From a teen “skater-punk” documenting the exploits of the New York City youth scene through his video camera, to an award-winning photographer acclaimed for poetically capturing candid and intimate moments of those around him, New York-based artist Ryan McGinley has come a long way – and his practice continues to evolve, writes Indigo Clarke.
“I had my camera with me at all times. I was interested in the in-between and behind-the-scenes moments of life – seeing people’s personalities reflected through images... I always cared more about the people I was shooting than the medium itself,” explains New York’s eloquent art star, 31 year old Ryan McGinley, who became known in his early twenties for his sincere and immediate depictions of the fast-paced lives of his downtown Manhattan friends. Everything from skate-boarding, spray-painting, partying and dancing to drug-taking and love-making was recorded by McGinley, whose voyeuristic, and often nude, portraits of “Young people just having fun,” struck a near instant chord with the art world and beyond.
At 24, McGinley was the youngest artist to have held a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, followed the next year by an exhibition at P.S. 1/MoMA, before being awarded Young Photographer of the Year at the International Centre of Photography’s Inifinity Awards. “People always use the term ‘freedom’ when they discuss my work. I guess my photographs might represent the freedom that is missing from their own lives,” McGinley reasons, considering the broad appeal of his work. “There is a sense of abandon, rebellion, youth and beauty to my work that attracts people because they either want to be a part of that world, or it reminds them of their own lives – past or present. For me though,” McGinley reveals, “my photographs have always been like the movies of my life – existing as really edited memories. Each photograph in its own way is perfect to me – the lighting, gestures and composition are perfect because they completely represent a moment worth remembering.”
Camera permanently in hand, McGinley was introduced to photography and film at thirteen, growing up making skateboarding videos and continuing throughout his teens to shoot his immediate surrounds. “My early work was really an exploration of New York City – of my life out with kids graffiti-ing, doing drugs in clubs, doing what any kid would do,” he remembers. “I was just exploring, having fun and taking pictures of everything that crossed my path.”
In his twenties, McGinley started challenging his signature practice, taking a more direct, and less documentary, style approach. Rather than capture events as they unfolded, McGinley with his atmospheric ongoing summer series, began to control the action. “I started to get a bit over waiting. I got bored with doing documentary photography – I didn’t want to wait for things to happen anymore,” McGinley explains, “I wanted to direct the action, be more director than documentary maker.”Over the last four summers, McGinley has been involved in intensive three- month long cross-country road trip shoots with groups of friends, “and friends of friends, assistants, interns and producers” says McGinley. The result of which are cinematic, nostalgically sun-kissed images of beautiful youth’s naked romps in trees, fields, swimming holes and most recently bat-filled caves, with McGinley taking on average 30 rolls of film each day. “The summer shoots are fun but intense as well, you get to know each other very well when you spend so much time together in close quarters,” McGinley recalls. “This summer in particular was pretty extreme. The crew and I pretty much spent the entire time in caves – it was crazy, we would have to crawl through holes to get into the cavernous spaces filled with bats flying at our heads!”
Unlike his earlier work, these 90-day adventure slash photographic productions are choreographed – or directed – by McGinley, who commemorates each summer-long shoot with his own awards ceremony. “I celebrate the fantastic journey we’ve been on each year with really silly awards for my models and assistants like, “Most Pubic Hair” and “First Intern to get Naked,” McGinley laughs. “I’m endlessly fascinated by nude photographs – it’s just one of those unexplainable things,” he says, reflecting on the impossible-to-overlook recurring theme of his photographs. “When someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I photograph the things people do every day, combined with the athletic gestures of Sports Illustrated, the landscape of a Patagonia catalogue and the sensuality of early 70s porn. You mix those elements together and you get one of my photographs.”
With the desired outcome of his work being to inspire others, McGinley is driven to create in order to awaken an appreciation of art in the general population of America. “I definitely aim to make my photographs very accessible to people. I want to inspire younger artists to create – that is ideally what I would like to communicate through my work,” explains McGinley. “America in many ways, especially with art, is behind, so it’s important to me to get work out there. In the United States art isn’t a big part of our culture the way it is in the UK and Europe – art will always be the first thing to go if there are funding cuts to schools or colleges. The art community in general is small, so it’s important to reach out to as many people as possible, because art has the ability to enlighten and open people’s minds.”
Motivated by the filmic-nature of the last four summer expeditions, McGinley is looking to expand his practice yet again, and is currently prepping for his independent feature film directorial debut – an adaptation of a yet undisclosed novel, to be shot within the next two years. “I’m totally looking forward to moving into film,” says the inspired McGinley, who seems pre-destined to succeed with anything he turns his hand to. “It’s something I’ve thought about for a long time and I now feel confident that I am really ready to do this.”