Bob Nickas introduction: Ryan McGinley: Making Pictures Happen
A half dozen naked boys and girls cavort in the upper branches of a large pine tree in the dark of night. Their arms and legs appear as if the tree has grown human branches. But what exactly are they doing up there? Have they shed their clothes and gone back to nature, reverted to childhood play and naked innocence? Or is this a wild, nocturnal tribe? Seemingly unaware of the camera, they move from branch to branch far above the ground: ecstatic, orgiastic bodies in space. These pictures are just a few of many made by Ryan McGinley over the past nine months, an incredibly productive period even for this most compulsive of photographers. But when an artist takes a dramatic turn in their work it’s often accompanied by the rush of excitement, the sense that anything’s possible.
These pictures are a departure from McGinley’s earliest work, which was mostly shot in and around New York City, often casually, offering a glimpse of his immediate world: friends, parties, getting high, getting off. Being in the right place at the right time is part luck, part determination, of which McGinley has always had both. Having to be in the right place at the right time can also become its own trap—from the hard-ball game of paparazzi who stalk celebrities to photographers in faithful pursuit of “the decisive moment.” The prospect of becoming yet another photographer who ends up taking the same picture over and over, mining the same small territory, had little appeal for McGinley, and he knew it was time for a change.
“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. It 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. That’s how… Kids inspired me. 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. 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…"
Weighing the differences between taking pictures and making pictures potentially opens up an endless debate. Is William Eggleston simply taking pictures? Of course not. But even with his incredible eye for color and framing, his photographs can’t be described as arranged for the camera. He doesn’t move things around to get them in the picture. Jeff Wall meticulously composes an image as if he was a painter or a director, rendering a landscape or staging a dramatic event. Wolfgang Tillmans is an artist who complicates the issue; some of his pictures are set up, while others appear before him by happenstance. Tillmans has remarked that people have mistaken carefully constructed images for ones that were seen by chance. Many of Andy Warhol’s early films were no more than the result of placing a camera in front of someone and letting it roll. The person performs without a script, with no direction to speak of, and the camera, the perfect surrogate for Warhol’s voyeurism, remains in a fixed position.
That night in the woods, McGinley wasn’t simply recording an activity he had happened upon, nor one entirely staged. This group, cast as always from his extended family of friends, had been brought there, asked to strip and climb up into the tree. Reaching some forty feet above the ground, they were free to move about while McGinley, perched in a nearby tree, shot roll after roll. The group shoot had been preceded by a number of nights on which McGinley made pictures of individuals in the tree. From around a thousand exposures, only a few were ultimately chosen to be printed; editing being central to McGinley’s way of working, a part of the process with which he is not only keenly engaged, but that is eagerly anticipated.
While McGinley’s subjects may be given some direction, what unfolds before the camera can’t always be predicted. He creates the conditions in which something that might not have been revealed—behavior, facial expressions, body movement—comes to the surface. When he refers to the interplay with his subjects as collaborative, you also realize that trust is not only the bond between photographer and subjects; there is a shared trust that his subjects have with each other. When McGinley asks them to go underwater in a lake late at night and interlock arms (Everyone Interlocked, 2003), they hold their breath and they are all in it together. When he asks a friend to run into the ocean on a chilly, foggy night, he places them both in a potentially dangerous situation. Time and again, it’s all about the picture, the one you wouldn’t get otherwise get.
Oliver, 2003, is a portrait of a young man, eyes closed, who appears to be sitting in an unidentifiable deep black space. He is actually underwater, pretending to sit, spidery fingers held in place on each knee. With its spectral light and mystery, the picture feels timeless. McGinley has described floating underwater as like being on a drug, as an escape from the world. Weightlessness and abandon figure in another series of pictures which were made with the use of a trampoline. Bodies caught in positions impossible to achieve on solid ground revel in buoyancy and release—Muybridge motion studies in mid-air. Most of the trampoline pictures were taken at night, which can be seen as a more uninhibited space than the one we inhabit by the light of day. One of these pictures, however, Tim Falling, 2003, made on a bright afternoon, stands out among them all. Here, McGinley gets in close to the action; on his back on the trampoline, camera aimed at the body falling towards him.
In the newest portraits, McGinley’s proximity to his subjects, combined with his keen eye for light, gives them a greater immediacy than ever. At times the pictures have a painterly quality, as in Francis, 2004. Here, a naked boy sits on a bed illuminated by the light from a window to the left, just outside the frame. Jake (Golden), 2003, is golden, a luminous image Caravaggio might have realized with a camera. Jake’s Eyes, 2003, in which the boy is seen over his girlfriend’s shoulder, is bathed in a dreamy, disoriented glow that mirrors the intimate moment they share. In Yan, 2003, a naked boy is seen in a dark space, particles of light streaming below his waist. The only light source is an unseen TV set in front of him. The absence of light is exploited by McGinley in pictures made recently in clubs. In Dany, 2003, what you don’t see is precisely what makes the picture compelling. The boy’s face is almost entirely in silhouette, and yet your eye searches him out just as you would if you were there on the dance floor.
No longer waiting for pictures to happen, Ryan McGinley has found a new freedom as a photographer and, until his next restless shift, anything is possible.
-- Bob Nickas, New York, April 2004
Transcript from Conversations on Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art with Larry Clark, Ryan McGinley, and Sylvia Wolf, March 25, 2003, p. 9