on Ryan McGinley

About two years back I wrote an essay on Ryan McGinley for school, and always wanted to post it somewhere. Here it is, condensed to the interesting bits. -RH

In Aaron Rose’s collection of small interviews Young, Sleek, and Full of Hell, based around his now-defunct Alleged Gallery, Ryan McGinley told of his young days discovering new inspirations. He came across a book of the renowned contemporary photographer Terry Richardson, infamous for shooting what to some critics was nothing more than brazen pornographic “filth”. It was the day before Halloween in 1998 that Ryan McGinley came by to see Mike Mills’ exhibition of Hair, Shoes, Love and Honesty, a 40-minute film capturing pedestrians’ answers to questions on the four topics in the title (for example, what they thought of their own and the shoes of others), whilst the viewer only sees a cropped view of the subjects’ chests. There was something special that he found in this gallery, it was that he could meet the artists and look up to them as people. In an interview with Believer Magazine, he talked about how this was different than his visits New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum or to the Whitney since “it’s as though it’s not real. Most of the artists are dead and [the art] is already a part of history.” McGinley said he thinks of the exhibition at Alleged Gallery frequently, as it inspires him. Upon leaving the space, he came across Terry Richardson’s first book, Hysteric Glamour. It had a big impact upon McGinley, and propelled his desire to shoot photography. …

McGinley is often accused of imitating Richardson, Clark, Goldin, [or other likewise contemporaries,] and he admits it’s an “easy thing to say.” A common photographic tendency they share is to be a “fly-on-a-wall”. In their photographs it  contextually is as if they were pulled out of the back pages of people’s unflattering photo albums. Additionally, like theirs, McGinley’s photography “pushes a lot of emotional buttons,” as said by Luc Santé. Yet, specifically in McGinley’s photos, Santé continues: “older viewers get that twinge of envy. The younger viewer gets that feeling that they’re not cool enough.” There is also the notion of colour that differs between them. Where Goldin and Richardson often use a harsh palette strengthened with a raw head-on flash, McGinley tends to use warm, natural colours and lighting. The cultures are similar, but as Dominic Molon noted, the photographs represent “a strange new sense of hippyesque communality utterly foreign to the depiction of young people on television and in other mass-media outlets.” The photographs are clearly a reflection of McGinley’s vision of his own elite broken-brow society.

Born on the 17th of October 1977 in Ramsey, New York, Ryan McGinley grew up with “hard-core Roman Catholic” parents and as the youngest of six children. He traveled weekly to Manhattan on his own, and against his mother’s will, to skateboard with his friends. He loved the hardcore punk rock scene, and to show his adoration, made ‘zines’ with his friends, self-published books working as collections of photographs, art, doodles, and writings, which were then passed amongst each other. Having been brought up with so many older brothers and sisters, who were essentially much older than him meant he was, in a way, “raised by wolves.” Jailed three times, he was young and reckless. Once, in the spirit of being homosexual, got a homemade tattoo on the inner side of his lower lip with the word ‘penis’, “so that I’d always have a penis inside my mouth.” Well, perhaps he is still reckless. He got that tattoo in 2006.

One aspect of his lifestyle which he states still impacts his photography now is when, as he grew up filming skating, became more interested in the in-between moments of the his friends’ lifestyles and other shenanigans. Skateboarding is what exposed McGinley to the vagrants of society, businessmen, artists and the drag queens Nan Goldin loved so amorously. Then, if he could, he would visit Alleged gallery at Ludlow Street to see the people, the artists that inspired him. And unlike larger museums, the artists featured were often present and willing to meet viewers, and he too could interact with them, adding a whole level of intimacy between their art and him. It seems many of these artists he met, with McGinley included, have a background in skateboarding, whether it was themselves or their friends. It is possible that skateboarding led them to art, or art leading them to skateboarding. Either way, the connection is an interesting one. McGinley once stated, “Skateboarding is a lot like photography because skateboarding is about making something out of nothing.” There is much truth to this statement. Unlike many other forms of art, where most get a general idea of a final product and build upon their canvas, sculpture, or script, much of photography revolves around capturing spontaneous moments. Even though this separates photography from other forms of art, it is something that makes it an art of its own. The following photograph is one of these spontaneous moments. It is not necessarily a Cartier-Bresson type of  “decisive moment”, but it is a moment in its own right, for in McGinley’s lifestyle, these moments are a dime a dozen.

