'New York Was Melting In Front Of Me'
Looking back on what is a relatively short career, photographer Ryan McGinley sees his life as that of a survivor. Perhaps this is not the Ryan that the world sees through his celebrated photographs, a testament to all things innocent and adventurous.
Yet Ryan’s photographic trajectory emerged from a post-9/11 world, fueled by the anxiety and unpredictability that was so palpable in his hometown of New York. He set out to document the youth of this new America. In his personal life, his close circle of friends in the art world suffered innumerable tragedies, to which Ryan lost not only friends but tragically his brother to AIDS. As McGinley says, he needs the hope now so synonymous with his imagery. His work, an evolving dreamworld primarily dealing with the magic of freedom and sexuality reached a zenith point when in 2014 GQ called him the most important photographer in America. But McGinley isn’t preoccupied with hype, it’s about narrating a journey with the community he builds around him.
"Taking photos is like medicine for me."
I first came across your work around 2009 when I saw your project Moonmilk. I loved this idea of joy and unadulterated elation that I saw in your work, celebrating innocence rather than the loss of it. Would you agree with that as a depiction of your images?
I wouldn’t say I disagree with it but for me, my work is about adventure. I like to explore things so I think the by-product of that is these moments of authentic joy and elation, all these beautiful emotions coming out of it. I’m just there to witness and capture these moments, and I think that’s part of the artistry.
I’ve always been really big on community because I grew up in a family of 10, so a lot of brothers and sisters. It’s about finding like-minded people who are willing to go on these long journeys and are interested in the same things as me, willing to go the extra mile to make a great photograph – like the cave project. You have to make sacrifices and understand we are doing something important. With the caves, we were underground for almost 2 years, between 5-10 hours a day in complete darkness doing these set ups.
Purple Beacon, 2012
You emerged as a real name around the time of 9/11 but I think you can see a a real sense of hope in your work. Would you agree with that?
I think hope is spirituality and taking photos is like medicine for me, so that’s my spirituality and my church. I am happiest in life when I have a camera in my hands and somebody is in front of my lens moving and dancing. I think it’s reciprocal with the person who is modelling for me, so all of that energy comes out in the image.
Relating it to world events, I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy from an early age in life – one of my closest brothers died from AIDS so that was very difficult to go through. Shortly after that 9/11 happened and New York was Melting in front of me.
Were you in New York at the time?
Oh yeah, I have photos of it all. One of my most well-known images is Sam at Ground Zero, this guy riding a bike with his t-shirt wrapped around his face. It has this very yellow, sulphuric look and if you look closely the street is just covered in dust.
After 9/11 happened we went down there to see if we could help out and I took tons of photos, but that was the image that really stuck.Slowly after that, I started to lose a lot of friends to drug overdoses and suicide, so I need a lot of hope.
East Village Sunrise, 1999
Susannah (Swamp Sticks), 2013
I read a really crushing and honest interview you did with Mike Mills, and it was the first time I learned about the amount of tragedy that you have experienced. It was interesting because your work seems so positive to me. Is it a response to the tragedy?
I think that’s where the hope comes in. My work is a direct response to some of the experiences that I have had in life and are still happening. Art is therapy, you know? It keeps me sane and makes me happy. I wouldn’t say that I’m out to do something ‘hopeful’, but I think that the outcome is just emotional.
You are obviously incredibly well known now. Do you ever have a chance to go out and shoot in the streets like you used to without being bothered anymore?
I guess I get stopped in the street a lot in New York, but only in an artist way, not like a celebrity TMZ way. I live downtown and I’ve lived in the same area below 14th Street for the last 20 years, and that’s pretty much where the artist community is, so there are a lot of artists that will stop me and compliment my work, or share an experience about their own work.
It’s cool though, I’m open to it because it’s important to connect with somebody, and I always get something out of it as well.
"My work is a direct response to some of the experiences that I have had in life."
The first exhibition you did at Team Gallery, 5000 people showed up. There was this insane hype around you at that time, as Dan Colen phrased it, ‘McGinley dust’. How do you look back on that moment in your career?
I don’t get caught up in it so much. That opening night you are talking about, I didn’t expect that many people to show up or that we would have to shut down the street. So when that happened it was really exciting to think that my audience had grown. But the day after that we were back on the tour bus just shooting on the road.
I try not to be nostalgic, I’m always about looking forward. The way that I work is like if you are watching a horse race, and they all have blinders on so that they can’t see what’s going on to the left or right of them and only focus on what’s in front of them. That’s how I’ve always worked, keeping a direct line and not looking back or around me, keeping that momentum and creativity flowing.
But there must be some part of you that thinks, “Ok, I’ve made it”. Or do you not think like that?
Oh, I don’t think you can think like that. I think it’s a very dangerous way to be because that’s when people get complacent and when the work suffers. So it’s really important to be aware of that and to make sure that you’re not in that place.
Do you ever feel like at times throughout your career you have been overexposed?
No, I don’t think so. As long as the work keeps evolving it’s important to keep putting it out into the world and keep the conversation going organically. That’s my approach to art too; it’s planned out but it has a sense of contingency to it, so we kind of plan for everything to go wrong as well. We can have an idea but all the best stuff happens spontaneously so you have to plan the whole scope of it, but for that unexpected authenticity there is an artistry to creating a universe to make that happen.
You said once that you are ‘fascinated by falling’. What did you mean by that?
