One of the most celebrated photographers of the last decade, Ryan McGinley exposes the inspiration behind the lens for his latest exhibition.
There is one very unfashionable word to sum up the very stylish work of Ryan McGinley: Beauty. His work is pulsatingly filled with unadulterated beauty. He takes honest, hazy, dreamlike images that seem to constantly exist in what cinematographers call the magic hour. “Beauty is a big part of my work. Beauty in locations, beauty in composition, beauty in colors, beauty in light, beauty in a person, beauty in spirit, and beauty in the unknown,” the artist enthuses.
McGinley always wanted to be an artist and live in NYC. He’s achieved both. His work grew out of the skateboard scene – originally making videos with friends as a teenager, editing them with two VCR machines. “Skating is a lot about watching as is photography. You get a sense of people and how they operate. You get to be outside all day and observe light and the way it reflects on people, buildings, street corners.” he recalls. “I realized I was more interested in the in-between moments and in people’s personalities than in filming the tricks.” He would photograph his friends, fellow artists, people he met in bars and eventually some he cast at their most wild, optimistic and free. Like Larry Clark in his Tulsa days, McGinley and his camera became synonymous. McGinley’s subjects include his friends, people found at downtown bars, castings. Here the process of taking a photograph becomes invisible. Yet rather than the confessional photography of Larry Clark or Nan Goldin McGinley namechecks the photojournalistic approach of Will McBride as an influence.
For the past five years McGinley has gone on road trips across America, acting as a director to the changing crop of edgy naked youths going wild in nature. “My photographs have always been about adventures. When I started to develop as an artist I would make little books of inspirational images. A lot of the images I liked the most were from children’s books. I spent many days sitting on the floor of the NY Public Library Children’s section taking photos of the illustrations in the books.” He originally studied graphic design, and that sense of shape and composition still informs his work. As he puts it, “you have to make it all work inside of that small rectangle.”
His debut solo show in London this September at Alison Jacques is entitled Moonmilk. It is a departure from the lively work that he has become so well known for. The moody, atmospheric series has all been shot in caves. “After my 2007 trip I wanted to do something completely different, to abandon the sun and the spontaneous moment. The cave photographs are just that. They are very theatrical. The first step is to find an interesting location in an awe-inspiring and dangerous place. I then carefully choose the color palate that we are going to bring out with spotlights, and then I start working with the models to find a pose. Each exposure takes 2 to 3 minutes so they have to hold completely still. It’s a very, very slow process.”
It must seem exceptionally slow to McGinley in particular, who admits excessive energy. “I can’t stay still. I’m one of those people whose leg shakes constantly when I’m sitting down. I always have to be doing something. If I’m not making photos, I’m editing them. If I’m not editing them, I’m researching inspiration. Whenever I’m out I’m looking to meet new models. My eyes are always peeled. I have 10 to-do lists going at any given time. I even take notepads to the movies with me so I can remember what inspired me! My friends make fun of me. It’s a sickness, but a good one. It all revolves around art and it’s process. If I couldn’t do that I think I’d be in the loony bin.”
McGinley has become one of the most successful artists to have emerged from the Lower East Side in the past decade, living on Canal Street in Chinatown with fellow in demand artist Dan Colen. He was originally attracted to the city because his brother Michael and his boyfriend – both drag queens – lived there. “I used to go and stay with them as a young boy and they would do performances for me and take me on day trips down to the Village. In my hometown in New Jersey there is a high point from where you can see the skyline of the city. Driving over that hill I would always dream of moving there. We took a lot of school trips to MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Met, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s nice to have work in most of those museums’ permanent collections now.” The young outsider has now become the darling of the establishment. McGinley was the youngest person to ever have a solo show in the Whitney in New York aged only 24. A year later he had a solo show at PS1. Awards and accolades have followed.
At first there was a live fast, die young vibe behind his work but it’s something that seems to have changed. Surrounding himself with people who live on the edge is part of what makes his work so bittersweet. “My brother’s death made me realize that you have to live every day to it’s fullest. You never know what’s going to happen. Just the other day one of my closest friends, Dash Snow, died of a heroin overdose. My work is about celebrating life,” he explains. “I want to have adventure after adventure and photograph each one of them every step of the way. When I turned 30 everything changed for me. I feel like I’m going to still be working when I’m 90 years old. I’m so excited about that.”
Words: Francesca Gavin
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #19, Sep/Oct 2009