Brian Dillon, 2009

Brian Dillon, ‘Grotto Fabulous’, 2009

‘We are the adventurers of the earth; our life is crossed everywhere by the tensions which mark adventure.’ Thus Georg Simmel, writing in 1911 on the sociology of adventure: the act of wandering away from one’s regular life and into newly enticing and perilous modes of experience.

Ryan McGinley’s, we might say, is an art of adventure. In his early work, McGinley photographed his own mid-twenties milieu in abject and graceful pursuit of hedonistic bliss. His subjects’ youth, their etiolated beauty, the air-locked impression of privileged access to the demimondaine: all of it pointed to the influence of certain confessional photographers. It seemed that what was at issue was a contemporary sort of decadence. Yet, what set McGinley’s photographs apart was something critics habitually called their quality of ‘innocence’. More accurately, it was that category of experience and knowledge that somehow retains its aspect of wonder, even of naïveté: a sense of adventure.

Then, for a time, it seemed that McGinley had taken quite literally the logic of a specifically American adventure. His subjects were still naked and insouciant in their attitudes and actions, but the airless and eroticized interiors were supplanted by hints of a wider landscape and further horizons. In the time-honoured mode of American photography, McGinley went on the road. His subjects cavorted with childlike grace and vulnerability, even as they pursued – or seemed to pursue, because McGinley’s photographs have always presented a fantastical realm, just out of reach – lives of knowingly reckless experiment. With his latest series of photographs, taken in caves across America, it is as if he and his intrepid models have retreated from the outside world again – for caves are interiors of a sort – only to lose themselves in labyrinths of new self-knowledge.

These pictures make fresh demands of McGinley and his collaborators, technically and aesthetically. Accustomed to taking countless photographs during each session, and to allowing his models a certain amount of freedom within the constraints of the kind of image he seeks, with the cave photographs McGinley must arduously organise and choreograph everything in advance: the choice of location, protracted and deliberate exposure times, the positions of spotlights, and the exact pose of the model, a pose that must be held for two or three minutes.

The images borrow something from the deep time of the caves themselves; McGinley and his crew are forced to adapt (be it only for a comparatively negligible span) to the geological chronology of air, rock and water. At the same time, the photographs seem at first glance to consciously recall some surprising precursors: the Pictorialists of the early years of the twentieth century, the American sublime of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston’s textural rhymes between flesh and stone.

McGinley’s subjects, however, suggest another tradition of visual ravishment by underground vistas, one that is both older and more contemporary. Whether pensive before the dark mirror of a subterranean lake, haloed in golden light beside the terminal pool of a waterfall or delicately poised above a sheer precipitous drop, the subjects seem to have sprung from the pages of an illustrated children’s book of a century ago. There is something Victorian, or perhaps Edwardian, about their narrow limbs stretched uncertainly into dank and glittering holes: an entire cultural imaginary of strangely chilly adolescent eroticism, innocent and decadent in the same instant, both imperiled and sinister. There is something here, too, of the politically ambiguous cult of the youthful body in nature that flourished in the early decades of the last century.

Cavernous enclosure has long been an allegory for transformation of the self by figurative journeying within: McGinley recalls (reluctantly) reading as a child the biblical tale of Jonah’s sojourn within the whale, with its narrative of descent, submersion and enlightenment. That image survives in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), where it serves to frame the advent of adolescent sexuality. Here is Twain, describing the scenes that greet Tom and Becky Thatcher, as they are lost in McDougal’s Cave:

In one place they found a spacious cavern, from whose ceiling depended a multitude of shining stalactites of the length and circumference of a man’s leg; they walked all about it, wondering and admiring, and presently left it by one of the numerous passages that opened onto it. This shortly brought them to a bewitching spring, whose basin was incrusted with a frostwork of glittering crystals; it was in the midst of a cavern whose walls were supported by many fantastic pillars which had been formed by the joining of great stalactites and stalagmites together, the result of the ceaseless water-drip of centuries.

For the nineteenth century, caves were symbols of a kind of domestic splendour – the caves in Tom Sawyer have absurd names: ‘The Drawing-Room’, ‘The Cathedral’, ‘Aladdin’s Palace’ – that finds its fullest expression in the decadent literature of the 1880s and 1890s. The innocent geological marvels of Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) are transformed into the eerie blue-green artificial sea cave of the dandy Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature (1884). The pivotal figure in this cave-fevered culture is Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose castle at Linderhof was furnished with a luculent cavern in which the mad king was rowed across an artificial lake to the strains of Wagner.

Assuredly, Ryan McGinley’s photographs are in many respects far from the overworked imaginings of an aesthete monarch. But what are these images of androgynous bodies disposed across a grotesque décor, plunged into picturesque solitude and irradiated by theatrical lights, if not photographs of a fantastical life, every bit as deliberately wrought and poetically refined as the dreams of the decadents? In their saturation with colour, they recall McGinley’s saintly chromatic studies of audiences at Morrissey concerts; in both cases, it is a matter of bodies bathed in artificial light, each finding its own distinct solitude – and its own response to the supercharged atmosphere produced by music or geology – while surrounded by others. It is a matter partly of self-reflection, of the numerous doublings that take place in the caverns as two youths stare into an underground pool like Narcissus twinned, or a pair of young women mirror each other’s gestures as they perch in daylight above a cave mouth.

There has always been a sense with McGinley’s photographs that we were looking at a secret enclave of ravishingly doomed youth, that the images were both invitations and acts of exclusion, assuring us that we were on the outside of something:, in other words, outside a life of adventure. If the cave photographs, in their dark allure, cast a retrospective light on McGinley’s work to date, it is to reveal his earlier subjects as the mythical, elemental and fabulously fragile characters they always were.