Out of Bounds: Photographs by Ryan McGinley

by Sylvia Wolf, 2012

Ryan McGinley’s studio is lined with bookshelves stocked floor to ceiling with first-edition photography books, vintage pornographic magazines, rare vinyl records, and DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters and classic cinema. Alongside are over 300 binders of negatives, contact sheets, and Polaroid SX70portraits of friends. This archive of cultural artifacts and personal work is what one might expect to find in the hands of an artist twenty or thirty years his senior as evidence of lived experience, but McGinley is in his early thirties. His youth is partly responsible for his fascination with earlier art and popular culture. McGinley’s generation has more access than any before to visual history and is aware of previous styles and behaviors via fashion, advertising, music, and the movie industry, which regularly recycle subjects and motifs from the past.

McGinley traces his eclectic tastes to the varied lifestyles and trends he was exposed to as a boy. The youngest of eight children, born on October 17, 1977, to an Irish-Catholic family from Ramsey, New Jersey, he grew up with a wide range of influences: his father’s passion for the stock market, one brother’s zeal for dressing in drag, one sister’s avid commitment to cheerleading.1 During high school, he spent late afternoons hanging out with teenage skateboarders in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, often filming them with the family’s Super 8 camera.2 He made his first photographs in the late 1990s for assignments in graphic-design classes while he was a student at Parsons School of Design. Shortly thereafter, he began taking color pictures of his friends and lovers with an obsessive fascination for recording every activity, no matter how intimate or insignificant.

In 2000, at age twenty-two, McGinley mounted a one-week show in a SoHo storefront and produced a fifty-page book of these images, The Kids Are Alright (the title is from a 1979 documentary film made about the rock band, The Who). For his first desktop publishing venture, McGinley produced 100copies, which he gave to his subjects, sent to photographers he admired, and submitted to the art and culture magazines he read. Communicating with a variety of viewers through photographs on the printed page merged McGinley’s interest in photography and graphic design. It also gave him a forum for getting his work seen.

The Kids Are Alright and a subsequent publication put out by Index Books in 2002 contain photographs of McGinley’s extended family: his father flashing the peace sign, his friend Sam riding through ash at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001.3 Some images feature emblems of classic American fashion—jeans and Converse basketball sneakers, for example. Others depict the kind of behind-the-scenes bad behavior that has been called “insider documentary,” a genre of photography that has become increasingly popular in recent years.4 Characterized by grainy, color, 35 mm pictures that resemble casual snapshots, this style of photography gives audiences a privileged peek at the artist’s inner circle. From the safety and comfort of photographic distance, we see then-notorious graffiti artist, Dash Snow, teetering on a ledge as he tags a building, or McGinley’s roommate reeling on angel dust.

McGinley is not the first photographer to focus his camera on his own generation or on subjects outside the mainstream. In 1971, Larry Clark’s images of teenage drug addicts from his hometown in Oklahoma were published in the book Tulsa. Nan Goldin chronicled the revelry of her circle of friends in New York’s Lower East Side starting in the early 1980s, and Wolfgang Tillmans has spent over a decade photographing European youth. While McGinley’s pictures may remind us of such work, his subjects appear to be having much more fun than those of his predecessors. With images that are charged with spontaneity, candor, and exuberance, he adds a freshness and a fervor to the genre.

Some of McGinley’s pictures have the unrefined look that is characteristic of the snapshot aesthetic associated with insider documentary. Others reflect an acute sensitivity to light and an avid appreciation for classical form. In a late-night image of a friend hunched in an elevator, for example, fluorescent illumination reflecting off the metallic walls dulls hard-edged details and renders a cool, misty mood. By contrast, a photograph of two sleeping men surrounded by a patchwork of bed linens and plaid flannel shirts is shot with a flash, which flattens out the scene and gives it the glaring harshness of a mug shot. Still, there is an exquisite beauty in the marble white skin of these lithe young men, and a grace and abandon in their postures that recall the erotic charge of the sleeping shepherd Endymion in eighteenth-century Neoclassical art.5

Looking at subjects who are unaware of our gaze is one of the fundamental characteristics of voyeurism, and a principal appeal of photographs such as these. So, too, is being privy to sights or subjects that are at once explicit and ambiguous. A close-up view of a bulging crotch sprayed with semen refers to sex between two men, but leaves the specifics of the act and the identity of the participants unknown. Is this a diaristic picture of one of the photographer’s sexual encounters? It is worth noting that McGinley, a gay man, most often photographs heterosexuals and in so doing maintains a certain psychic distance. Rather than respond to the sexual energy between subject and photographer (as Robert Mapplethorpe or Nan Goldin have done), McGinley selects sitters for their physique. “I’m interested in the body types I find in 1970s porn. There you see ordinary men and wholesome women who resemble the boy and girl next door.”6

