In 1999, Ryan McGinley, then a graphic design major at Parsons School of Visual Arts in New York, sent his 50-page home-cooked book of urban idyllic photographs The Kids Are Alright, which he had produced on his desktop computer, to 100 magazine editors and artists he admired. At the time, fashion photography was ending its infatuation with gritty photography. Decaying beauty, as found in moody images of slouchy, stoned, skinny girls by artists such as David Sims, Glen Luchford, Mario Sorrenti and Corinne Day, were being wiped off magazine pages in favor of buoyant stylized shots of pretty Brazilian girls with party-ready bodies and supernaturally white teeth.
Ryan McGinleys photographs of his friends exuberantly indulging in irreverent behavior are neither sullen nor saccharine. His early photographs of kids messing around, stealing stuff and getting trashed, were influenced by graffiti, queer culture, skateboarding and sloppy parties without the hard drugs, impending tragedy and romanticized madness of his predecessors generation of self-defining photography. McGinley, who was born in New Jersey in 1977, is never a tourist. He really is an extremely talented photographer with good-looking friends who look like theyd be really funny and smart. They do look alright.
And McGinley is better than alright himself. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including being the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in 2002 and his Magazine credits include Vice, Dazed and Confused, Index, V, The Fader, I-D, Dutch, Butt and The New York Times Magazine.
On June 27, 2004 McGinley will open a show of all-new color photographs taken outdoors and underwater at PS.1 Contemporary Art Center. Radiant and innocent, this new body of work proves that McGinley hasnt mistaken being precocious for becoming mature.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do you think it is a fair assessment to consider your photography as retaliation against prim and glossy fashion imagery?
Ryan McGinley: Well, when taking a picture, it is less about me knowing what kind of picture I want, than it is about me knowing what I want to happen. I definitely notice the influence of my graphic design training in my attention to composition when I edit my images for exhibition or print but I prefer to think of my photographs as action-oriented, not staged or overly structured. I like to document improvisation. My attention is on the moment - something happened, like in a Happening, and I just documented it.
AFH: But as in a Happening the action is never entirely random or casual, right?
RM: Ill usually start with a rough idea, like how pretty it would be to have a whole tangle of naked people really high up in a tree. Then Ill find a location, get everyone together and tell the general plan but let everyone be spontaneous, within that controlled environment. Because I photograph people with strong personalities, I know something interesting will occur.
AFH: You frequently photographed the IRAK graffiti crew. Are you interested in graffiti as an action or as an art form?
RM: I love the idea of graffiti but I am not really excited by its esthetics. Individual pieces and tags rarely interest me. What I love is the insanity of it as an action. I wouldnt want to photograph a piece alone, but I love taking pictures of kids doing it. I have one image called Dash Bombing that is just a picture of this kid I know spraying graffiti on the side of a wall. I think it is a beautiful image. And, I love the idea of a kid writing his name hundreds of thousands of times, over and over and over because he feels he needs to.
AFH: Saying it like that makes it sound less rebellious than Obsessive Compulsive.
RM: Well, it is addictive to some. I am attracted to the mania of someone who goes to such extreme lengths to do their art. I love the illegality. It is really appealing to me that some kid will stand 40-stories up on a ledge or duck into a rat-packed tunnel alone at night just to produce his art. The only thing about it that doesnt interest me is the final product. I have a few friends who are graffiti writers, including the IRAK crew, and I like that they are as obsessed with something as I am with taking pictures. I eat, sleep, move and breathe photography 24-7.
AFH: Graffiti and editoral photography are two genres often perceived as transitioning badly into galleries and museums. Do you agree that editoral photography and graffiti inherently loose something when taken indoors?
RM: No, strong art should be able to function anywhere. The art world is such a small, esoteric community, that it doesnt appeal to me to only exhibit my stuff in galleries. I like having my work is books and magazines where I can reach the widest possible audience. I dont discriminate between highbrow and lowbrow. Vice magazine reaches more kids than any gallery exhibition would give me access to. Any random person can pick up their free issue of Vice but an art magazine only appeals to a few.
AFH: Do you have an ideal audience in mind?
RM: Not entirely but I do want kids in high school to see my photographs and get inspired.
AFH: Why do you think your DIY book The Kids Are Alright garnered such an immediate response?
RM: Youth appeals to everybody. I wanted a book but no one knew who I was, so I just made my own book on my computer and sent it to people I knew and magazines I liked. For example, I knew Larry Clark from skateboarding in the city and I sent him a copy of my book. And I got a response. Index took me on right away. I was still in college and they called me after getting my book in the mail and asked to fly me to Berlin the next day. It took off from there.
AFH: Your early work often resembles Larry Clarks photography but the mood is entirely different. There is nothing bitter to your pictures.
RM: I want my images to be fun. I am absolutely not interested in making depressing images. A lot of people look at my work and assume it is all just an autobiography and that my life is as wild and fun as the images I take. I like that assumption but its not true. My photographs are really closer to a documentation of my fantasy life. People still take photographs as truth. They look at them and think what they see really happened and while it did really happen, it didnt really happen like that. It is more like pseudo-fiction because it did happen but it might not have happened if it werent going to become a photograph.
AFH: And a photograph is so intriguing because the context always remains slightly ambiguous.
RM: That is the beauty of photography. Once youve taken the photograph and disseminated it, anyone can pick it up and imagine whatever narrative they want. And my new work is even more ambiguous than it had been in the past. It is more about the image than the scene. My earlier work was somewhat specific to time and place. I left often left in references to where the image was taken and when but in my new series I purposely leave everything open.
AFH: Do you feel like the fantasy life you document has changed radically?
RM: Well as an artist, I am starting to really understand what I want to do and how to take the photographs so my ideas are becoming tighter. Originally, my work was really free and loose but now it is becoming more and more refined. It is not a bad thing that my ideas are clearer but I started out making documentary images and then I progressed to making images that seemed to be documenting something candid but were set-up and organized. It is a natural evolution. I started making work in New York City and now I am photographing people in the woods, in nature.
AFH: It is nice to think that growing up could be like a return to prelapsarian bliss.
RM: It is really liberating.
AFH: Why did you start photographing Olympic swimmers?
RM: The Olympic swimmer project for the NYTimes Magazine and came out of some underwater work I did last summer working on my nature project. I was photographing in lakes and quarries and swimming pools groups of people nude. Some of those images will be in the PS1 show. Originally the NYTimes wanted to run a portfolio of the work that was going to appear at PS1 but they had never run nudity in the magazine. I like to photograph people being active in water. From there, it make sense to start photographing people underwater because I was breaking so many cameras doing what I was doing. Then someone suggested I get an underwater camera and they were right. I always wanted to be a sports photographer, so it worked out well.
AFH: Is it odd to go from photographing people getting fucked up and performing spontaneous actions to photographing such disciplined, rigorous subjects?
RM: Most of the Olympic athletes had no idea about my work or the whole photographic process but they were in to it because I was asking them to do weird things and it was all fresh for everyone. There is something really beautiful and peaceful about taking photographs underwater. There is no sound. It is just you and the person. It is almost like ballet. There is always a nice, free, atmospheric quality to the images but the experience is something like drugs. It just feels very free.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.