and technologically challenging to date.

McGinley acquired many of the production and business skills needed to plan and orchestrate these ventures from his experience shooting for magazines, including photo essays on Olympic athletes and a portfolio of Oscar nominees for the New York Times Magazine, and a portrait session with Kate Moss for the magazine W.15 Far from being compartmentalized as “editorial” work, McGinley’s pictures for the printed page have long contributed to his evolution as an artist, and vice versa. Much like commercial images, his expedition photographs invite us to project our romantic allusions about youth, adventure, and the restorative properties of communing with nature. Unlike his early photographs, which solicit our prurient interests with their exposure of real-life risky behavior, his staged tableaux present a fantasy world animated by the photographer’s belief in the discovery and magic that come from making mischief.

In this regard, McGinley’s recent works occupy a metaphoric space somewhere between Virgil’s Arcadia and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the former, lowly shepherds sing about love and poetry in a mountain refuge in Greece. The pagan behavior of McGinley’s leaping satyrs and lilting nymphs evokes the blissful simplicity and harmony with nature that made Arcadia a source of inspiration and escapist musings among poets and artists for centuries. At the same time, the epic nature of McGinley’s endeavor—whether months on the road or hours underground—and the rough and tumble physicality of his recent works evoke Twain’s story about a young boy’s cathartic journey down the Mississippi River. We can envision McGinley as a modern day Huck whose irreverent, quasi-crude sensibility is coupled with innate goodness and a visceral desire to be free. But unlike Huck, for whom the pursuit of adventure is an end in itself, McGinley must capture the adventure on film. That’s the point. McGinley finds photographic reality more vivid and inviting than everyday experience. “My photographs are my fantasy life. They’re the life I wish I was living.”16

 

 

Chris Kraus: PSEUDO-FICTION, MYTH, AND CONTINGENCY, 2012

“Myth . . . abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them a simplicity of essences . . . it organizes a world without contradictions . . . a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”

-Roland Barthes, Mythologies

requently lauded for capturing the essence of a generation, Ryan McGinley’s extraordinary images in fact do something more subtle and deft. Seamless and irony-free, they have created the myth of a generation for whom freedom and possibility consistently trump disillusion and doubt. Flesh may be temporarily bruised, but psyches remain unscarred. In McGinley’s world, the laws of gravity scarcely apply. Fantastic and ebullient, McGinley’s work enjoys an unusually widespread appeal among art-world insiders and lay fans alike.

Today, McGinley is best known for dreamlike images of figures in natural landscapes, but his earliest work took place in the shabby apartments and dirty streets of downtown New York.  His first major body of work, a series of photographs titled “The Kids Are Alright,” depicts moments from the lives of the artist and his friends on the Lower East Side. They come across as a diaristic chronicle of time spent spray painting graffiti, rolling joints, waking up in closet-sized rooms, having sex, swimming nude, and hanging out. First exhibited in 2000, in a self-produced show at 420 West Broadway, in SoHo—once the home of the Leo Castelli and Mary Boone galleries, the space was temporarily abandoned before the construction of luxury lofts—the photographs attracted widespread attention, leading to a solo exhibition of much of the same work at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art three years later.

The images were hailed for their tantalizing similarity to the work of McGinley’s most obvious predecessors: Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol, and Larry Clark. And yet, there were differences: As one critic wrote of the Whitney show, “[T]he tone is relaxed and playful, as if the world were on recess. . . . The pictures have none of the after-hours decadence of Warhol’s snapshots, nor the grit of Mr. Clark’s work, nor the noirish narcissism of Ms. Goldin’s.”2 A narrative quickly emerged: Post-AIDS, post-9/11, the subjects of Kids were immersed in an underground lifestyle unclouded by imminent doom. While others lamented the corporate gentrification of the city’s once seedy locales, McGinley’s images seemed to prove that it might still be possible to be classless, artistic, and young and have fun in early twentyfirst-century corporate New York—margins of freedom were still there to be found. McGinley’s swift move from DIY exhibition to major museum show formed a parallel story of promise: A young artist no longer had to wait a decade or more to receive mainstream recognition. With little formal photographic training and no more than a graphic design BFA, McGinley, at age twentyfive, became the youngest artist to be given a solo show at the Whitney and was anointed an avatar of his generation.

A decisive shift took place in McGinley’s work in the summer of 2003, when a collector loaned the artist a Vermont country house. McGinley installed a skate ramp and trampoline in the yard and began busing friends and acquaintances up from New York each week. Removing his subjects from their “natural” urban environment, he transported them to this bucolic setting, where he instigated large situations and setups that would trigger spontaneous actions and moments. The work became a matter of documenting “real life” as it occurred in highly constructed situations, and the resulting images are more deliberately cinematic.

    In 2005, McGinley embarked on a series of annual summer road trips that would result in new bodies of work, including “Sun and Health,” 2006; “I Know Where the Summer Goes,” 2008; and “Moonmilk,” 2009. He began formally casting models—not professional models but kids recruited from art schools and cities all over the world—and crew and staff numbers grew larger. Still, traveling around the US for three months, living mostly outdoors and naked, boundaries between McGinley’s subjects, the natural world, and each other seem to dissolve, evoking the halcyon 1970s when, unburdened by debt or career, countless young people simply traveled, and an “artistic life” could be lived without being professionalized.

    McGinley’s depiction of young and lithe nude subjects has been read as a celebration of youth, defined by rebellion, vitality, and positive energy. Yet youth—like the body’s unclothed, natural state—can also be read as an absence : a blank slate upon which psychic and physical qualities can be more clearly registered. The exhaustion of Ann (Sand), 2007; the expectantly wistful expressions of Ann (Windy Truck), 2007, Hanna (Blonde Meadow), 2008, and Brennan (Blue), 2007; the black eyes and bruises of Tim (Black Eye), 2005, and Olivia (Sparrow), 2010, would not be as apparent or striking were their subjects encumbered by age or identifiable clothing. McGinley’s subjects wear their bruises well, like tattoos.  Aged bodies are marked by accretion, but Tim and Olivia are still young, and their bruised states are fleeting.

    Looking back, it becomes apparent that even the artist’s earliest images are not quite as “documentary” as theyfirst appeared. The artist has described his work as a “pseudofiction”—“because it did happen but it might not have happened if it weren’t going to become a photograph.” Instead of reality, he explains, “My photographs are really closer to a documentation of my fantasy life.” The images in “The Kids Are Alright” are iconic: Depicted while living within a familiar bohemian milieu, his subjects are clearly mobile and passing through time. Framed by a late twilit sky and the liquid halation of city lights, the figure in Dash Bombing, 2001, is captured mid-motion, spray painting the wall of a building—echoing later figures who catapult from ghostly buildings (Tom Fall Away, 2010) or gaze wonderstruck toward the sky through a barn door, surrounded by snowfall and Christmas-red lights (Jonas Barn Snow Disco, 2008). Cum, 1999, defies both its title and the 1980s East Village tradition of “transgressive” art by micro-framing smashed droplets that, if abstracted from soft, wrinkled pant folds, could be mistaken for milk.

    McGinley’s work can be seen as a series of mythic constructions that have become increasingly artful and conscious over the years. Myths are anomalies: Singular stories, personas, and things that appear to be emblematic, but only because they have paradoxically been abstracted from cause and effect; they appear to us as inevitable and eternal. In Mythologies, a 1957 collection of essays, Roland Barthes found a kind of euphoria in the image of Einstein’s brain—“at once magician and machine”—and in Omo detergent’s artful disguise of abrasive chemicals within delicious folds of white foam. Devised from material drawn from the cultural surface, myths seem to evoke limitless depth.  

    Framed in the seemingly endless plentitude of time and the natural world, McGinley’s images offered a line of flight from the toxic mediascape of the Bush years, when the Saw films and Hostel, exemplars of the “new sadism,” played at the multiplex. As one critic observed, McGinley’s “vision of golden youth scampering through fireworks or tumbling through the air is exhilarating and determinedly optimistic.”5 Or, as the artist himself states, “I have absolutely no interest in creating depressing images.”6 And this is myth: a conjuring trick that turns reality into enchanting essence. In Days of Heaven (1978), Terence Malick abstracts his subjects from a dire photomontage of industrial poverty to play out a drama against the endless Texas wheat fields and sky.

    Myths, according to Barthes, feed on an instant reserve of history that can be called and dismissed: “all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.” The photographs that comprise “I Know Where the Summer Goes” are gorgeous and dreamy, presenting a group of young people finding themselves over the course of one endless summer, through each other and boundless natural landscapes.  In Coley (Running), 2007, a naked boy runs through bleached fields, racing toward a car as if it’s the future.

    The iconography is pure Americana: the spirit of Andrew Wyeth as channeled through Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger ads. But McGinley’s use of amateur models imbues the work with a fragile integrity that will always elude commercial campaigns.

His subjects offer not only their bodies but a presence informed by their real lives.

    Over time, McGinley’s interests during these road trips moved toward a greater, often breathtaking athleticism. In Coco’s Cliff, 2007–08, the model’s lithe figure seems to glide horizonally from the cliff across a cyclorama blue and pink sky. Cyclone, 2008, captures a tiny blonde-bobbed nude body catapulting upside down and headfirst into the gray, limitless space of gathering clouds.  In 2009’s Moonmilk, naked figures virtually disappear within the extravagant contours of caves and canyons. As one of McGinley’s models, Dakota Goldhor, has observed, “His work shifted into creating not just one single moment but a poetic and dreamy macro-landscape. The question became: How does the individual fit into the grander stage?”

    The photographs taken these years are dramatic and visually stunning: In Jack (Blue Mass), 2009, a small naked boy seems to support a massive, phosphorescent green boulder on his shoulders. Red rock smolders like liquid ore in an interior chamber behind him. Evoking a pre-Raphaelite painting of the Narcissus myth, the model in Marcel, 2009, seems to merge with his reflection in the depths of a cave’s underground pool. The small figure in Jack (Hanging Rock), 2009, sits on the ledge of a red turreted rock—the kind of formation usually seen towering over a southwestern desert mesa, but here the landscape’s been flipped: The stones line a canyon deep underground.