As a counterpoint to the chiseled, beefy bodies of male models glistening with skin oil or the perfectly toned female figures seen in contemporary fashion and advertising, McGinley’s subjects are androgynous, with milky skin and sinewy bodies—not unlike McGinley himself. At roughly six feet tall, with a lanky frame, light brown hair, and ivory complexion, McGinley is sweetly handsome. In demeanor, he is genuine and earnest, seemingly without guile. It is easy to see why his friends are fiercely devoted to him. McGinley makes everyone he comes into contact with feel the warmth of his good will and the allure of his childlike curiosity. It is hard to believe that this one-time altar boy with impeccable manners would take a syrup used to induce vomiting (Ipecac) so that he could produce a series of photographs of himself puking, as he did in the late 1990s. But therein lies the contradiction that makes McGinley’s work from this period so compelling.

While these pictures depict badass behavior and high-risk taking, the photographs also reflect McGinley and company’s pure delight in seeing these marginal activities captured on film. The camera, in effect, is a catalyst and a trigger for action. McGinley’s subjects, most in their twenties, are willing collaborators. Drawn from skateboard, music, graffiti, and gay subcultures, they perform for the photographer and expose themselves with a frank self-awareness that is distinctly contemporary. While each new generation embraces sex, drugs, and rock and roll as though theirs is the first to discover the rush of rebellion, McGinley’s crowd indulges in this rite of passage with the full knowledge of how identity can be shaped on film.

This breaking down of boundaries between public and private spheres of activity, and the obsessive self-examination that characterizes McGinley’s early work, anticipate the era of YouTube, where video clips made without attention to craft by anonymous amateurs are posted for all to see.7 By the time the video-sharing website was formed in 2005, however, McGinley had already begun to move away from the kind of photography that dominates The Kids Are Alright, and he was seeking new challenges. McGinley says of this shift, “When I first started making photos, nothing was set up. I was like a fly on a wall. But then I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen any more.”8 His impatience prompted him to adopt a directorial practice that created opportunities for photographs, but still allowed for the element of chance. An image of a young redhead, for example, was staged in a downtown club that McGinley selected for the cosmic wallpaper and graffiti in the men’s bathroom. He brought in a small trampoline and a model named Lizzy, who disrobed and leaped on cue for the camera. The result is a freeze-frame composition that has the primitive energy of paintings by Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat.

McGinley further explored shooting on location in August 2003, when he was invited to bring some of his models to the Vermont residence of a friend and benefactor. The estate offered generous accommodations and ample grounds—all of which became locations for pictures. McGinley photographed his clan cavorting underwater in lakes and the indoor swimming pool, or rising and falling in daylight and at night from a trampoline positioned in an open field. Whereas his previous images depicted his friends in Manhattan engaged in reckless behavior, here the kids are displaced, out of their element. They respond to the camera with an animal energy that was released in part by McGinley’s prompting and in part by their being transported from New York’s steamy summer heat to an idyllic landscape in rural New England.

That summer McGinley developed several motifs that would inform his current work, from picturing figures in nature to orchestrating multiple models’ actions. When a long-time friend, cinema director Mike Mills, asked McGinley to shoot movie stills during the making of Mills’s feature film Thumbsucker(2005), the photographer gained added exposure to the possibilities of directing action in front of a camera. He also came to appreciate the discipline required to shoot a film, which involved working all day, every day, in many locations. In the summer of 2005, McGinley set out on the first of what would become annual three-month trips made across the U.S. with two vans, from eight to ten models, and several hundred rolls of film.

The itinerary of these journeys is determined by the type of landscape McGinley seeks, as well as where he can find friends along the way—White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, for example, or the southern California desert home of fellow photographer Jack Pierson. Once on site, McGinley’s cast of slim young men and silken-haired women strip down to socks and sneakers. When not hiking for hours to get to a remote mountain pool or crowding into a pine tree at night, McGinley’s band of merry nudists may be bungee jumping or leaping through fireworks with abandon, jubilation, and a hint of hysteria. In the evening, his models engage in recreation to pass the time. A game of truth or dare results in the black eyes seen in the next day’s photographs. Other tomfoolery includes drinking contests and walks in the dark led only by the flashes of McGinley’s cameras.

