“Barn Crash” – A conversation between Gus Van Sant and Ryan McGinley, 2012
GVS: So you need to make a movie now, huh? Is that next?
RM: I’ve been thinking about it.
GVS: 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.
RM: When you get your ideas, do you write them down immediately? I take a lot of notes.
GVS: No, I don’t. I know you do.
RM: I do it all the time. I’m really insane about it.
GVS: I’m always just thinking, “What the fuck is Ryan doing?”
RM: People think that I’m texting. I have to tell people that I’m not being rude, it’s just that I had a really great idea. I’m obsessive about it. When I go to the movies I’ll bring a notepad with me sometimes and write down ideas. Sometimes it takes a friend a long time for them to come around and not get annoyed by it, but it really helps my process. I feel like I couldn’t do it any other way. Do you consider yourself a workaholic?
GVS: Yeah. As much as you can get, yeah.
RM: What do you do in your spare time? Do you exercise?
GVS: Yeah. I swim mostly.
RM: I do yoga almost every day. I started doing it because I felt like I needed balance in my life. I was working so much and burning the candle at both ends. I was really struggling, so I started doing yoga, and it definitely helps but I think I’d rather be working. I force myself to do it. There’s a point I usually get to at night–you can work, say, eight hours a day, from noon to 8 PM, and then everyone leaves and then from 8 PM to 2 AM, those next six hours are so much more important than the first eight hours that you worked. It’s when everything manifests and you can get so much done and ideas become so much clearer. I try to do it but I start going crazy if I do it too long, which is why I started exercising.
GVS: It helps you not go crazy?
RM: I guess. But I feel too much like a normal person when I do it, honestly. I feel too close to society.
GVS: You mean you feel happy?
RM: No, I’m generally a happy person, even when I’m working hard I’m pretty happy. Yoga just makes me feel too normal. I’m at the gym and there’s just normal people.
GVS: Can’t you do yoga at home?
RM: Yeah, but I don’t want to do it alone either. I need to go do yoga with someone who motivates me. I suppose I could get a trainer in here but I also like forcing myself to get out. When I’m editing for months on end I need to get out, so it forces me to get out. But sometimes I feel like I’m becoming too much of an adult, doing yoga, and when I start feeling good then I have to self-destruct or just wild out or something after a while because I feel too good. I never let myself get to point where I feel super great.
GVS: How long is yoga?
RM: Hour and a half.
RM: Everyday. I was just in California yesterday and I was doing it 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 I don’t do it because I’m hiking up hills, I’m in the water, swimming, and I’m so active every day that I don’t need it. There’s also something about being outdoors and in the sun that keeps you feeling really good and healthy. Whenever I travel I never get sick. There’s two sides to my life, which I’m sure is true for you too, where you’re shooting and you’re with people all the time in such a large group, and then you’re editing and it’s pretty isolating. And you’re just weird.
RM: I feel like there’s a similarity in the way we both work. We both work with a sense of contingency, we plan everything the way we want it, but we plan it to go wrong. Do you feel like you work that way?
GVS: 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.
RM: Yeah. It’s nice.
GVS: 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.
RM: I don’t like working with professional models. I always try to work with people who haven’t modeled. They’re the best. They’ll say, “You want to take my picture?” and I’m like, “Yeah!” and they say, “Really? Me?” and it’s so amazing when you can see their potential and how powerful their presence is and they have no clue of how amazing they are. That’s my favorite. They’re so unaware of the camera or what they look like on film, and they leave their guard down. Versus working with people who have been photographed before, it’s a lot harder because they really know what it is, like what their good angle is and exactly how they want to pose to look good.
Casting is such a big part of my process. My studio shoots are kind of a test. It’s like an extending casting where I’ll shoot someone for an hour and see what I can get out of them. Then when I travel and do larger trips, I’ll take the people who I liked the best, and those people tend to be people who have never been really photographed before. I can get stuff that feels more true to life. It’s easier for me to pull emotions out of them, rather than someone who is professional where they are offering you emotions. And it’s cool to photograph people who have never been photographed because this is the first thing that they’ve done, going on these extended trips and being nude everyday, so that’s what they think photography is. Whereas more professional people think, “Oh, this is some weirdo shit.”