    All of McGinley’s photographs since his 2001 debut exhibition have presented “ordinary” subjects in extraordinary situations, from the achingly archetypal languor of “Summer” to the athleticism of “Moonmilk.” In 2006, McGinley embarked on a new project, taking photos of fans at Morrissey concerts, which he would later reprise and expand at the Tennessee Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2011. The first series, “Irregular Regulars,” almost didactically proves the persistence of individual experience within the mass. Comprised of a nearly equal number of wideangle shots, medium shots, and portraits, “Irregular Regulars” moves from a blue-lit, standing crowd that could have been shot at a political rally or sporting event to close-ups of individual fans. Some are transfixed; others seem poised to catapult out of themselves in excitement. Each portrait depicts a unique, deeply personal flight into ecstasy. Photos of music and sports fans taken by artists such as Candice Breitz and Andrea Bowers have powerfully refuted the grim uniformity of mass spectacle proposed by Andreas Gursky’s crowd photographs. Their singleframe portraits portray the fans as individuals, but McGinley goes further than this: He shows us their souls, in transport.  

    McGinley further abstracts his photographic subjects in the 2010 series “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a group of black-and-white portraits taken entirely in his studio. In this empty space—devoid of personal effects, natural elements, transporting music—his models are forced to interact with the one thing that remains: McGinley’s camera. They are almost all medium closeups or mid-shots, and the photographs are remarkably intimate.  More often and more explicitly than in the artist’s previous work, here his subjects make direct eye contact with viewers. “I wanted the viewer to really feel that they’re engaged with the person,” McGinley explains. “The feeling of that brief look that you share with someone at a restaurant, on line at the supermarket, on the subway—that one second that feels like an eternity, and then it’s over.”8 

Photographed from the waist up, Michael W, 2010, hides his face behind his hands, fingernails painted with chipping black polish. His face is concealed except for three soft, wavy folds above his eyebrows, and his torso is naked except for a safety-pin pendant, a burn near his elbow, and some homemade tattoos—yet he projects a vulnerability that transcends any single emotion. As usual, McGinley’s studio subjects are young, but again, “youth” isn’t the subject of these remarkable portraits; the physical youth of his subject’s bodies acts as a blue screen. Like McGinley’s earliest work, these studio portraits feature models whose bodies and presences are still untouched by signs of visible age. What are wrinkles and bulges of flesh if not marks of a past that can no longer be shed? Myth, let us remember, is free of all past. Consequently, what emerges in “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is less a “celebration of youth” than a use of young bodies to transform the human form into pure essence. Free of permanent marks (except those, like tattoos, that his subjects have chosen themselves), the bodies of McGinley’s models are clear pools that reflect fleeting and universal emotions, attitudes, moods.

    As “pseudo-fictions”—moments arrived at by placing real people in extraordinary situations—McGinley’s images offer us enchanting but credible narratives. Like Barthesian myths, they convey a sense of the “real” that is larger than life by simplifying and purifying their subjects. Informed by complex psychic and physical situations that exist just outside the frame, his images use the haphazard elements of everyday life to create an incandescent illusion of freedom and beauty.

    “Art students always ask me what my work is about,” McGinley once remarked. “I’m always like, ‘Fuck, I don’t know.’ We have adventures; that was always my answer. But at one point I broke it down and realized that it’s about contingency.”9 In McGinley’s world, freed from history, these chance moments are forever foregrounded—as Barthes writes, “making contingency appear eternal”—and caught between lightness and weight.

 

 

BARN CRASH, 2012

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.

Right.

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.

Yeah.

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?

Twenty-four.

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.

Right.

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.

Right.

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 screeningMy 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.

 

 

John Kelsey: Mobile Devices, 2012

The fresh, streamlined bodies we see posed in mid-leap from a high rock, superimposed with orgasmic bursts of fireworks, or captured naked in a flash in the back of The Hole or some other downtown club, are the new mobile devices and they know it. Stripped down and live streaming into New York between the Gulf War and 9-11, this is the same skin that showed up in the pages of Vice and in the first American Apparel ads. Here, we encounter a specific, abstract, specifically abstract kind of nakedness that’s self-mediating and always hooked up to an apparatus like a laptop or a smart phone. Radically dispersed and connected in space and in time, these models are information in jeans or without jeans, perpetually mobilized within the self-communicating network that some call “cybercapitalism.” And the Manhattan they know is the abstract one that began to appear when cell phone antennas and surveillance cameras were systematically integrated into the urban infrastructure, along with infinite consumer options for customizing our individual lifestyles. This was when nakedness finally became whatever-naked, because by suddenly being everywhere it was suddenly also nowhere – in an ad or in a cave, on the road or on a screen, wherever.

    When kids and cameras show up in a field or a forest, nature becomes an extension of the metropolis. It’s also an immediate extension of our new sped-up, metropolitan nudity. Leaping into American landscapes, these models are the distant progeny of Yves Klein, whose Leap Into the Void is now as searchable as anything — kittlers, Britney’s vagina, etc. But the void we’re leaping into today is the hyper-productive, never-not-working air of the contemporary workspace, from which no exit seems possible at this point. We frolic in a carefree and at the same time anxious space of total communication. Go forth where? It doesn’t matter, because now we manage without horizons: we circulate. Perhaps it’s the void itself that leaps today. And in these images, social and geographical dispersion/connection is visualized as smooth, tattooed, naked life on the run. Here, as in a dream, running is strange . . . closer to flying: bodies appear buoyant, as if in a state of suspended animation. Floating in a night sky or within the illuminated void of a cavern, they are individual examples of a swarming, airborne whateverness, modeling the anonymity of our common abstraction. Now every gesture and each moment is always already both mediated and mediating. What can a body do in a space as abstract and endless as this? It can leap, fall,

run, fuck, float, be photographed. . . .

    The evident joy of running in a field and in a viewfinder is the whatever-joy of self-mediating nudity. And if, in these images, mediation has seemingly found its fresh and actual body, it’s also possible that images themselves now rely on such bodies to do their immaterial work of mediation. The photographs run and fly with the kids and vice versa, producing and extending the metropolis. Their specific beauty involves the zero gravity effect of bodies becoming like liquid or light. Image: several bodies flow as one, streaming together. The liquid light that sometimes bursts in the night sky and sometimes stains and colorizes the entire space of an image is corrosive and ecstatic, making nudity show up while at the same time displacing it within a design program and within the horizontal spread of our general image bank. These kids seem beamed or projected into the photographs. Another image: in a forest at night, the camera flash captures nature (trees, kids) in a party-like moment where the woods become a sort of rave or backroom for anonymous hooking up. The contemporary relationship between camera and body involves a new confidence in mediation, taking an almost contractual form: we agree to become part of the camera’s program, making ourselves functional within it. Extending the camera and its program, we produce an image via our movement within a workspace that is constantly leaping beyond its own spatiotemporal coordinates. In contemporary warfare, unmanned, remotely operated drones perform a similar function by extending both perception and the space of war.

    Decades after the sexual revolution and in the wake of AIDS, we now experience the possibility of going viral without actually touching and without physical risk. In our rampant dispersion/connection, we are ecstatically promiscuous at the level of language and image. Meanwhile, as we spread like gossip through multiple channels, inhabiting increased bandwidths and speeds, everyday communication becomes more and more pornographic. Sexting, for example, or making our own page on Facebook or OK Cupid, file sharing, posting a list of friends or things we like, uploading Flickr photos from the depths of the party, or whatever we are constantly doing when we transmit our personal information into this communicating air. I’m not saying these are “pornographic” images, only that they are produced under pornographic conditions, and that nowadays pornography has lost any distinction from the means of our daily communication. We are always putting out, always on screen, always leaking, and our new nakedness puts a fresh body on so much everyday exposure and connection. But we also remain somehow innocent in our promiscuity. The emoticon is the emblem of our innocent, promiscuous, free, and unstoppable leaking. And our new nakedness is as easy-going and generic as an emoticon.

    We are the mobile components of an abstract machine that integrates our gestures and potentialities within the automatic intelligence of its feedback loops. Naked life streams through the camera’s lens and the circuitry that stores and transmits our information, as well as the programs that organize, combine, and adjust the images we are. Meanwhile, the machine becomes smarter about us. Meanwhile, we use and participate in its intelligence. And it’s not only images but also language and life itself that are elaborated within a program that seems to have everything to do with design. Whether we know it or not, we are designing our world, every step of the way. Naked/program would be the most compressed and abbreviated formulation of this abstract machine. And if, in these images, naked youth shows up splattered with mud or scratched by tree branches, it’s only to prove its nudity, to show that our abstraction is also real. Like farmers after a long day in the fields, these slim bodies wear the signs of their carefree adventuring with prideful joy. There is a sort of mute dignity in these images that strangely recalls the men and women in Walker Evans’ Depression era photographs of itinerant hillbillies. We too are a displaced people, looking for a California we can call our own. Going forth, smooth as jpegs, our new nudity travels at the speed of light in work and in play (no longer sure where the one ends and the other begins), seeking ever more buoyant, joyful states of animation.

 

 

Vince Aletti essay in You & I, 2011

 In the beginning, all the stuff was documentary, but after a while, I got bored with waiting for things to happen — for someone to light a Christmas tree on fire or take their clothes off and make love.

--Ryan McGinley

Shortly before I met him to look over the first version of this book, I had a dream about Ryan McGinley. I don’t remember much about it now, but it involved me visiting and never quite finding him. His loft was huge and white; people wandered through the largely empty rooms, drawn toward a darker space in the back where music was playing. There was a party of some sort going on — a buzz of excitement and anticipation in the air. Ryan showed up at one point, smiling and effusive, trailing a loose constellation of friends. He spoke to me, then darted off, promising to come right back. I drifted toward the dance floor, and the dream dissolved.

So I’m not saying I can’t be brutally objective, but I don’t exactly have the proper journalistic distance from Ryan McGinley. It’s not at all beside the point to note that McGinley has an easy, raffish charm. How else do you imagine he gets people to go on the road and work with him for months at a time? He’s magnetic, seductive, and very focused. He knows how to get what he wants, which is not always the picture he sets out to make.

