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?
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.