GVS: How do you find the amateurs, do people email you?
RM: I have a girl who does casting for me all over the world. A lot of people do email me but it’s rare that I’ll choose a submission. Probably about of the last five years, I’ve probably chosen two or three people who have really worked out, but I get submissions everyday and they’re scary. You know, some serious performance people or porno.
GVS: Oh, like people you know?
RM: No, not even that I know. Just from all around the world, people sending me naked pictures of themselves. Moms, tattoo people, pierced people, nudists, aspiring models. It’s fun to go through actually. I get weird naked pictures everyday, and at least one email asking me, “What camera do you use?” or “What film do you use?” It’s pretty funny.
GVS: What camera do you use?
RM: I use a Leica R8.
GVS: What kind of film do you use?
RM: Kodak Portra or Kodak Gold. Usually Portra, there’s the VC, which is vivid color and it gives you really nice saturated colors.
RM: This is a stupid question but do you like my photos? Like when I sent you the preview layout this book, is there anything that stands out?
GVS:Well, it’s sort of the whole breadth of your career. I was seeing 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?
GVS: 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?
RM: Yeah, 2002.
GVS: Yeah so I think that was the first moment. How old were you?
GVS: You were the young, groovy photographer. It’s like what Harmony was. When he was first on the scene he was 19. And Chloë would say, “He’s the youngest screenwriter ever in the history of movies.” I knew him just as the guy who had written Larry’s movie, but then he became this thing because he was so young. Partly the youth was attractive to the media because they’re always looking for the new thing. When they’re young they have to be the new thing because they’re young and they can’t help it. They just literally are the new thing. So you were that. I was that too, but I was 36, so it wasn’t really the same. But you guys were truly young people and you were making something that was being celebrated by old institutions. Like Harmony on the Letterman show. Or you at the Whitney. So there was this heat that came off, there was this spin that came out of that celebration…
RM: For me, I like this book because you can see the evolution of my photos. It mixes everything up, from the black and white studio portraits to the caves to the road trips to the early work. I think it’s so nice when you see people’s work evolve in a way. But people always say they like the early stuff the best no matter what.
GVS: They do?
RM: I feel like people always say that with every artist.
GVS: It’s like Orson Welles couldn’t beat Citizen Kane because it was the new thing, the clarity with which you’re thinking. It’s also that with the first thing, you’re not worried about what you’re shooting. The reason the 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. As a photographer 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 you can’t help it. You’re working into the legitimate system, 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 interesting 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’ve always been affected by the situation that I was in. You go through all kinds of stages. There are moments when you become noticed and then there’s the next year and then ten years later and then twenty years later and it just keeps going.
RM: A cycle. 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 were saying to me, “Well, I want to do what you do” and I said to you, “Well, I want to do what you do.”
GVS: We should just trade
RM: People ask me all the time, “When are you gonna make a movie?” But I don’t know. I would love to make a film but I’m definitely nervous about. I guess its one of those things that I just have to do. There’s a quote of yours that I read when I was in college: “Making movies isn’t for dreamers, it’s for doers.”
GVS: I’m sure I never said that.
RM: You did! I remember.
GVS: That sounds like a motivational quote.
RM: It was very motivational.
GVS: Oh, I know what I meant. I think what I was talking about was that I sat around for years with friends, I spent a lot of time dreaming. It always seemed to be easier and more fun, like you sit in a coffee shop with some friends and you can spend hours sitting there, talking about what you were going to do. And the reason we were never doing what we said we were going to do was because they were film projects that needed like $100,000 and we could never find $100,000, so the only thing left for us to do was to share our plans and hang out so we weren’t alone sharing our plans. And just bullshit for hours on end. It was like a little think tank but eventually you do have to venture out of that think tank and actually make something.