He was just a kid when he first started getting attention — a scamp from Jersey who hung out and partied downtown with the skateboarders, DJs, artists, graffiti writers, and aspiring entrepreneurs who became his first subjects. The early work could be crude and careless, and it wasn’t always clear that McGinley knew good pictures from bad. But his admirers did, and by 2003, when he became the youngest photographer to have a solo show at the Whitney, it was possible to think of him as the Next Big Thing. Or an unusually lucky flash in the pan. Interested observers had every reason to think McGinley was too inexperienced and too unformed to turn the hyped-up buzz of his Whitney debut into a career. His influences — Wolfgang Tillmans, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin — were so apparent that one wondered what would be left once they were burned off. Flash or substance?

Both, as it turns out, and in McGinley’s case, there’s no contradiction. Like many of his peers, he’s become a pro, but he doesn’t underestimate the importance of fun. His gallery openings look like the first night at a new club, with people milling about outside, twittering with excitement, stopping traffic: a fine frenzy. Sleek and affable, McGinley enjoys being a leader of the pack, but if he celebrates youthful hedonism, he also knows how to rein it in and shape it and blow it up to seven by ten feet. If only because he can shoot 4,000 rolls of film in the course of a project, he’s also become a rigorous editor of his work. The amount of exposed film might seem excessive and self-indulgent, but the final results never do. And although McGinley has been making pictures of naked young people scampering through the natural world for a few years now, he’s somehow avoided the limitations of a signature style. As soon as you think he’s settled on one, he moves on.

The road trips he’s been taking for the past six summers are the source of most of the images in this book. They began by chance, when a collector made a house in Vermont available for a summer. “We brought up kids from the city every week,” McGinley remembers, “and everyone would be naked on the grass with a boombox and beers.” The photos weren’t exactly staged, but a trampoline was set up on the lawn, and group outings were planned. “It was a way of making things happen faster,” McGinley says, and the photographs he brought back suggested a trippy, idyllic update on the Summer of Love or Woodstock without the mud and bad acid.

McGinley is too much of a realist to imagine he could really take us back to the garden, but he knew he could get some great pictures along the way. Before he lit out for the territories again, however, he planned well ahead. Instead of working from one location, he wanted to travel cross country and bring models with him: about a dozen kids, equally divided between boys and girls, nearly all of whom would be replaced with fresh recruits midway through the summer. Because they’d be doing a lot of running and jumping, he cast them both for physical appeal and their ability to dash about with ease and a kind of animal grace. “They always end up looking like my brothers and sisters did when they were young,” he told one interviewer. “Tall lanky boys with shaggy hair and all-American girls that look like the girl next door.”

McGinley also compiles scrapbooks of images that he takes along for inspiration — everything from 60s nudist photos to Lartigue to screengrabs from Indiana Jones movies.  The trampoline idea was first inspired by a book of basketball photos; an image of Wilt Chamberlain in midair is the prime source for countless soaring, tumbling nudes. “The road trip pictures evolved from a film idea that turned into stills,” McGinley says, and at its best the work has a cinematic sprawl, scope, and spontaneity. Absent a narrative, every shot feels part of an ongoing action and an activity that continues outside the frame. Typically, McGinley and his team will cut naturalism with artifice, setting off fireworks or smoke machines, illuminating a figure with spot lights or flashlights (nothing fancy: “things from the hardware store”).

But the photographs McGinley has been bringing back from these trips are wonderful and strangely exhilarating. “It’s my fantasy life,” he says, but somehow he’s tapped into ours, too. Is this what freedom looks like? Or is it merely abandon? Whatever — it’s sweet and scary and a little out of control. McGinley takes us places and lets us loose. We sprint naked across a highway, plunge into a stream, jump as high as treetops, sweat, shimmer, dissolve. We do it again.

 

 

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN RYAN MCGINLEY AND CATHERINE OPIE, JANUARY 27, 2010

Ryan McGinley: Hi, Cathy. How’s your day been?

Catherine Opie: Oh, I’ve been teaching all day and my brain is like noodles. It’s just one of those weeks where it’s really intense. How about you?

RM: This week has been insane for me, too. I’m doing the final edit of these portraits, so I’ve been having 14-hour editing sessions for about ten days now. It takes forever because I shoot between 1,500 to 2,000 photographs of each person.

CO: You’re kidding me. That is so intense.

RM: [laughs] I know. I’m a crazy person. But that’s the only way I can do it.

CO: Well, let me ask you why. I mean, you end up using one or maybe two portraits of each person at the most, so what is it for you in relationship to that kind of volume?

RM: There’s a whole process that I have to go through to get the portrait I’m looking for. I have the person I’m shooting do all kinds of actions, like dancing, running, jumping on a mini-trampoline, walking, talking, sitting, standing, and I use these facial-expression cards, sort of like an acting exercise. Each card has a cartoon face and an emotion written on it that will say, like, “demure” or “jealous” or “surprised.” This girl Brandee—who works with me on these shoots and whose photo is in this book—is my “hype girl,” you know, like the people in rap videos who stand in the back pumping their fists in the air and dancing to get everyone psyched up. So she stands next to me and encourages the models and keeps them engaged so that I can concentrate on taking the photos. I usually spend about two to three hours with each person, and the whole time it’s constant activity. We bombard them with all these elements so that they’re too distracted to be self-conscious.

CO: People often argue that portraiture is about the notion of a person’s essence being projected to an audience. I’m wondering if you’re interested in that at all, or if you’re more interested in getting them out of themselves?

RM: I’m interested in both aspects. When some people are photographed, their personalities really shine through and I don’t really have to do that much, like if a person has a strong personality I just let them do their thing. On the other hand, even someone who’s really shy can be great. Sometimes it feels like you can cut the awkwardness in the air with a knife. But I also want to pull emotions out of people, or offer them activities to get them going, because a lot of the kids come in and they’re scared. In most cases it’s the first time they’ve been photographed nude, so all the movement helps get them comfortable and I can draw these gestures and feelings out of them.

CO: You sound like so much fun to photograph with. I don’t think that I’m that much fun. [laughs] I mean, I’m thinking, “Wow, trampoline bouncing.” I would be horrified to be photographed by you now, but if I were in my 20s, I could see it being really fun.

It’s interesting how different our processes are. When I started out doing portraits of my friends in the early 90s, I was shooting 4x5 and I was pretty much broke. I had a friend in San Francisco loan me a studio and I could only afford ten sheets of film on each person. I always shot two sheets of the same pose, in case one had a little hair on it or something because at that point there was no scanning, you had to print from negatives. I would spend maybe 45 minutes to an hour with each person. We would go through a series of different poses that I was thinking about. I would say, “OK, lift your chin a little bit. Why don’t you turn your head this way a little bit? Look at my finger over here.” Click. It’s very slow and it’s very quiet. I don’t even play music. And the portraits end up looking so intimate.

RM: I think that I find intimate moments by shooting so much. That’s probably one of the reasons why I do it. But I couldn’t imagine shooting somebody without music. That actually happened to us last week. We were shooting some of the final portraits and the receiver broke and I didn’t have music for maybe 20 minutes. It was so weird. It felt kind of sexual to me, actually.

CO: Do you want your photographs to be sexy?

RM: Not really. I mean, to me they’re not sexy because I know the circumstances in which I’m shooting them and the circumstances are never very sexy. But I think that for other people, they can be sexy. I always try to leave the final image open-ended, so that the viewer can look at it and make up their own story about it. Lots of times people will come up to me and say something like, “Oh, I love that photo where there’s been an explosion and they’re running from a car accident,” and I’m just like, “What photo are you talking about?” I love that people make up their own stories about the photos.

CO: I know. Or they assume something about your personality because of the work that you make. That happens to me a lot. People will end up saying to me, “God, you’re so nice.” And I’ll be like, “What would make you think I wouldn’t be nice? Do I have ‘asshole’ tattooed on the front of my head?”

RM: [laughs] No. But you have “pervert” carved on your chest.

CO: I know. I think that’s what a lot of people are worried about, that somehow I would not be nice because I carved “pervert” on my chest.

RM: I have the word “penis” tattooed inside of my mouth.

CO: There you go. [laughs]

RM: I was actually thinking about your “pervert” carving when I got that tattoo. I was definitely inspired by it. Every year on my cross-country trips, my producer gives everyone stick-and-poke tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos—I’ve just never wanted one—but they were like, “We’re all getting them so you have to get one, too.” So I thought about it for a second and immediately said, “OK, tattoo the word ‘penis’ inside my bottom lip really big, so that way I’ll always have a big penis in my mouth forever.” [laughs]

CO: Let’s talk about that statement for a moment, because a lot of people have asked me, “Is Ryan queer?” And it seems that in a certain way, you are making work in relationship to the queer community, but people are still unsure about your sexual orientation. What do you make of that? 

RM: Well, I guess I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I’m lucky, I was raised in such a positive queer environment that it’s just a part of who I am. I had a brother who was gay. He passed away from AIDS in 1995, when I was 17. I was basically raised by him and his friends, who were all drag queens. I would always come into the city and spend weekends with him and his boyfriend at their apartment. And “gay” was never a derogatory term in my house.

CO: Do you find it interesting that people try to pinpoint you as to whether or not you’re a queer artist, and that the title seems to be important to people?

RM: Hmm… I mean, I’m so happy to be gay. It’s probably my favorite thing about myself. But I don’t know how much it translates into the work. I think that my brother dying has affected my work more than being gay does. That was really, really hard for me. He was already sick before AZT became readily available, so it was a really long, drawn-out AIDS death. And I think that, in a way, my work is a response to that, like about really embracing life and going wild and creating photographs in which there’s so much energy and so much life being lived. For me it’s an escape. Like when I’m looking through the viewfinder, I’m in another place.

CO: That does come through in your work. And you can tell that it’s fun, too. What’s your relationship to that idea of creating these parties or this atmosphere of experimentation and fun?