The idea of falling just comes from the idea of being completely free, even just with your body and really letting go, seeing how the body moves through the air. I’ve always been fascinated by that. The best part of photography is just capturing these moments that are perfectly pristine, frozen details and you can somehow capture that feeling. It’s amazing to be able to do that, and to bring all those things into my work from before I was a photographer.
“The idea of falling just comes from the idea of being completely free.”
I feel like you are the type of photographer that is happy to let the viewer make their own understanding of your images, similar to Gregory Crewdson, who we recently featured. You’ve talked a lot about how you didn’t really know what you were doing when you started photographing, that it just happened organically. Do you think it’s important to experiment with a medium rather than being too cerebral about it?
Well, that worked for me but there are lots of photographers that are very conceptual who I love, starting with Gregory Crewdson who you just mentioned. I love him, he has taught a class at Yale for many years and they have been asking me for a while to come and speak to his class. All the kids up there are very conceptual and I think the reason that Gregory brings me up is that I’m not a conceptual photographer; I’m very in the moment and a process artist. There are other conceptual photographers who I think are cool but it’s just not me and it’s not how my journey has been.
I remember being at school and once I decided that I really was into photography and started going into the dark room, I realised that a lot of photographers get caught up in the technique. Especially today, so many people come up to me asking what camera I use, stuff like that. I’m not a technical photographer, I always put it on automatic and it doesn’t matter what camera I use because to me that isn’t what makes a picture great.
It’s about the vision and seeing that somebody is trying to create a world. I think getting caught up in the technical aspect slows people down in terms of growth within their creativity.
What’s the strongest response you have seen to your work?
I like when I go into my exhibitions and people will come up with their own stories about the photographs and say to me like, “You know that photograph where there is the car accident and the person running from the burning car…” and I have no clue what they are talking about, I’ve never photographed a car accident but that’s the way they have interpreted one of my photos. That’s beautiful that somebody will think that and I can lead them up to this place and then their imagination takes over.
Do you have someone in your life right now or is that too personal?
Oh yeah, who I’m dating? He’s all over my Instagram if you look at it. Marc’s amazing, he’s a baroque musician playing an instrument called a viola da gamba, which translates as the cello of the leg in Italian. I’m actually publishing my first book of iPhone photos of him with Luis Venegas who does this series of books called EY! where one photographer will photograph one subject, so Bruce Weber and Steven Klein have done one. Luis called me and said he really wanted me to do it and I explained to him that the person I photograph most is my boyfriend and I only use my iPhone camera to put it all on Instagram, stuff like screenshots from Facetime.
"I think getting caught up in the technical aspect slows people down in terms of growth within their creativity."
On his own photographic process
In more recent years you have done a lot of work in fashion, and there seems like there is no one you haven’t photographed or shot a campaign for. What do you think your younger self in the 1990s would have thought about you work being so widely disseminated in culture now?
People like Mike Mills, who we were talking about earlier, and Spike Jonze were really the diagram for me of the way that artists could work; starting out shooting commercials and music videos, then doing gallery shows and films. Those were my heroes when I was younger so if you were to ask me when I first started taking photos in 1998 what I wanted to be I would have said I wanted to be like them.
My take on work is that I just love having different experiences. That’s the fruit of life and that’s why being a photographer is amazing because you can work within all of these worlds. One day I could be photographing Brad Pitt and then the next day I’ll be on a road trip across America with 15 nude models, then I’ll be back in the studio and after that, I could be directing a music video.
That’s the way that I try to live my life and it’s really fun. I create these things and then they go out into popular culture. I get to meet a lot of my heroes, all these musicians and actors, all because of this little box I hold in my hand, and that’s the key that gets me through the door.
What did you make of the heat surrounding the GQ shoot you did with Brad Pitt recently?
Honestly, I don’t read the press so I wouldn’t know. But we had a great time. Brad and I really connected and he was already a fan of my work, which was great to know from the get go.
I wanted to talk with you about your exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver at the moment. It seems like a very cathartic exhibition. You said that there was a lot of stuff that you were scared to put out there because you were going through a tough time when you took those photos. Now that you have come full circle, have you found peace with that?
I think there was enough time that had gone by. The curator of the museum really wanted to feature my early work but I had to really think about that because I didn’t know if I wanted to go back into that body of work yet.I started to go through my old archive and look at all the polaroids, and I just felt like in the last 15 to 20 years a lot has happened. A lot of my friends who I started out with have become very successful artists in their own right, a lot of people have unfortunately passed away from overdoses or suicide, and my career has evolved enough since that time to be able to go back and dig into that work for a show. Going through it all was a very cathartic experience and I feel like it made me realise how the ground zero of a lot of the stuff I do today was all there in the early work. I guess it showed me how lucky I am to be alive, because back then there was so much chaos going on in my life with my brother dying and going out partying every night.
Out of my core crew of friends from back then I’m kind of like a statistic because so many died, so it felt like a real honour to go back through that work and really celebrate people from the artistic community in downtown New York at that time that I took polaroids of when they were just forming their artistic vision. I found different pictures that are more meaningful to me now than they were even then, and I came back to them with a more sophisticated eye on photography.
It’s particularly good to celebrate my friend Dash who passed away and talk about him with our other friends in the book like Dan Colen. It’s my responsibility and our other friends’ responsibility to keep his name and legacy alive, making sure a new generation of people are aware of him and I felt like I was doing my job by publishing that book and opening the show because I was letting people know that he was an amazing artist and photographer.