RM: Yeah, sometimes I’ll find myself making things just for the sake of making things. I feel like half the battle is arriving and being there and you have this idea and whatever happens with that, at least for my work it can go in so many different directions. Whatever happens, it always goes somewhere else. It never ends up where I started with the original idea. Which I think is the fun part. We’ll have a location and I’ll think its great and I’ll turn around to face another direction and say, “Oh, this is way better.”
RM: It’s exciting for me to find that and then just work through it. My work is about repetition–to make a photograph, it’s about doing a scene, a repetitious act until people can’t do it anymore, until they’re tired.
GVS: I met a friend of Harmony’s and Larry’s, Leigh, who take pictures of his mom. What’s his last name?
GVS: Leigh Ledare, yeah. I was talking to him about my gallery show, and I was like, “yeah, it’s hard to have enough stuff to extend to three or four different places.” And he was like, “Well, I’ve got the stuff.” For him it was more about the energy it took to arrange what was going to be in each show. Do you have that problem?
RM: What do you mean?
GVS: 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 set up, but then Japan. What am I going to show in Japan?” Do you ever have that?
RM: No, because I never would have that many shows at once. I’m pretty methodical about my career and the way that I disperse the work. I don’t want to put a lot out at once. But I think about that with editing a lot. When I’m editing, what’s going to go with what, what I have covered. There’s a lot of themes in my work that are recurring, of falling or running or jumping or explosives and fireworks. There’s a lot of natural settings that seem very similar, sandy or waterfalls. And then there will be certain pictures that I really love but I have to cut them because I have this similar thing already and this one’s better. But I like to throw myself into situations, like going into the studio—I had been shooting color forever and then I suddenly decided that I was only going to shoot studio portraits in black and white for a year or two. I like doing stuff like that, cause then you’re looking at something completely new.
Earlier, we were talking about how Mala Noche and Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy deal a lot 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 who I cast have those qualities. “Drifters, stoners and loners,” I always call them. What do you think attracts us to these people?
GVS: 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.
RM: I have that too. When I was coming into this conversation I thought about how I didn’t want to talk about my life story because I’ve already talked about it so much. I have these answers that aren’t even real answers anymore. I mean, they are real, but I can spit them out because I’ve said them thousands of times. So what’s your press answer?
GVS: 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. I think I just put myself outside the system even when I was eleven. We were little rebels, vandal-type kids, 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 full-on painter.
RM: Oh, at RISD?
GVS: No, in high school. And then at RISD everyone was an outsider. It was like a convention of outsiders, real outsiders. But they were artist outsiders, not street outsiders. They weren’t like pool players or ex-cons, yet the 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 rarified as why John Ford shoots Westerns. Was he a cowboy in the Old West? No. Was he a cowboy? Yes. But in the end, why is 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.
RM: But is there a certain sense of a line? For me I feel like my camera has saved my life. If I wasn’t taking pictures, I’d probably be dead from an overdose or something like that. The camera always removed me from the situation. I could use it as a barrier, especially in my earlier documentary work.
GVS: Yeah, that wasn’t like me.
RM: I wanted to ask you about the Northwest because it’s so important to you. I feel like traveling through America is really important to me. There’s something about it, you get pinned as the Northwest artist. And I’m starting to get this reputation as the road-trip photographer or something like that. Do you feel that when you look at my photographs it feels like they were made on a trip?
GVS: No. That’s not what I feel.
RM: Everyone likes to put you in your box. I guess that’s it. Like, “Gus Van Sant, Portland” or “Ryan McGinley, traveling the US.”
GVS: Isn’t it “Ryan McGinley, downtown New York”?
RM: Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine living anywhere other than New York. Maybe San Francisco but I don’t know if I could be in a place that didn’t have seasons. But, that’s just part of my process, taking people from different cities and getting them out into places that most people have never been before, these beautiful and remote locations, and being together for so long and getting that intimacy and doing all these activities everyday. In a way it’s like summer camp or like being in a rock band or traveling circus. It’s all those things combined. Just taking everyone out of their element so you kind of have them.
GVS: Well yeah, because in New York everyone’s all connected to all the other stuff.