RM: On my road trips I always say that we’re like a traveling circus. We use so many props, like I have a 20-foot-by-20-foot stuntman fall mat that you inflate and then you can jump from 50 feet onto it. So we jump off cliffs and off trees, pretty much off anything interesting that works. And we have a 16-foot trampoline that we can set up and break down in ten minutes. So we’ll be driving and I’ll see something on the side of the road and just say, “Wow, that looks really beautiful. It’s a great sunset and it’s a great location. Let’s set up the trampoline.” We have smoke machines and snow machines, disco balls and all sorts of movie lights that we pack into my trailer, so it really is like a mobile carnival or celebration or something. I do all of this because it’s fun, sure, but also because I’m interested in creating these sort of extreme circumstances to make photographs. It translates back to when I was younger, because all I did was skateboard for probably 15 years of my life, from about five years old till 20 years old. I skated every day—

CO: So movement’s really important to you.

RM: Yeah. It’s all about movement, and it’s about making something out of nothing. I mean, that’s what skateboarding is. You find a handrail, a curb, or a ledge, these places that were meant for something else, and then you use them in a way they weren’t intended to be used to express your creativity. You make them your own. And I think about photography in the same way. It’s about finding these great places to make photographs.

CO: I have to ask you this question just because I’m curious. You could probably have your pick of people to have a conversation with for this book. What was it specifically that made you reach out to me?

RM: Because I love your photos, of course. And especially for this portrait project, I found so much inspiration in your photographs. One thing that I looked at a lot while doing these portraits is your Dyke Deck.

CO: [laughs] Oh yeah, the Dyke Deck. That was actually really fun. Every once in a while, my sense of humor comes out in my work, but very rarely.

RM: I remember when I first got it, I couldn’t stop flipping through the deck. I loved looking at all the different types of characters. You know, I can be kind of obsessive. I used to take Polaroids of everybody who ever came into my apartment. From 1998 to 2003, I think I made over 10,000 Polaroids of people in my apartment, and I would put them all up on my walls. It was an obsession with collecting these pictures of people that goes all the way back to childhood, when I was an avid baseball-card collector.

CO: So in a way, photography for you is not is only about putting the image out in the world, but it’s also an archive, a personal collection.

RM: Exactly. I have always been an obsessive collector. The Polaroids were also about defining and representing this community of my friends. And that’s something else I love about your photos, your sense of community is really beautiful and important.

CO: Oftentimes when people discuss you, they talk about Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, but I actually see your work very differently from theirs. I look at your work as a sense of play, as this almost nostalgia for freedom that comes out of the 60s, like a remembrance of hippieness. You’re making this incredible, permissive work about the notion of freedom within the landscape, post-AIDS. When I look at Nan and Larry’s work and the way that they’re dealing with the body, it seems to be a sadder set of circumstances.

RM: That’s true—we are from different generations. But I’m glad you said that because I feel like if I get compared to Nan Goldin and Larry Clark again, I’m going to buy a gun and start shooting people. [laughs] Of course when I first starting making photographs, I was hugely inspired by them. I was young, running around the city on drugs, photographing my friends doing graffiti on rooftops and hanging out in bars, and I wanted to document my life like they had. But that was so long ago. I still love their work, but I’ve gone off on a very different path over years.

CO: Let’s talk about the new portraits. Let’s talk about the move from the big cross-country journeys and the caves. I feel like that part of your work is steeped in a nostalgia for freedom that even dates back to the 19th century. Like I look at your work sometimes and I think about F. Holland Day. You know, there’s this kind of history within it. But now you’re going into the studio, and you’ve stripped away everything except for the person, the nude. What is it about the body for you in terms of wanting to show it without clothing? In a place like a studio, where the person is already stripped from all context, what is your interest in the body and in representing it?

RM: Well, I want my photos to look timeless. I love making a photograph where you can look at it and you can’t tell if it was made five weeks or 50 years ago. That’s why I always use archetypal landscapes and now the studio. And just in terms of photographing people without clothing on, for me, the best part of my job is that I get to see people naked. [laughs] I love seeing their bodies. I love finding someone who I want to photograph and approaching them and asking them to pose for me. I generally get a good response. And then it’s so exciting to think, “I’m going to photograph that person nude in less than a week.” I don’t know, I just love that. It’s like having x-ray vision.

CO: Do you have a cutoff age of people you photograph?

RM: No, but it tends to be people in my generation or younger. I think the majority are around college age. I love that age because they’re so optimistic. They’re at an age where anything is possible and that sensibility and all their energy gets injected into the work. They’re so excited. I have a girl who casts full-time for me, and her job is to go all over the world to rock festivals and to art schools to find me models. I love to photograph artists and kids who are really into music. I’d say probably 99 percent of the people in my photographs are artists or musicians or involved in something creative. And another thing about the people I choose to photograph is that everyone resembles the way that my brothers and sisters looked when I was a child. That’s a really big part of my work and informs my aesthetic.

CO: So in a certain way, it’s all a self-portrait.

RM: Yeah, in a way it is.

CO: That makes sense in terms of the nostalgic quality in your work. What would you say your relationship is to nostalgia?

RM: Well, I’m the youngest of eight kids. My youngest brother is 11 years older than me, and my oldest brother is 18 years older than me. Basically, my mom had seven kids in seven years, and then she had me 11 years later. According to my mother, I was a surprise from the Baby Jesus. [laughs] My brothers and sisters raised me and I idolized them and their friends. All my best childhood memories revolve around them and the nostalgia I feel for them is definitely present in my work.

CO: I want to ask you about your connection to your photos. One time I had a collector say to me, “Oh, I have Mike and Sky, 1993, hanging over my toilet, so when somebody comes and pees, they’re looking at these two guys who were once women.” And I’m like, “Oh, great.” How do you deal with that? How do you respond to your images after you can’t hold them just for yourself?

RM: Well, since it takes me so long to pick a photograph, I feel like after a certain point I sort of divorce myself from the image, and I realize that it’s going to take on its own life and that it’s not about me or the person in the photo anymore. Like what I was saying before, I love when people project their own fantasies onto my photos. I want the collector or viewer to use their imagination and come to their own conclusion as to who the person is or what they’re doing.

CO: I just remember that I felt a huge responsibility to my community. Maybe because the work was so connected to me personally, unlike some of my later work—like, I’m not too concerned about peoples’ reactions to the portraits of surfers or high school football players. But I guess the assumptions that were placed on the early portraits of myself and my friends were kind of daunting for me to deal with. That’s probably why I shifted to doing freeways and mini-malls and American cities a little bit, because I had to figure out what this all meant to me on a personal level. So I was wondering if you have any of those quandaries because your work is really personal, I think.

RM: Yeah, I can relate to that. I feel that way with my early work, too. The first three years of taking photos were all very personal. A lot of it was documenting my first serious relationship, with my boyfriend, Marc. And sure, it’s strange to hear about someone owning a photo like that, because I’m like, “Wow, you kind of own a piece of my life.” You know? But there was a certain point that I stopped. Probably after my exhibition at the Whitney. That show was really tough for me—I mean, it was incredible, but it was such a whirlwind and all the attention was such a mindfuck that afterward I just needed to get away from it all. That’s when I started to shoot in nature. I just wanted to get away from New York for a little while, and that’s when I started directing and started making things happen and coming up with really concrete ideas instead of just waiting for things to happen and then documenting them. The work from then on is a different kind of personal.

CO: Because you have more control over it?

RM: Well, because I started to separate my work from my life a little bit more. Back then I would always have my camera in hand. I would struggle to try to find a separation between my life and art, you know? I think I’m doing a pretty good job now, like I actually have friends who aren’t in my photographs, and I can go out and do things without bringing my camera. I’m really happy about that. I mean, I don't want it to sound bad—obviously I’m still extremely connected to my work, but it’s just not pictures of me and my boyfriend having sex anymore.

And also, things changed when people started getting paid. You know, I pay my models, and I have a producer now and a crew. I started to make a living as an artist, and I started to accept that being an artist is a job.

CO: It is a job. I was on a panel one time with a critic, and he said, “Why do they call it artwork? Don’t you guys just play?” And I mean, I talked about your work as being playful, but it’s about what it evokes, not the fact that you’re just out there not working hard.

RM: Totally. What I get a lot from people is that the work looks very carefree and easy, and if people knew how much work went into it to make it look so carefree and easy, they wouldn’t be able to handle it. With the portraits in this book, people could look at them and not know what went into it at all. They wouldn’t know that this was a two-year project and that it’s people from all around the world who have been handpicked out of thousands, that it took hundreds of hours of editing to find these perfect moments. They wouldn’t know how crazy the whole process is and how obsessive I am about it.

CO: Yeah, I just looked at that critic, and I said, “You try standing in a darkroom for eight hours a day for ten days, printing out an entire body of work, and then you tell me I’m just having fun.” You know? It takes a lot of energy.

RM: Definitely. This may seem weird, but I wanted to ask you, do you feel like the camera’s magic—that you’re holding magic?

CO: [laughs] I don’t think I would use those words exactly, but definitely. I mean, who knew that I would spend three years on the edge of a high school football field photographing teenage football players? In that way, it is kind of magical, because it can transport me from my own reality into other places that I would never get to go. You know what a camera does for me? It gives me permission to stare.

RM: Yeah. I feel the same way.

CO: And I really am a starer. My partner, Julie, is constantly reminding me. She’s like, “You’re staring.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry. I just really like the way that person looks.” You know? I never get tired of looking at people.

RM: Oh, me neither.

CO: One of my favorite things in the past three years is the fact that I’ve gone and I’ve stood witness to these high school football players. I have to say, those photographs, it’s going to really freak you out, Ryan. I only take two frames of each football player.

RM: Wow. I love it. I wish I could work like that.

CO: Two frames, and if it’s there, it’s there. It has to be quick because they’re all lined up and they’re all catcalling each other. You know, they’re all like, “Oh, yeah. Make it look real pretty for her,” like doing whatever football players do. And I have to try to get them to a place where they’re not doing that. And they’ve just been in practice. They don’t want to stand around for this almost-50-year-old woman photographer who’s come to their high school to take pictures. So I have to be really fast about it. But it’s interesting, because I don’t even know what it would mean for me to take 1,000 photographs of one person. I’m going to have to try it one time and see what it feels like.

RM: I’ll have to try shooting two and see what that feels like.

CO: With no music.

