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?
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.
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.