RM: That’s what I love about it. I love the energy. You can feel the energy in New York. I thrive on that but I also feel need to get away from it sometimes too. When I first moved here I never wanted to leave. But, there’s something about the road that I love. You’re driving, then you’re shooting, then you’re driving again, you’re camping, and it’s this cycle of going from one place to another and doing these performances. My shoots are so active that it really is a performance if you watch it happening.
There’s something really nice about being on the road. You’re forced to work because there’s nothing else to do, and the stakes are kind of high too. We’re always looking over our shoulder for the cops. That’s why I feel like I’m outside of society. You know everyone looks at my photographs and they’re like, “Oh, pretty nudes.” But we always have people posted up with walkie-talkies saying, “Okay, it’s clear, you can shoot now” or ducking farmers who have shotguns and cops who would arrest us for public nudity or trespassing. It’s a lot like skating. I spent all my life skateboarding, I can remember skateboarding every single day of my life until I was 18 years old. Once I came to art school, I realized it was either one or the other.
GVS: Skating or art?
RM: Yeah, skating or art. That’s what it really came down to. I could either continue my life skating every single day, all day, or make art. So I started making art. I went from painting to poetry to graphic design to photography and I feel like all those things are in my art, skating especially.
GVS: Do you still skate?
RM: I don’t skate anymore. But the way that I make photographs is the way that I skated. It’s kind of illegal.
GVS: Why don’t you skate?
RM: Too old. I did it for 15 years.
GVS: Could you drop into a bowl right now?
RM: Yeah I would be able to do that. But I wouldn’t be able to do tricks anymore, I would fuck myself up. I actually was 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 I thought I could still do that stuff. I also used to be an amateur snowboarder and compete all the time. Last year I was snowboarding while making photos of some Olympic athletes and I broke both my wrists. Do you remember when I had my casts?
GVS: Yeah. But even a seasoned snowboarder can break their wrists.
RM: Yeah, but I got out there and I was doing big airs, going huge, and I started spinning and I just fucked myself up. So yeah, I don’t skateboard anymore. But the way that I make photographs is the same exact way I skateboarded. I would go to a spot, see the potential of something that was already there, and come back with my friends and then we would use the landscape creatively. It’s the same way that I make photographs. It’s using these landscapes in a creative way to make something. I used to film skateboarding. Whenever people ask me how I started making photographs, that’s pretty much how I started making photographs. I got a Hi-8 video camera when I was a sophomore in high school and I shot skateboarding all the time and that’s how I realized I was really interested in watching people. I was more interested in people just doing hijinx, the in-between moments of filming someone doing a run. But now, the way that I make photographs is the same way that I would film someone doing a run. It’s like you ollie off something, you kickflip it, you tailslide a curb or ledge, you try and get these moments in a row, a good run. It’s the same thing with photography. It’s like this repetitious act of doing these activities to find that one moment that works, where it’s balanced, the colors are beautiful, the way that the light is hitting the person is really nice, it feels poetic, and it feels real. So when you’re looking through a book or exhibition, it creates a narrative and then you start to make up your own stories.
RM: I really feel like it’s a weird thing to be a photographer. I have all these intimate experiences with all these different people. I make an image of a person and that image becomes part of my body of work. And then I have to live with that person for the rest of my life. I’ll have to think about the people in the photographs all the time, which in some cases isn’t a bad thing, but in a certain way I have to divorce myself from them so the photos become their own thing. It’s weird, do you ever feel that way with your films?
GVS: No, I never thought about that, that’s scary.
RM: It becomes weird, for instance, with photos of Dash.
GVS: Because he’s your friend.
RM: Yeah, because he’s my friend and he died. Like this photo I took of him spraypainting graffiti on a rooftop is an image I have to deal with everyday, a magazine wants it or a museum wants it, and I have to constantly look at it so I’m constantly reminded of him. Or there’s another girl in the book, Lily, she’s the girl with the black eye, smoking a cigarette, and she died too. I feel like I’m haunted by them in a way. Do you ever feel that way about River or anything like that when you’re screening My Own Private Idaho?