 

 

FOREVER YOUNG! ON RYAN MCGINLEY’S WORK, 2009

RAPHAEL GYGAX

[…] But muter humanity calmly bleeds in a dark cave. […]

Georg Trakl

To the Muted (1913)

 

Over the past ten years, American photographer Ryan McGinley (*1977, Ramsey, NJ) has become known as the chronicler of youth embarking on the road trip of their lives, far from the strictures of the genteel, middle-class work ethic. Their departure from the constraints of society (if only for a short time) and the ‘outsider’ stance they cultivated in doing so have become a leitmotif of McGinley’s work. These works place McGinley firmly in the tradition of American photographers such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, who documented their own generation and environment. In McGinley’s case, the outsider stance is evident both in his approach to landscape – he seeks out places without defining contours, rather than the popular motifs of the Rocky Mountains or Death Valley that epitomise America – and also in his portrayal of flawless young bodies. These bodies, many of them nude, many of them in motion, casual and carefree, are presented in sweeping landscapes. In this respect, McGinley not only upholds the art historical tradition of a variety of genres from portraiture to landscape, but also adopts such established topoi as the relationship between artist and model, and the perceived eroticism between them that has been a thorny issue throughout the history of painting and photography. The fact that the human body has always been a central figure in the history of western art, whether as an anatomical study or as a vehicle of metaphor, needs no further analysis here. What is more, given the time-consuming nature of McGinley’s approach – his road trips often take several months – aspects of performance art also play an important role in his work, taking a form akin to that of highly organised ‘improvised theatre’ from the period of the travelling theatre. McGinley invariably also creates a sense of tension in his photographs. On the one hand, there is the youthful declaration of independence from a regulated lifestyle while, on the other, the view from within the structured life of an achievement-oriented, neoliberalist society that is constantly striving for this youthful raw material and the image of the young, hedonistic body.

 

McGinley’s latest series, Moonmilk (2008-2009), also features youthful bodies, albeit in entirely different surroundings. Here, the wide-open spaces of the landscape have given way to the confined enclosure of the cave; accordingly, the tonality of the photographs has shifted towards a darker mode. There are few group compositions; instead, the predominant image is that of the naked individual in the dark nothingness of the cave. The caves, with their craggily amorphous interiors and magnificent stalactite formations, become a fascinating haven of shelter for the lone, vulnerable body. In view of the fact that McGinley’s previous groups of images were played out under clear summer skies, this change of scenery calls for a narrative reading as a sequel. It seems only logical to read this series as a reaction to the exploration of youthful freedom, as a withdrawal from the open spaces of the unknown. It is as though the road trip has become an inner journey in which the quest for freedom has been replaced by introspection and wishful thinking. Such an interpretation might even be extended to include the broader political context of the worldwide economic crisis. Globalisation, the internet revolution and the resultant potential for communication spawned a new sociological trend around the turn of the millennium that might be described as a withdrawal from civil society and the public eye – a trend generally termed as ‘cocooning’. In McGinley’s photographs, however, this cocooning does not occur within the private domestic sphere of the individual (in the sense of a return to neo-Biedermeier values) but is placed in the far more archaic and metaphorical setting of the cave. Caves feature widely in mythology, dreams and fairytales. According to C.G. Jung’s analytical psychology, the cave is a specific form of the maternal archetype. The figures wander through the cavernous setting on their nostalgia-driven quest. In this way, McGinley also reflects on the cultic function of the cave as ‘locus’. Art historians have long debated whether cave paintings can be interpreted in the spirit of classic academic art. What is undisputed, however, is that prehistoric cave paintings allow us to draw certain conclusions about the beliefs, lifestyle and values of the people who created them – the cave has been a place of reflection since the dawn of civilisation.

 

More strongly than in his earlier works, McGinley guides the spectator’s view to the extrapolated individual body, thereby raising still more questions about its origins and meaning than the outdoor group images, which tend, for the most part, to have more narrative traits. Although McGinley holds auditions to select the individual models for his lavish productions, the role they play might arguably be described as that of an extra. For the young people he selects are rated particularly on the basis of their looks, attitude and their youth, so that they are in the first instance neutral entities onto which ideas can be projected. In other words, they are a kind of dispositif, or apparatus of reality, staged by McGinley. Applying a sociological concept like this, the role of the models during the shoot corresponds to the role they play in reality, breaking with the concept of the ‘role of actor’. Instead, what emerges is an extra, a walk-on figure, defined more by belonging to a certain social group than by any specific individual traits (which they do, of course, possess). At the same time, however, in contrast to, say, Nan Goldin, McGinley takes the stance of observer and, to some extent, director. He creates an environment in which the bodies he selects ‘are’, and he documents this. These extras can thus be described in terms of both symptom and effect: they are both ‘themselves’ and subtly ‘staged’ at one and the same time. They can also be regarded in a socio-political context.

 

This opens up broader parameters with reference to a power mechanism that has been the subject of heated debate for several years. In his seminal study The Will to Knowledge, Michel Foucault introduced the concept of bio-politics and bio-power. These terms refer to the tendency within the modern state to exert increasing power over the human body, viewing it as an important resource and source of wealth, managing reproduction and hygiene accordingly. Sex turned into a ‘matter of police’, negotiated and regulated with rules by authorities. These authorities address the problematic issue of the modern human subject, given the systemic power mechanisms that govern the social body, the individual and life itself. According to Foucault, this tendency has been gaining momentum since the seventeenth century at the turn to modernity, when the focus shifted from death to life, from the sovereign right to ‘make live and let die’ to the bio-political right to ‘let live and make die’. Bio-politics is a technique of using life to enhance production in order to promote, regulate and ultimately exploit life all the more. According to the linguist Michael Hardt and the political scientist Antonio Negri, who have elaborated this concept in their studies, bio-politics also marks a new relationship between nature and culture and a blurring of the boundaries between them. In his work, McGinley succeeds in constructing an ambiguous portrayal based on this specific theme – oscillating between affirmation and critique – in a subtle and thought-provoking role play.

 

Meanwhile, back in the cave, the young people bide their time…  

 

 

Sun and Health Introduction by Martha Schwendener, 2006

“Ryan McGinley: An Accessible Eden”

Americans didn’t invent the concept of freedom, although they are particularly fond of it. Freedom, the boiled-down, disyllabic version of France’s Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, serves, in the absence of other foundational myths as a kind of national legend, a point of departure, even a nemesis against which progress and reality are weighed.

It’s also a defining trope in American art. The CIA supported Abstract Expressionism because it was the unbridled style that “proved” America, unlike fascist Europe or communist Russia, supported the free expression of the individual. Freedom is also a recurring motif in American photography. The 19th and early 20th century landscapes of the American West served as emblems of free movement (as well as expansionism) and iconic war images like Joe Rosenthal’s photo of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima served to document the “preservation” of freedom. The unflinching eye of straight photography underscored the way in which artists functioned as free agents, documenting the social landscape as well as the quirks and debaucheries of its freedom-drunk population.

American art and freedom have been most characteristically combined in one concept: the road trip. The classic example, of course, is Jack Kerouac’s bohemian Beat odyssey, On the Road (1957). But the road trip has become a rite of passage for photographers too. Robert Frank’s The Americans was even anointed by a Kerouac introduction: that crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car.*

In his new series of photographs, Ryan McGinley combines all of these things: bohemia, America, the road trip, the search for some kind of freedom. For the last two summers he’s taken vanloads of friends who double as subjects on road trips across the United States and photographed them in motels and houses, campsites and landscapes ranging from forests to deserts.

The subjects are young, kind of beautiful, and romantically reckless. They carry names — Jake or Lily or Tim — but we don’t know anything about them. They exist in a halo-world of light and beauty, like models in an editorial or ad spread. Only they get to do what those models only hint at doing. They get fucked up and have sex and fight and lie out on the desert sand, naked. They bungee jump and skinny dip in rivers and streams. Nothing comes between them and the great American outdoors.

In many ways, the figures in McGinley’s photographs are recreating the age-old art pastoral: Titian’s bacchanals; Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe; everyone’s bathers (from Boucher to Cézanne to Picasso). Getting out of the city, as McGinley has commented, brings out a freedom and energy. People really let down their guard. That persistent idea of freedom…

There is, naturally, in all Western art pastorals, the nagging sense of a journey that can never be completed: the return to Eden. However, where much of the pastoral genre swings around this idea of nostalgia and melancholy, McGinley’s subjects are stripped of this. Often, they are smiling. Guilt and shame are erased. This seems the biggest break from the photographs of the past. For where Larry Clark’s subjects in Tulsa had sex and did plenty of drugs, there was embedded in the photos the dark moral tale: the drug addict whose infant dies; the gun that leads to trouble; the heartland of a country gone rotten.

In McGinley’s works, sex is playful, joyful. This isn’t the fumbling, desperate back-seat sex of Teenage Lust — which serves as an analogue for a whole other level of existential frustration. It’s something different. Groups of nudes splash in the water or lodge themselves in a pine tree. The figure merges with the landscape — often literally. The sun washes out bodies in the desert; a torso slips into water. And bodies merge together.

McGinley is characteristically candid about his inspiration for this series. It’s not the photography one would find in galleries or museums — the fuzzy pictorialism of Steichen or the roaming road-trip camera of Friedlander. Rather, he’s turned to the vernacular: that great sea of photographs created by amateurs, “lay” photographers who like to document their friends and themselves at leisure in the buff, riding motorcycles, boating, camping, scuba diving, consuming nature.

McGinley collects photos in the same way Jim Shaw collects thrift store paintings or Richard Prince re-photographs images of topless biker chicks. But where irony rules among Prince and Shaw’s generation — a complicated stance that positions the artist “above” his subjects — McGinley is markedly different. He embraces these found photos, makes booklets of them, copies their subject and tone and, more importantly, identifies with the sense of freedom one gets when looking at these images, a feeling that being nude in nature and documenting it is every photographer — no, every American’s — inalienable right.

With their precedent in the “high art” road trip and their embrace of vernacular culture, McGinley’s photos achieve something beyond the anthropological barometer reading of a moment in history. He’s moved beyond the charged status of the photographed nude, rejecting the “serious” approach to art-nudity and adopting the easy, comfortable relationship between the body and nature — and, more importantly, the photographer and his subject — that already exists in so-called amateur photography.