In their decorative and lyrical hedonism, these pictures call to mind the eighteenth-century French garden parties—les fêtes champêtres—in Rococo paintings by artists such as Jean Honoré Fragonard.9 Images of figures frolicking in nature can also be found in the work of nineteenth-century British photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and American artist Thomas Eakins, who depicted naked boys and men swimming or lounging waterside in imagery that appeals to the homoerotic imagination.10 More asexual are photographs made in the 1920s by German naturalists as part of the movement Frei Körper Kultur (Free Body Culture). Members of the movement celebrated their belief in the harmony of the human body with nature in pictures of naked men and women engaged in athletic activity outdoors.11 Similar images can be found today on websites geared towards contemporary naturalists. McGinley remarks, “I love, in particular, the photographs of nudists engaged in normal activities—cleaning the house, for example, or teaming up for a three-legged race at a colony picnic.”12

McGinley draws upon all of these sources for ideas. He also looks to National Geographic magazine (his first exposure to nudity as a boy), sports magazines, his collection of U.S. Camera Annual, and paintings by artists he admires, including Eric Fischl and Alice Neal. Before embarking on his summer road trips, he scans or downloads reproductions of interest and constructs makeshift books. He shows these staple-bound compilations of appropriated images—he calls them “inspiration books”—to his models before shooting sessions to prime the pump. He also plays music as he photographs to get them in the mood and give them license to experiment. Although some sessions are planned with storyboarding, his models’ spontaneity and McGinley’s reactions to the unexpected are critical to the success of these pictures. Consequently, the element of chance plays a significant role in the outcome, which affects how he works.

On a good day, McGinley photographs in three locations with up to thirty rolls each. This results in thousands of negatives made over the course of a summer, which he edits down in the fall to a few dozen images that will be enlarged. Because his shoots take place at all hours of the day and night under varying lighting conditions and involve several models in action, McGinley uses photographic film, not digital cameras. “Film allows me to respond to a situation instantly and record subtle nuances of light and atmosphere. I can also experiment with the film, which you can’t do with digital technology. Film also captures the way light falls on skin and gives a physical, tactile feeling to the picture. And it has that great color.”13 Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of this work is its expressionistic palette. Sometimes unlikely hues are achieved through double exposure, as when McGinley opens the back of the camera and exposes the film to different kinds of light, then reloads the film before setting out to work. He also shoots through water or smoke, which provides a veiled transparency that enhances the otherworldly quality of his pictures. This results in a sfumato effect, where smoky transitions between colors and tones soften the detail and create curious, mysterious perceptions of depth and volume.14

If nudity in the outdoors suggests primitive innocence, nakedness in underground caverns conjures a mortal’s fall from grace. McGinley’s recent seriesMoonmilk (2008-09) pictures chalk-white figures huddling in dank caves or hurling themselves from ledges dripping with stalactites. Unlike his idyllic scenes of pastoral beauty, a different, more ambiguous form of adventure (darker, more primordial sensibility) is at work here. Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) comes to mind, as does the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale, and visions of Hades in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Using strobes, colored gels, portable generators, and exposures lasting up to two or three minutes, this body of work is McGinley’s most physically and technologically challenging to date.

McGinley acquired many of the production and business skills needed to plan and orchestrate these ventures from his experience shooting for magazines, including photo essays on Olympic athletes and a portfolio of Oscar nominees for the New York Times Magazine, and a portrait session with Kate Moss for the magazine W.15 Far from being compartmentalized as “editorial” work, McGinley’s pictures for the printed page have long contributed to his evolution as an artist, and vice versa. Much like commercial images, his expedition photographs invite us to project our romantic allusions about youth, adventure, and the restorative properties of communing with nature. Unlike his early photographs, which solicit our prurient interests with their exposure of real-life risky behavior, his staged tableaux present a fantasy world animated by the photographer’s belief in the discovery and magic that come from making mischief.

In this regard, McGinley’s recent works occupy a metaphoric space somewhere between Virgil’s Arcadia and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the former, lowly shepherds sing about love and poetry in a mountain refuge in Greece. The pagan behavior of McGinley’s leaping satyrs and lilting nymphs evokes the blissful simplicity and harmony with nature that made Arcadia a source of inspiration and escapist musings among poets and artists for centuries. At the same time, the epic nature of McGinley’s endeavor—whether months on the road or hours underground—and the rough and tumble physicality of his recent works evoke Twain’s story about a young boy’s cathartic journey down the Mississippi River. We can envision McGinley as a modern day Huck whose irreverent, quasi-crude sensibility is coupled with innate goodness and a visceral desire to be free. But unlike Huck, for whom the pursuit of adventure is an end in itself, McGinley must capture the adventure on film. That’s the point. McGinley finds photographic reality more vivid and inviting than everyday experience. “My photographs are my fantasy life. They’re the life I wish I was living.”16