GVS: 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.
RM: Do you think that you have to be a workaholic to be a successful artist?
RM: No? Do you know people who aren’t?
GVS: I mean, I think that it helps.
RM: I think that you have to be extremely obsessed with certain things and it’s almost therapeutic–that you have to make the work to get through those obsessions. I feel like everyone who I respect as an artist kind of can’t stop working.
GVS: Yeah, I think that you’re right, it’s very uncommon for somebody who isn’t preoccupied with their work to be in the forefront.
RM: Yeah, in my personal life I always seek out people who work to live, rather than my life where I live to work. I surround myself with people that I’m like, “Oh, these are normal people.” People who can just go to work and then go out and chill and read books and smoke weed and not stress about it. My longest relationship is with this guy who works but he just chills. Everything is the complete opposite of me, and I love being around it. I feel like it balances me.
Here’s a question. What do you think it is about youth that you keep coming back to? My friend always says that I have arrested development. Do you feel like that?
GVS: 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 14. I think they had to be, or else they’d never have been able to be the Marx Brothers. As an artist you’re trying to have a playful mind, in a certain way. I’m not sure as far as having our characters being young characters. I think for me, the youthful characters are just the most interesting part of life.
RM: A lot of people ask me, “Are you going to continue photographing young people as you 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 in one. It’s also wrapped up in beauty. There is a period where you’re the most beautiful, and it’s all those aspects together that I think are interesting. But I also don’t know how to answer that question.
GVS: Yes, it’s kind of complicated. But you’re making them your subjects so it’s wrapped up in it. There’s a couple that took fine art pictures of water towers.
RM: The Bechers.
GVS: 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 from age 14-25, 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 the young people. I don’t know how to answer it either.
RM: Whoever I’m photographing, I sort of fall in love with in a way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a boy, it could be a girl too. In a sense, my work is about fantasy. It’s like a film in a way. It’s fiction. But, at the same time, it’s really happening. I’m with these people and we’re at these locations and I think that’s why people really like it, because people want to get lost in the world. People also look at photographs like they’re 100 percent real. There’s still this idea that the image I’m showing them is documentary and they can project their own conclusions or stories as to what’s going on. People will come up to me and say the weirdest things about my photographs.
GVS: Oh really?
RM: Yeah, like their own stories. 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 plane.” 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. I become really enamored of them and it’s almost like I get hypnotized watching them. Do you ever feel the same way?
GVS: A lot of times with the lead characters, my attention becomes absorbed by them. I’ve noticed that especially with Matt Dillion, Sean Penn, River and Keanu, maybe Mike Pitt. But when they’re out of costume, they’re totally different people.
RM: 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, that when they put their clothes on, I’m like, “Oh wow, you look great.”
GVS: Well, clothes do make people sexier.
RM: 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? I feel like it’s a 50-50 gamble.
GVS: It depends on if your heroes want to meet you.
RM: Haha, I guess so. You and I are both really into music, and in the past when I’ve met my music heroes, sometimes I’m happy that I met them, but sometimes I’m kind of not.
GVS: Well, musicians are musicians. Music and muse connote the same thing. They’re muses, they aren’t necessarily hangout buddies. The thing that they do, is the thing they do onstage, it’s not the thing that they do backstage necessarily. Every musician’s different, some would be the same off stage but some might be different.
RM: I just get sucked in so much by the music. I feel like I romanticize the music so much that when I get to meet the person, sometimes it’s great, but also sometime’s it’s not so great.
GVS: Well, having a muse, which is what you’re talking about, is really important for an artist. It’s something to guide you.
RM: I think with me, a muse is somebody who offers me way more than I expected, almost like they could read my mind. That’s the best, like say I’m looking at a big sand dune and before I can even say anything, this person is running down it and doing some crazy thing that I never expected. You just get blown away by it and you really love that person for bringing something you know is going to look so great. This person has taken this gift and given it to you and they’re just like, “Here, you can have it.”