This, then, might be a new definition of freedom: the road trip, not as escape or odyssey into self-discovery, but a journey into an accessible Eden, one already found and enjoyed and documented by thousands (perhaps millions) of clothing-optional Americans. The photographic nude, rather than being conscious of her nudity — her exposure — revels in it. She becomes the everywoman cavorting in the great American outdoors, an emblem of freedom shaken, for a brief moment, from all the complicated associations that word brings forth.

* Robert Frank, The Americans, Introduction by Jack Kerouac. Scalo, 1998.

The subjects are young, kind of beautiful, and romantically reckless. They carry names — Jake or Lily or Tim — but we don’t know anything about them. They exist in a halo-world of light and beauty, like models in an editorial or ad spread. Only they get to do what those models only hint at doing. They get fucked up and have sex and fight and lie out on the desert sand, naked. They bungee jump and skinny dip in rivers and streams. Nothing comes between them and the great American outdoors.

In many ways, the figures in McGinley’s photographs are recreating the age-old art pastoral: Titian’s bacchanals; Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe; everyone’s bathers (from Boucher to Cézanne to Picasso). Getting out of the city, as McGinley has commented, brings out a freedom and energy. People really let down their guard. That persistent idea of freedom…

There is, naturally, in all Western art pastorals, the nagging sense of a journey that can never be completed: the return to Eden. However, where much of the pastoral genre swings around this idea of nostalgia and melancholy, McGinley’s subjects are stripped of this. Often, they are smiling. Guilt and shame are erased. This seems the biggest break from the photographs of the past. For where Larry Clark’s subjects in Tulsa had sex and did plenty of drugs, there was embedded in the photos the dark moral tale: the drug addict whose infant dies; the gun that leads to trouble; the heartland of a country gone rotten.

In McGinley’s works, sex is playful, joyful. This isn’t the fumbling, desperate back-seat sex of Teenage Lust — which serves as an analogue for a whole other level of existential frustration. It’s something different. Groups of nudes splash in the water or lodge themselves in a pine tree. The figure merges with the landscape — often literally. The sun washes out bodies in the desert; a torso slips into water. And bodies merge together.

McGinley is characteristically candid about his inspiration for this series. It’s not the photography one would find in galleries or museums — the fuzzy pictorialism of Steichen or the roaming road-trip camera of Friedlander. Rather, he’s turned to the vernacular: that great sea of photographs created by amateurs, “lay” photographers who like to document their friends and themselves at leisure in the buff, riding motorcycles, boating, camping, scuba diving, consuming nature.

McGinley collects photos in the same way Jim Shaw collects thrift store paintings or Richard Prince re-photographs images of topless biker chicks. But where irony rules among Prince and Shaw’s generation — a complicated stance that positions the artist “above” his subjects — McGinley is markedly different. He embraces these found photos, makes booklets of them, copies their subject and tone and, more importantly, identifies with the sense of freedom one gets when looking at these images, a feeling that being nude in nature and documenting it is every photographer — no, every American’s — inalienable right.

With their precedent in the “high art” road trip and their embrace of vernacular culture, McGinley’s photos achieve something beyond the anthropological barometer reading of a moment in history. He’s moved beyond the charged status of the photographed nude, rejecting the “serious” approach to art-nudity and adopting the easy, comfortable relationship between the body and nature — and, more importantly, the photographer and his subject — that already exists in so-called amateur photography.

This, then, might be a new definition of freedom: the road trip, not as escape or odyssey into self-discovery, but a journey into an accessible Eden, one already found and enjoyed and documented by thousands (perhaps millions) of clothing-optional Americans. The photographic nude, rather than being conscious of her nudity — her exposure — revels in it. She becomes the everywoman cavorting in the great American outdoors, an emblem of freedom shaken, for a brief moment, from all the complicated associations that word brings forth.

 

 

Bob Nickas introduction: Ryan McGinley: Making Pictures Happen, 2003

            A half dozen naked boys and girls cavort in the upper branches of a large pine tree in the dark of night. Their arms and legs appear as if the tree has grown human branches. But what exactly are they doing up there? Have they shed their clothes and gone back to nature, reverted to childhood play and naked innocence? Or is this a wild, nocturnal tribe? Seemingly unaware of the camera, they move from branch to branch far above the ground: ecstatic, orgiastic bodies in space. These pictures are just a few of many made by Ryan McGinley over the past nine months, an incredibly productive period even for this most compulsive of photographers. But when an artist takes a dramatic turn in their work it’s often accompanied by the rush of excitement, the sense that anything’s possible.

            These pictures are a departure from McGinley’s earliest work, which was mostly shot in and around New York City, often casually, offering a glimpse of his immediate world: friends, parties, getting high, getting off. Being in the right place at the right time is part luck, part determination, of which McGinley has always had both. Having to be in the right place at the right time can also become its own trap—from the hard-ball game of paparazzi who stalk celebrities to photographers in faithful pursuit of “the decisive moment.” The prospect of becoming yet another photographer who ends up taking the same picture over and over, mining the same small territory, had little appeal for McGinley, and he knew it was time for a change.

“When I first started making images, I think the first two years I was photographing, it was all documentary. It was completely what was going on. Nothing was set up. It was like that idea of a fly on a wall. But then I got to this point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore. I was wasting time, and so I started making pictures happen. That’s how… Kids inspired me. I look at Kids as this pseudo-documentary. It has documentary qualities, but at the same time it’s scripted and people have their lines. What interests me, nowadays, is not waiting for photos to happen but making them happen. It borders between being set up or really happening. There’s that fine line…"

Weighing the differences between taking pictures and making pictures potentially opens up an endless debate. Is William Eggleston simply taking pictures? Of course not.  But even with his incredible eye for color and framing, his photographs can’t be described as arranged for the camera. He doesn’t move things around to get them in the picture. Jeff Wall meticulously composes an image as if he was a painter or a director, rendering a landscape or staging a dramatic event. Wolfgang Tillmans is an artist who complicates the issue; some of his pictures are set up, while others appear before him by happenstance. Tillmans has remarked that people have mistaken carefully constructed images for ones that were seen by chance. Many of Andy Warhol’s early films were no more than the result of placing a camera in front of someone and letting it roll. The person performs without a script, with no direction to speak of, and the camera, the perfect surrogate for Warhol’s voyeurism, remains in a fixed position.

            That night in the woods, McGinley wasn’t simply recording an activity he had happened upon, nor one entirely staged. This group, cast as always from his extended family of friends, had been brought there, asked to strip and climb up into the tree. Reaching some forty feet above the ground, they were free to move about while McGinley, perched in a nearby tree, shot roll after roll. The group shoot had been preceded by a number of nights on which McGinley made pictures of individuals in the tree. From around a thousand exposures, only a few were ultimately chosen to be printed; editing being central to McGinley’s way of working, a part of the process with which he is not only keenly engaged, but that is eagerly anticipated.

            While McGinley’s subjects may be given some direction, what unfolds before the camera can’t always be predicted. He creates the conditions in which something that might not have been revealed—behavior, facial expressions, body movement—comes to the surface. When he refers to the interplay with his subjects as collaborative, you also realize that trust is not only the bond between photographer and subjects; there is a shared trust that his subjects have with each other. When McGinley asks them to go underwater in a lake late at night and interlock arms (Everyone Interlocked, 2003), they hold their breath and they are all in it together. When he asks a friend to run into the ocean on a chilly, foggy night, he places them both in a potentially dangerous situation. Time and again, it’s all about the picture, the one you wouldn’t get otherwise get.

            Oliver, 2003, is a portrait of a young man, eyes closed, who appears to be sitting in an unidentifiable deep black space. He is actually underwater, pretending to sit, spidery fingers held in place on each knee. With its spectral light and mystery, the picture feels timeless. McGinley has described floating underwater as like being on a drug, as an escape from the world. Weightlessness and abandon figure in another series of pictures which were made with the use of a trampoline. Bodies caught in positions impossible to achieve on solid ground revel in buoyancy and release—Muybridge motion studies in mid-air. Most of the trampoline pictures were taken at night, which can be seen as a more uninhibited space than the one we inhabit by the light of day. One of these pictures, however, Tim Falling, 2003, made on a bright afternoon, stands out among them all. Here, McGinley gets in close to the action; on his back on the trampoline, camera aimed at the body falling towards him.

            In the newest portraits, McGinley’s proximity to his subjects, combined with his keen eye for light, gives them a greater immediacy than ever. At times the pictures have a painterly quality, as in Francis, 2004. Here, a naked boy sits on a bed illuminated by the light from a window to the left, just outside the frame. Jake (Golden), 2003, is golden, a luminous image Caravaggio might have realized with a camera. Jake’s Eyes, 2003, in which the boy is seen over his girlfriend’s shoulder, is bathed in a dreamy, disoriented glow that mirrors the intimate moment they share. In Yan, 2003, a naked boy is seen in a dark space, particles of light streaming below his waist. The only light source is an unseen TV set in front of him. The absence of light is exploited by McGinley in pictures made recently in clubs. In Dany, 2003, what you don’t see is precisely what makes the picture compelling. The boy’s face is almost entirely in silhouette, and yet your eye searches him out just as you would if you were there on the dance floor.

            No longer waiting for pictures to happen, Ryan McGinley has found a new freedom as a photographer and, until his next restless shift, anything is possible.

            -- Bob Nickas, New York, April 2004

Transcript from Conversations on Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art with Larry Clark, Ryan McGinley, and Sylvia Wolf, March 25, 2003, p. 9

 

 

Conversations on Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art with Larry Clark, Ryan McGinley, and Sylvia Wolf

March 25, 2003

 

SW: Welcome. I am Sylvia Wolf, the Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I am delighted to be joined by Ryan McGinley and Larry Clark. We come together on the occasion of an exhibition of Ryan’s photographs The Kids Are Alright. The exhibtion will be on view in the Sondra Gilman Gallery until May 18. Neither of these artists need much introduction, but I will say a few things. When Larry Clark’s Tulsa was published in 1971, it sent shock waves through the photography world. That body of work of teenage drug addicts from his hometown in Oklahoma established Larry as a tough, gritty photographer who pulled no punches. Since then, he has done numerous photographic projects including Teenage Lust in 1983, 1992, made in 1992, and the Perfect Childhood in 1993. In addition, his feature films include Kids from 1995, Another Day in Paradise from 1998, Bully from 2001, and a film that will be released in August of 2003, called Ken Park. On May 10th Larry will have a show at Luhring Augustine to accompany a new book called Punk Picasso, which is a phrase that comes from a review David Denby wrote in the New Yorker of Kids. Is that right?