In 2000, the same year he graduated with a BFA in graphic design from Parsons, having taken a course in bookbinding, McGinley created a sixty-page book of the photos he had taken that year. This book, together with a makeshift exhibition under the same name at an empty space in SoHo, called The Kids Are Alright, launched McGinley into notoriety. These early McGinley photos were fly-on-the-wall images of him and his friends that stood as the first wave of his photographic social commentary. It is this series of photos from random occurrences in McGinley’s life, from riding on the back of a friend’s bike to his close friend Dash spraying graffiti, that graced the walls of the Whitney in McGinley’s first solo show there in 2003. At the age of 24, McGinley was the youngest photographer ever to have such an opportunity. But the fame is deserved; his magnificent growing collection of photography is indeed a vérité celebration of people’s skewed morals.

… Around the time that he was studying at Parsons, he was staying on Bleecker Street, where his apartment “was like a flophouse.  There was lots of people coming and going, hanging out late, staying over… So I started making documentary photographs of what was going on.” This is very visible even now in his photography, even though his roommates and friends have now been replaced by carefully selected models in I Know Where The Summer Goes, a growing work in which he travels across America with a small group of people, photographing them in whatever situations they get, and almost always in the nude. McGinley once explained that his subjects are young, lackadaisical, “androgynous” shaggy haired boys and girls-next-door because of his family situation. Being the youngest of 8 children in the household, he was practically raised by his brothers and sisters, who were actually all much older than him (his nearest older brother is 11 years his senior). His mother once stated that his subjects often looked like his brothers and sisters, especially around the time McGinley was born. These “wolves” that so amorously raised him must have had an enormous impact upon him, as his photographs are a celebration of these people.

I Know Where The Summer Goes represents McGinley’s view of the fugitive, the fleeting, and the ephemeral. He travels with 10 different young men and women each summer and a few close friends, acting as assistants, through the far and beyonds of America. On these trips, he often wears his motto on a shirt: “Don’t talk to me unless you’re naked.” Needless to say, it’s obvious that this entourage shoot in the nude. That is to say, Ryan McGinley can often be found nude on the scene as well, even though he is never in his own photographs. For McGinley, everyone has to be in on the act. The moments can’t be faked, as if it was just happening, and he was a fly-on-the-wall, his much loved approach found in his earlier photos of his friends doing drugs and having sex in The Kids are Alright.

There is a lot that can be concluded from McGinley’s vibrant use of colours. In an earlier project, Irregular Regulars, he first exposed all his negatives to different colours before exposing the roll again to the actual subjects, the euphoric crowds at Morrissey concerts. The colours are more often than not bright and warm, much unlike his contemporaries. Coupled with these hospitable tones, McGinley tends to use “nondescript backdrops,” giving the illusion of timelessness. Sometimes the locations are in open, otherworldly places, or sometimes this effect is created through smoke machines. They don’t seem to have been taken in any specific place, or familiar occasion. Some even feel that they could have been taken in the sixties or the seventies. Neither is there a place or time, in many of his photos, as the figures can be sometimes be seen floating, and even more often without a shadow, unlike Richardson. This allows the “viewers to come to their own conclusion… To finish the narrative themselves.”

These colours McGinley uses are not only surreal, they are euphoric. Take the example above in which we see a crowd in a fog of warmth reach out towards Morrissey, in this case, the cold. The focal point is the faces. With their eyes closed, they are in ecstasy. In an otherworldly state, shrouded by this white and golden heat, they swoon into a hypnotic state shared by the viewer, and this is echoed in many of his photos.

Ryan McGinley conveys bliss through his photographs. … He is parading his lifestyle and friends to all who want to see and telling them about his beautiful, less-than-innocent times, he is showing off them off. At the same time, they invite the viewer into his world, where not one is left out of the endless delight, a world everyone wants to be a part of. In all of McGinley’s photographs, there is malleability between true and false in this world where right is wrong, and wrong is beautiful.

The photographs I choose and group together aren’t really reality—it’s not real life. Someone once said to me that it’s always warm in Ryan McGinley photographs. You never feel cold. You always feel like you are in the sun. And I love that.” -Ryan McGinley

(note- if I had written it now, it would have been written differently. but I’d still like to hear your opinions!)

Post by Romke Hoogwaerts

4 thoughts on “on Ryan McGinley”

  1. Fantastic read. I’ve been annotating some of his photos tonight as homework and this has given me a completely different approach and angle to take them from. Thank you!

  2. Such a wonderful essay. I even showed it to my mother! I might post it on my blogspot, though, I will credit, of course.

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