Vince Aletti, ‘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.
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.