                   LC: I think it was Bully. He called me “this Punk Picasso.”

SW: Ryan McGinley is our featured artist tonight. He started photographing his friends, fellow artists, lovers, and people he hung out with on the Lower East Side while he was at Parsons School of Design. He then put together a self-published book called The Kids Are Alright, from which the exhibition gets its title. There is a 35 year difference between these two in age and between Tulsa and The Kids Are Alright. I’m looking forward to hearing what the two of them have to say about each other’s work. First of all, I’d like to know how you two know each other.

LC: Ryan had a show, I think what, almost four years ago in Soho–

RM: Four years ago, it was a self-made show. The gallery was being torn down, and there was about a week left, and I had a weeklong show –

LC: Yeah, so the guy who, Lenny, who was running the gallery, right?

RM: Yeah, Lenny de Knegt.

LC: A guy named Lenny was running this gallery, and Ryan left his handmade book for me, right?

RM: Yeah.

LC: I missed the show, but Lenny gave me the book. I thought it was interesting, and I told Lenny I was going to call Ryan. I didn’t call him for a couple of years, but I did call him one day.

SW: Were you living in the same place?

RM: Yeah, I was in the East Village.

LC: So I called him and we met, and we’ve been friends now for a while. This meeting tonight came about when I was at Ryan’s opening, and Sylvia said, what do you think about this work. And I said, I could talk about this work for an hour-and-a-half. The next thing I knew, here we’re sitting. It’s kind of my fault.

What I find interesting about Ryan's work is that when I did Tulsa – it came out in ’71, but it covers the period from1962 to 1971 - I’m photographing my friends, the same people, from the time they’re teenagers up into their twenties. And back then I was coming out of the Fifties, you know, I’m like a child of the Eisenhower era where everything was hidden, everything was secret, there were all these things that weren’t talked about. Drugs weren’t talked about. Alcoholism in families wasn't talked about. Child abuse wasn’t talked about. Nothing was talked about. I mean, it was a perfect America. There were no problems. But I saw all this stuff going on. I mean I knew kids who came to school with black eyes and their parents had beaten them up, and I knew a girl that had five brothers. They were all fucking her, so probably her father was too, and everybody knew this. I knew kids with alcoholic parents and drug addict parents, but this was never talked about. It was all these secrets. One of the reasons I started making art was, I said, why can’t you show everything, you know? When I started photographing I was living this secret life. I was a drug addict; I was a speed freak before they called it speed. We were shooting amphetamine, but it was a secret, it was a secret world that no one knew about. So when I started making photographs of my friends, I was really just practicing my photography for a long time before I decided to do a book. I was just photographing my friends, like Ryan photographs his friends, just to make photographs. I would show them to my friends, but I didn’t really show them to anybody else because it was this secret world. And we didn’t really know the ramifications of photographs. I mean, it was really innocent. Nobody was really posing for the camera, no one was acting, it was a true documentary kind of work because no one knew, no one was aware like they’re aware today.  So what I find interesting today is it’s totally different. Everything is out in the open, everything is known, everything is exposed, and Ryan and some other young photographers, like himself – and especially Ryan, because he’s really a good one – they make this evidence. I mean they photograph all their lives, they photograph everything that’s going on in their lives, but at the same time they’re aware of what they’re doing, and the people that they’re photographing are aware of it, and so they’re constantly making evidence. Ryan?

RM: I grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood in New Jersey where everyone was interested in each other’s business, but all the families were trying to hide what was going on.  When I was 13 years old, one of my brothers had AIDS, and he came home to live with us, really to die because he couldn't take care of himself. And I remember from 13 to 17 taking care of him, and his illness was secret from the neighborhood. I remember my parents saying, we can’t tell anybody, we don’t want anyone to know, we’ll tell everybody he has cancer. Sadly, people at the time didn't understand the disease. It really bothered me. When I started taking photographs, I wanted to put it all out there. There was nothing secret anymore. It was just like, I’m not trying to hide anything, this is who I am.

SW: Larry, you were photographing a group of people that you knew, your friends, and they all knew each other, they hung out together.

LC: Mmmhmm.

SW: Ryan, you’re photographing your friends, but they don’t all necessarily know each other or hang out together.

RM: Everyone pretty much hangs out together.

SW: The skateboarders, the graffiti artists, the –

RM: Well, that’s the thing with a lot of my friends downtown. All these subcultures are mixing. You have skaters hanging out with club kids, hanging out with fags, hanging out with graffiti artists. No one really cares anymore, at least in the city. It’s not like it used to be. Even 10 years ago, if you had mentioned the word “gay” or “homosexual” in the terms of skateboarding or graffiti, people would look at you like you were fucking crazy. But nowadays, everyone’s hanging out together, and I think that maybe my photography helps that out a little bit.

LC: I think that’s interesting, too, when he’s talking about everybody hanging out together, because it’s interesting that Ryan’s gay but he doesn’t take on some of the affectations of being gay that used to be more of the norm, right?

RM: Yeah, there's not a stereotypical gay culture anymore. I think people have more options to do what they want to.

LC: I never think of Ryan as being gay, and I would go so far as to say that if I saw Ryan sucking a dick, I still wouldn’t think he was gay. I would say, oh he’s just doing it, he’s not really gay. And that’s kind of the way Ryan is because he comes from a skateboard culture that was very, very homophobic and now it makes no difference. Saying that, it was always about skating, it was multiethnic, it was multicultural, and now it can be gay, straight, it can be different sexual preferences. That was what was so wonderful about skateboarding. That was what drew me to skateboarding when I started photographing skaters, but there’s something about Ryan and being gay which doesn’t, you know, get in the way. I mean, it wouldn’t bother anybody that might be bothered by that, if you know what I mean.

SW: When you were doing Tulsa, pornography was still pretty buttoned up. There was not the availability of pornography on video, television, and the Internet as there is today. Has the availability of pornography played a role in your work? Do you see a different kind of behavior on the part of kids in relationship to what they’re exposed to or has it made a difference at all?

LC: Well, when I was a kid, there wasn’t pornography. When I was a kid, 12, 13 years old, I saw the drawings, one of these little Mexican porno drawings. They were called eight-page bibles. I didn’t really see porn. Maybe someone would have an eight-millimeter reel, and maybe someone might have a projector. You might see something one time, but it just wasn’t available. Whereas now, especially from 1980 on, pornography is available. Kids grow up with pornography. The kids see pornography when they’re very young, and so they’re raised up with it. It’s part of life, it’s just a normal thing. It’s not so shocking, I think.

I’m going to jump around, and maybe you can make the connections, but I just made this film called Ken Park that will be out in August. There are some sex scenes in it, with kids, and the actors are over 18, but they’re playing kids that are younger, that look younger. When we did the scenes, I've got to say that I was nervous. And Ed Lachman, the cinemetographer and my partner in the film, who did Far from Heaven and Erin Brockovich, was nervous. The kids were completely naked, right, or the young actors were completely naked, and during sex scenes, they were pretty relaxed, you know. And I wondered why they were so relaxed. I had this theory which I don’t know if it’s true or not, but my theory was that they were so exposed to pornography that they had reference points, that when they were asked to do something or they had to do something, they had references for the scenes. Oh, this is like the porn I’ve seen a million times, or this is like this, this is like that. It wasn’t such a problem for them because they had all these references because they were raised with pornography, but this is something that somebody Ryan’s age can really talk about.

RM: I’m more inspired by older pornography. I’m not really too interested in the pornography that’s made today, but more of the stuff that was made in the Sixties or the Seventies with great directors like William Higgins or Toby Ross. I’m especially fascinated with the type of bodies in older porn. The girls were natural and felt like the girl next door, which is like your photos, Larry, that all the characters in your photos are like this girl next door. It’s these people that everyone can relate to.

LC: When I was photographing, as I said, I was coming out of the Fifties where you didn’t see these things and I wanted to make photographs of all aspects of my life and my friends’ life. I would see the great photojournalists of the Fifties, like Eugene Smith and all the great Life magazine essays they did, which were really good, but they always stopped short. So many of my photographs were photographs I took because I couldn’t see the images anywhere else. I didn’t have access to porn. I didn’t have any access to these images, and I saw them happening around me, so I wanted to make these images. When I photographed my friends having sex, or I photographed a gang bang, or I photographed this or that, it was because I couldn’t see these images anywhere else. I think if I could have seen the images, I wouldn’t have had the need to make the photographs. So I was coming from a different place. But I find it interesting today that everything is documented, everything is photographed. I was telling Ryan that if I go into a bar where there’s a party or something and asked everybody there what they did, 75 percent would say they were photographers, and everybody has a point and shoot– no, true, it’s stone true – and everybody has a video camera, and I wonder sometimes if something wasn’t documented, it didn’t really happen.

RM: I always carry my camera with me. What you were saying before about making photographs because it was images you couldn’t see, that’s something that I find interesting. When I first started making images, I think the first two years I was photographing, it was all documentary. It was completely what was going on. Nothing was set up, I was like that idea of a fly on a wall. But then I got to this point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore. I was wasting time, and so I started making pictures happen. I look at Kids as this pseudo-documentary. It has documentary qualities, but at the same time, it’s scripted and people have their lines and know their characters. What interests me, nowadays, is not waiting for photos to happen but making them happen. It borders between being set up or really happening. There’s that fine line, and I think that’s what makes the photos appealing in a sense.

SW: Would you talk about Lizzy, for example. Lizzy is the photograph of a girl who looks like Sissy Spacek, leaping through the air in front of a graffiti backdrop.

