Ryan McGinley: Parsons Commencement Speech, 2014

Everyone always says it helps to picture you all naked to calm my nerves. Well, unfortunately, that’s another day at work for me. 

  Greetings and congratulations to the Parsons graduating class of 2014, and to all the teachers and families of these young photographers. Thank you to the esteemed faculty and administration for inviting me here today; it’s truly an honor. To all the proud parents, thank you for supporting your daughters and sons in the arts. Your support of creativity is honorable and beautiful. Sometimes, you have to do things in life you are afraid of, and for me, this speech is definitely one of them. I approached it the only way I know how, as a photographer.

  In preparation for today, I stopped by to see the space, to scout this room, and get my bearings. When I got here, I remembered this building from when I was a student. It was the computer lab, and on my way out I recognized the security guard, Luis, from my time here. There was something so comforting about that to me. It made it seem like it wasn’t so long ago that I was here.

  In my fifth year here—yes, I was in school for five yearsI took a class with George Pitts. The class was called “Nudity, Sexuality, and Beauty in Photography.” It had such a big influence on me that I’ve adhered to those three words throughout my entire career. I remember my first day in his class. I was wearing a Cramps t-shirt, and he said, “You and I are going to get along just fine.” George celebrated my outsiderness. Thank you George, you truly changed my life.

  Before that happened though, I came to Parsons to be a painter. Then in my sophomore year I fell in love with the Beatniks and switched all my classes to poetry without telling my parents. When they found out, they told me that if I wanted to stay in school, I had to choose something I could “fall back on.” So in my third year, I settled on graphic design. That decision led me to start shooting my own photos for all our assignments. I bought a Yashica T4, a small little point-and-shoot camera, that I carried around everywhere in my pocket.

  When I got that first camera, I got my wings. I started to relate to the world in a new way. It gave me permission to ask, to not be shy, and to step outside of what was accepted. I was addicted. Photography ended up being a combination of all the different majors I had considered. It brought together the color palate of painting, the emotion of poetry, and the balance of design. I started to sneak into the Parsons darkroom after a friend taught me how to use the enlarger. Every week I’d buy expired film for three dollars a roll at Adorama. I remember the man at the photo lab would always tell me the same dumb joke, “What did Cinderella say when she left the photo store? Someday my PRINTS will come.”

  I once bought a pack of 50 sheets of 20-by-24 photo paper. It was a big investment at the time, so I knew I couldn’t spare a single sheet. I spent all day in the darkroom trying to print each image meticulously. That night, when I left the building on 5th Avenue, I had my hands full with the big box of photos, my backpack, and some food. It was windy, and in an unexpected gust, the top of the box flew off, along with all my prints. I watched them billow and spiral down 5th Avenue. Then, I spent the next hour trying to collect them. I walked from 11th Street to Washington Square Park, and even found some by West Broadway and Houston. Even though I knew they were all dented and ruined I had to gather them because they were all naked pictures of my friends. So remember, always tape your photo boxes shut, or to be more current, always password-protect your hard drives and cell phones.

  By my fourth year in school, I was shooting every day and every night. I photographed every little thing, all my food, doorways covered in graffiti, and my friends and roommates. I tortured my first boyfriend, Marc, by capturing each moment of our relationship. I was obsessed with documenting my life.

  So that’s my advice to you: find something to be obsessed with, and then obsess over it. Don't compete; find what's uniquely yours. Take your experience of life and connect that with your knowledge of photographic history. Mix it all together, and create an artistic world that we can enter into.

  If you only like shooting cell phone photos, then do that. If your dad works at a construction site that looks cool, use it. If your mom breeds poodles, then put them in your photographs. Use the camera to take what you know that others don’t, what you can access that others can’t, and the people or things you connect with, to construct your own world. Be busy. Seek and find a way to do what it is you want to do. Identify what that thing is and do it. Don’t stand around too long having conversations about it. Do it. Refine it. Do it more. Try it a different way. Keep at it until you break through to the next level. Don’t talk or think yourself out of doing it. Put one foot in front of the other and let it happen organically.

  In my last year, all my friends in the photography program were having their thesis shows here at school, but I wasn’t a photo major. My friends Jack and Lenny had a connection to an empty loft in SoHo that was soon being turned into a clothing store. They let me hang about 30 poster-sized photos in there, and that was my first show. It was called “The Kids are Alright.” I had learned how to make handmade books in my graphic design courses, so I made my own catalogue to go with the exhibition. I made one hundred copies on my home printer, and I had an assembly line of friends help me bind them right up until the opening. I mailed some of those books out to artists I admired and magazines I read, and people started calling me. I got my first editorial job with Index Magazine. They said they liked my photos and gave me an assignment. The first shoot was with a little unknown band from England. My friend Amy was interviewing them while I was taking pictures. I was so nervous that I shot for 20 minutes without film in the camera. 

  On my next assignment, they flew me to Germany to photograph an electronic musician. I was scared the whole flight, and had a terrible stomachache. I had to figure out how to make a photograph that looked like the intimate images I was making of my own friends. I had to make strangers look like a part of my world.

  When the musician arrived with his girlfriend, I asked them both to take their shirts off, and I shot them lazing around the hotel room. The magazine loved them, and I realized I could make intimate pictures of strangers. It was a breakthrough for me. I found that most people liked being photographed; they like being paid attention to and being told to do things they normally wouldn’t do. I learned that all I needed to do was ask.

  Say yes to almost everything, and try new things. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to work hard. Do your pictures, don’t try and do somebody else’s pictures. Don’t get lost inside your head, and don’t worry what camera you’re using. I once heard the legendary indie director Derek Jarman had 3 rules for making his art films: “Show up early, hold your own light, and don’t expect to get paid.” That always stuck with me. Approach art like it’s your job. Show up for photography every day for eight hours. Take it as seriously as a doctor would medicine. Take photos of everything. If you are working hard, really hard, opportunity will come. And when it does, you better be ready for it with your camera in hand.

  Remember, it’s romantic as hell what we do. See the beauty and uniqueness in this world. Be a keen observer of life. Photography is about questioning, and the root of the word question is “quest”. Keep seeking out whatever it is that excites and inspires you. Make it your quest. Be very open to the idea of chance and surprise. Respect and honor your artistic insanityIf you work hard enough, you’ll experience the happy accidents that are the art. Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2014.

- Ryan McGinley