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LIKE A PRAYER
by Ana Finel Honigman
 
Ryan McGinley, "Irregular Regulars," Jan. 4-Feb. 10, 2007, at Team, 83 Grand Street, New York, N.Y. 10013. 

Over a decade ago, a social scientist named John Frow published an essay entitled, "Is Elvis God?" He examined several faiths, compared their religious practices to the Elvis cult and answered his own question with a "yes." Judging from Ryan McGinley’s new photographs at Team gallery in SoHo, one might come to the same conclusion about Morrissey, the popular British singer-songwriter. As in traditional religious art, McGinley’s beautiful photographs convey to the faithful and uninitiated alike the passion, comfort and sense of significance that Morrissey evokes in his followers.

For the past two years, the New York-based McGinley traveled throughout the U.S., the U.K., France and Mexico attending Morrissey concerts and photographing every conceivable aspect and angle of his performances. Among the 20 images on view at Team are classic concert shots showing the charismatic singer on stage as well as photographs taken of the enraptured audience, both individually and as a crowd. Done in editions of three, the photos are typically priced between $2,500 and $8,000.

McGinley’s images are genuinely gorgeous, and often saturated with an aura of reverence and emotion. He often achieves his extraordinary colors by first exposing his film to daylight, television rays or sunsets and then shooting with only the rich stage lights of the concerts themselves.

What’s more, McGinley is plainly united with his subjects in their awestruck admiration for Morrissey. McGinley photographs portly middle-aged groupies, teenage girls who look as though they belong in a Godard film, husky hooligans and a father from Essex who tours the shows with his teenage daughter, all of them with evident affection and affinity.

One shot of Scottish fans pressing against the stage barricades is a perfect rainbow of soft color, an ethereal contrast to the kids’ tactile aggressiveness. A tight close-up of a boy’s exhilarated face as he tries to wrench a piece of Morrissey’s shirt from another fan’s hands recalls iconic images of hysterical Beatles fans overwhelmed with emotion, but in McGinley’s photograph, a golden hue also evokes Christian religious iconography of ecstatic or suffering saints.

In another work, a boy’s beautiful face basked in crisp yellow light hovers over a crowd of barely discernable grainy green bodies. It’s the only picture here where a person looks directly at the camera and acknowledges McGinley. This perfectly poetic image of a momentary connection between two people who never meet is a haunting metaphor for the random play of desire.

Photographs of rock stars are common fare these days, and McGinley pointedly avoids typical Rolling Stone-style pictures of musicians clowning around backstage, or giving serious face for intimate portraits. McGinley takes no images that fans could not see for themselves while attending a performance by the elusive star. Although Morrissey has expressed admiration for McGinley’s work and granted him permission to photograph his shows freely, McGinley has never achieved "court photographer" status. Evidently, he wants to remain a fan and preserve Morrissey’s mystique for himself.

Sifting through the crowds for subjects, McGinley sought out people who were expressing a kind of unrestrained rapture that can only be described as religious. Transcendent joy, exaltation and humility can be clearly registered on the faces of the audience members as they unselfconsciously express worship of their idol. In Mexico, the fans cried. They were rowdy and belligerent in England and Scotland. And at all of the shows, they would rush onto the stage and try to hug, kiss or kneel before Morrissey.

Perhaps the most revealing image on view in the show hangs in the gallery’s second room against the far wall. It depicts McGinley himself, standing in a contorted posture on the stage, only a few feet away from the singer. Morrissey can be seen to the left, with unbuttoned shirt and microphone, and it almost seems as if McGinley is performing. In fact, he is being evicted from the concert -- a security guard’s burly arm can be seen hooked around McGinley’s neck -- after attempting to rush the stage and touch his idol. The shot was taken surreptitiously by a fellow fan before McGinley received permission from Morrissey to photograph the concerts professionally.

Positioned at the end of the Team gallery show, this image testifies to McGinley’s emotional investment in his subject, explains his empathy for his fellow fans and confesses to his discovery of his artistic identity in his own devotion.


ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.