In 2000, New Jersey-born photographer Ryan McGinley was the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum. Now, he’s 33, award-winning, ground-breaking and the most sought-after artist of our generation.
On a hot day in early June, a handsome assistant greets me at the door and leads me to a large, bright room. It’s photographer Ryan McGinley’s Chinatown studio and the setting of his latest show – Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, a series of black and white portraits – which has just finished its run at his New York gallery. A few minutes later, McGinley enters – dressed casually in a battered black hoodie (frayed at the sleeves), black jeans and faded All Stars – his laid-back style only adding to his boyish good looks.
“This is Dan’s old painting studio,” says McGinley referring to artist Dan Colen. “It’s got good vibes.” He’s pointing to a window, I see the words ‘Dash Blow’ and ‘Dash + Dan’ etched into a painted over window. “See, there are Dash’s writings.” He’s talking of his dear friend and enfant terrible of the art world, the late Dash Snow.
Ryan McGinley and I first met in downtown Manhattan in the early noughties. He shared a flat with Donald, the lead singer of The Virgins and my boyfriend at the time. I remember waking up each morning (often hung-over) to the clicking of a camera’s shutter – “Oh there’s Ryan again … taking pictures” – before falling back to sleep. In those days, I never saw him without his camera; he seemed to be everywhere.
In the beginning, McGinley was renowned for his candid shots of downtown friends and lovers in states of exhilaration (and intoxication). He documented their carefree – if sometimes reckless – lifestyle against the backdrop of Manhattan. “When I started out, it was just me and a person, which was great. It was all shot in New York, and it was just life unfolding and documentary. That was really great because everything was so new and all my experiences were exciting … I really wanted to shoot that.”
In 2003, aged 24, he became the youngest artist to have a solo debut at the illustrious Whitney Museum of American Art; the next year, P.S.1/MoMA exhibited his new work. Both shows opened to exceptional reviews. In 2007, the International Center of Photography named McGinley – not yet 30 – Young Photographer of the Year. “I didn’t have a normal art career – it was just like ‘Boom! Here you go!’ My first show in New York was at the Whitney so it was totally crazy! I feel really lucky but it was also very shocking. At a certain point, I felt I didn’t want to do that anymore. I had been to every rooftop, every bathroom with every person; to every bedroom and stayed up late ‘til the next morning. There was so many nights like that – I felt like it was time for me to take the next step forward and start planning shoots and directing people.”
After his Whitney show, the artist took his first of what would be many departures, organising group trips to the countryside with a rotating cast of friends. He photographed his guests at play – naked and laughing – in a variety of surprising situations: hanging out in the trees of a Vermont forest; jumping, swimming and always moving. “It’s because I was a skater. It’s all about movement. Just finding that really graceful moment you find in skating.” Instead of waiting for the photograph to happen, he began loosely directing the activities. “It’s like a happening – you just let a bunch of people be nude together. I direct them and tell them what to do, but really letting them do what they’re going to do. I feel like I make my best photos when something totally spontaneous happens.”
McGinley spent the next three years travelling cross-country with a cast of models. Shaping the itinerary to encounter a range of iconic American landscapes, he created situations in which the models could interact with the striking landscapes: two nudes roll about in desert sand; a model sprints away from the camera through a field of golden wheat; four androgynous figures race each other across a deserted highway. The outstanding reviews and accolades poured in, and McGinley admits he deliberated over which gallery would best represent him. He finally settled with Team Gallery in 2006. “It took me a really long time to find a gallery because I guess I was thrown into it. Having a gallery is really good; it’s like having a family.” Team Gallery director Miriam Katzeff says McGinley’s influence on the contemporary art world is clear. “You can see many younger photographers try to emulate a lot of Ryan’s earlier work, the work really spawned a lot of younger imitators. He’s always pushing himself to do different things like Moonmilk and the black-and-white series. Ryan is really quite tireless; he’s always working on many projects. He’ll always surprise you with something new that he’s doing.”
McGinley continues to explore new frontiers in his work. His recent projects are diverse: take Moonmilk – a multi-hued series, shot in underground caves using long-exposures – McGinley describes as “the most intense project” he has ever done, and the black-and-white in-studio portraits for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. “I really felt this sense of impending doom being underground and in these really extreme circumstances – stuck in tubes that enclosed your entire body and having to go through them to get through to these beautiful rooms. Moving from those extreme circumstances to the comfort of the studio – it was very interesting.”
What would a classical McGinley black-and-white portrait look like? This was the question McGinley set out to answer with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. In the photos, the appearances of his subjects are comparable to earlier work: young, lithe, androgynous, always a little bit punk, but this time against a featureless background. “You are removing everything; you are removing the color, the landscape and it’s really just you and the person,” McGinley says of the process.
“Black-and-whites REALLY are about the person. It’s really about looking into someone’s soul and trying to get something out of them, to get, like, a true emotion – everything is taking place in their face and the gesture of their body. “So many photographers that I admire have shot black-and-white studio portraits – Peter Hujar, Helmet Newton, Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe. For me, it was about contributing to the history of people who have done that.” When I ask which artists’ work he admires, he describes the art that hangs on his living room wall: “I trade with my friends, that’s how I get my art collection. I have a pretty good collection – Dan Colen, Nate Lowman, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Jack Pierson, David Armstrong, Rita Ackermann, Dash Snow, Robert Mapplethorpe and Spike Jonze.”
You can see McGinley’s unperturbed and carefree spirit spill onto his commercial film work for timeless brands like Levi’s and Pringle of Scotland, and it’s a medium he’s keen to explore. “I’m not really sure where I’m going with it but I’m experimenting with it a lot.”
He reveals a desire to use animals in upcoming studio projects: “I’m going to be shooting these studio portraits with animals, because – you know – it’s just the way that people react to animals is really nice. It makes a good day. It makes me happy because I get to hold them and touch them. Everyone likes animal photos! It’s like Hallmark or something; it’s just like love all around.”
McGinley’s work will appear in a group show with the art of Harmony Korine and the late Dash Snow opening September 2010 at Agnes B. Gallery in Paris.
“Since Dash passed, I really wanted to do something with him. Harmony has been a good friend for a really long time and Agnes has been kind of like a patron to all of us.”
Of his current role models, McGinley says, “It’s somebody who has a very specific vision and continues with it for a really long time”. He mentions an unlikely cast of characters including friend Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Joan Rivers. “She’s really pushed the envelope with comedy for so long,” says McGinley of Rivers. “She’s SO dirty and just amazing. There’s something that’s really honorable and also inspirational – a level of dedication to whatever art form that you’re in.”
Once in doubt of his standing in the modern art world, McGinley has since settled into his career. “I feel more stable now. There was always a point when I was younger where I was like, is this really going to work out for me? Or is this like just some thing that’s just like happening now?”
A vision that comforts this ever-shooting star? “Now, I can see a path for my life in someway, which feels pretty good.”