RM: Yeah, Lizzy. When people look at that photograph, they always say to me, what’s going on there? I went to this gay bar called The Cock, and in their bathroom I saw this beautiful graffitied wall. I was out one night and shot a friend peeing in the urinal in front of it and saw it's potential. I’m always carrying a camera with me and always taking photographs of real life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re always going to be successful images. So I’m always going back and remaking these moments into more successful images. Later on I set up a shoot with Lizzy the lezzy and brought a mini trampoline with me for her to jump on nude. That's how Lizzy was made.

LC: I think it’s interesting what you say about not waiting for the images to happen, to make up your own images now, because that’s why I started making film, because there were things that I couldn’t document. I mean you can’t go out and document the things that are in my films, so you have to do films. If you want to tell these stories, or if you want to show these images, you have to set them up, and that’s really what pushed me into making films. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but that’s probably what pushed me over.

SW: Didn’t Tulsa start out in your mind as a film?

LC: Yeah, Tulsa was supposed to be a film, but I couldn’t do a film. At one point I took a camera and I tried to do a one-man film with sound and everything. It couldn’t be done because it was just me, I couldn’t bring other people in. I would’ve messed up the scene. I couldn’t have done it anyway. I mean, it was pretty much an outlawed scene, it was the real deal.

SW: Ryan, a couple of things come up in your pictures. I see sneakers, graffiti, BMX bikes. There are flannel shirts and plaid shirts, certain things that you’ve mentioned are iconic in some way or of interest for particular reasons. Would you talk about that a little bit?

RM: Riding a BMX was a rite of passage for me growing up. Converse sneakers seems timeless, that's why I like them. I love going to the Salvation Army and buying soft flannel shirts, I think they’re really sexy. These things are very important to me so they appear in photographs. They’re specific elements that go into making up certain images.

SW: I’ve also noticed that some of your friends have nicknames. Aaron is A-Ron. Is that part of identity building?

RM: Nicknames come from the street. Writing graffiti is illegal, so you have to have a nickname so you can be anonymous. Skateboarding is kind of illegal too. When you’re on the street so much you always make up a nickname for yourself, everyone has nickname. I think all my friends have nicknames.

SW: I had no idea skateboarding was illegal? 

RM: Skateboarding is something that no one wants you to do, pretty much anywhere. But it's not as illegal as graffiti. There’s something about the act of vandalism and the compulsion of writing your name thousands of times everywhere that I can relate to-- that someone would go around the city and write their name on every surface possible. The same way that I feel compelled to shoot so much film to make one good photo.

SW: The first time you and I met, we had a conversation about a book called The Outsiders. You were excited because you had just found a first edition copy at a flea market. It was written in 1967 by S. E. Hinton who I just learned is Susan Eloise Hinton. It was written by a sixteen-year-old girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, in fact. Whose publisher thought that it would not be enough of a boy culture book if they knew it was written by a girl, but I’m curious about why The Outsiders was meaningful to you.

RM: I felt their pain. Being gay is being an outsider. Growing up and being a skater, I was really an outsider. There were only a few skaters in my town, and so I had to group up with kids from all different surrounding towns, and that’s why I started coming into New York. Being a skater was about being a punk. Punks are always outsiders.

SW: Larry, when you were photographing in the Sixties, the people you’re photographing were not collaborators. You were observing, documenting. I remember – in your interview with Gus Van Sant you talked about seeing Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls in the late Sixties and recognizing that as doped up as these people were, they knew they were performing.

LC: Yeah, I saw the film and I was shocked by it. I was shocked because they were performing for the camera. They were injecting drugs and doing all these things, acting for the camera. They knew what was going on. It was shocking to me. I think a change happened around that time. People started becoming aware of the camera and the ramifications of photographing and being photographed. Now everybody is aware. I mean, everybody is acting for the camera, everybody is posing, everybody knows what’s going on. I think it’s almost impossible to make documentary photographs anymore, to an extent. I’m certainly overstating, but I mean, something happened. Things changed. There was no more innocence, and now everything is photographed. Everything is documented. There are cameras everywhere, photographing every aspect of people’s lives. I like it. I think it’s great, and I think that it’s interesting that there's someone like Ryan, who stands out from the crowd, because there’s an awful lot of people his age making photographs.

SW: Why do you think he stands out?  What is it that separates him from others?

LC: Well, he has a good visual sense. He loves what he does. He is a real artist. He works all the time. He works very, very hard. I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does, because that’s what he wants to do. That’s who he is. It’s his life. That’s what I did. My work is my life, and my work was done for no other reason, and it’s still done for no other reason than I have to do it. I don’t have a choice. I have to do this, and I think that maybe Ryan has to make this work.

SW: And who are you making work for? Who do you perceive as your audience?

LC: I make it for myself, I make it for myself.

RM: I make it for myself, too.

SW: But Ryan, you’ve talked about more than that.

RM: I photograph my friends because it’s something that I have to do, just like Larry was saying. But it’s also out of love. When I get the photos back and show them to my friends, everyone can enjoy the experience that we shared.

LC: It’s all about love, man. It is, it’s all about love. I mean that’s why artists make work mostly, I think it’s about love. I see that in your work Ryan, there’s a lot of compassion, a lot of fun.

SW: Ryan, you’ve talked about 9/11, hearing of the news of the fall of the World Trade Center and getting on your bike and going out to shoot. Would you talk about what you shot and what you printed of what you shot.

RM: Well, on 9/11, the first thing that I heard was that the towers got hit. Everyone else that I was talking to was saying, go back to New Jersey, go the other way. My first reaction was I need to go down there. I guess it’s that photojournalist kind of attitude, I wanted to make it part of my work.  I think I shot about 30 or 40 rolls that day, and the photo that I chose was Sam at Ground Zero.

SW: That's the single picture in the show, and in the work that I’ve seen of yours to date, where a global event is taking place. This is not a part of your inner world. Instead, something that affects all of us is taking place, and the one picture that you choose from it is of a very good friend of yours on a bicycle, which you shot from a bicycle. You relate to the event in very personal terms, which, I think, is evidence of whom you’re making pictures for and what you’re making them about. I was also taken by some of your remarks at the opening of your show. There were hundreds of people here and at a party afterwards. It was a big night that went on for hours. A few days later I asked "of all that happened that night, is there something that really sticks out in your mind?" And you said, "Yeah, it was when one of my friends said, this is really cool for you, but it’s even more cool for us." The fact that you found that remark so meaningful suggests that you’re not just making these pictures for yourself, but that you understand how important your work is for those around you.

RM: Almost all the people in my photographs are artists themselves and are doing something creative, so we’re all helping each other out, whether someone’s a painter, a filmmaker, a photographer, or a writer. Everyone’s collaborating with each other on ideas. It’s this great bond between all of us. That is why it works.

            Larry, when you made Tulsa and Teenage Lust how did you get everyone to look so damn beautiful? The exposures are amazing, and they're documentary photographs. That's something that always fascinated me about your work.

LC: When people first saw the photographs when the book came out in 1971, I actually had someone who didn’t know I had done the book say to me, "There’s this amazing book out of the best photographs that I’ve ever seen, but the guy’s a lousy photographer." I found that interesting because the pictures are very classic photographs. I’m using light, I’m using shadow, I’m using all these tricks for drama. I’m recognizing that they’re documentary photographs, but like a photo-journalist looks for the decisive moment, I'm looking for the moment of action to click the shutter and get that great picture. I’m doing that while I’m also looking for light to make the photograph dramatic or beautiful, or to get some kind of feeling in there, which is the approach of more traditional art. I’m also concerned with getting the decisive moment and getting the light because I want the people to look a certain way. They’re my friends. I go back and I show them the photographs.

When I was a kid my mother took baby photographs, and I helped her photograph babies. You had to make the babies look good or you couldn’t sell the photographs, right. So all these things come into play in my work.  It became a natural thing for me, without thinking about it, to see all these things at the same time. Today, it’s not about that. Everybody is taking flash pictures. I’m not so interested in the flash because it wipes out all the shadows, it wipes out everything. It’s just "bang." People are raised now with these instant flash cameras.  You come to the Whitney Biennial or you go to the art fair at the Armory, where you see all this work from galleries all over the world, and there are all these artists that have big color photographs that are horrible. They’re nothing, folks. I think one thing is that they have no idea what they’re doing: they just point and shoot. Photography gets very interesting now because everything is documented, so you get many more images, and you break away from the kind of stuff that I was raised with, from the way I was trained. If you’ve been an artist a long time, like me, and you’ve seen everything, you start looking at things differently and finding interest in different things.

Ryan sees light. He knows what happens when you shoot against the light. He sees drama in light. I mean, he’s in situations a lot where he’s inside at nighttime, and there’s nothing you can do but make flash photographs, which is okay, but you’ve got to be aware of more than that. If that’s all you do, man, it’s going to get awfully boring, very quickly. But I think that everything being documented and everything being photographed makes it a bigger canvas. The language expands. I see great things for Ryan. He's 25 years old, and he’s just starting out. Think, if he stays as intense as he is now and stays as interested, there’s no telling what can happen. He makes so many good ones that he’s going to get tired of this pretty soon. I see the whole visual world opening up for Ryan, and I like his energy. I think he’s going to do good things. But if you are a young photographer, you’ve got to think of more than just the action, getting the action with a flash. It gets pretty boring, pretty fast. You got to learn about light. But I find it interesting, as I said before, that everything is documented now. I’m not saying that Ryan is doing these things just to document them. These things go on. You have parties, you fall in love and you fall out of love, there’s drama, there’s fights. But it’s interesting that someone with as much talent as Ryan is working so hard to do this. It’s not so easy. Even though a lot of people have cameras and a lot of people see these things, to be able to make the kind of images that Ryan’s trying to make is different. He’s dedicated, he’s intense.

RM: Well, there's the practice in both our works, of shooting a lot but not showing a lot. I know I make a whole lot of images that nobody will ever see. It's about the investigation of our lives and of things that interest us.

LC: I never made that many images.

RM: Sorry, Larry. (laughter)

LC: -- because I think that I pretty much make images of things that I need to make images of. So it’s a little more specific for me. But what can I say, man, I like your work, I like you. You’re okay.