Ryan McGinley: Celebrating Life
2nd November 2007 – 6th January 2008
FOAM – Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
by Aaron Schuman
This essay was first published by Foam, in the exhibition catalogue for 'RyanMcGinley: Celebrating Life'.
Ryan McGinley (b. 1977, United States) lives and works in New York. He enrolled at Parsons School of Design in New York in 1995, and took up photography in 1999, making a name for himself with photos of his friends, including skateboarders, graffiti artists and lovers. McGinley’s work has appeared in many publications, including Vice Magazine, Index, W, Butt, ID, Dazed and Confused, The Fader and New York Times Magazine. His work has been exhibited internationally, most notably in solo shows at museums such as P.S.1 and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2007, McGinley received the prestigious ICP Infinity Young Photographer Award.
For those familiar with New York in the 1970s and 1980s, 421 West Broadway is an address that will forever be synonymous with cutting-edge contemporary art. This was where gallerists such as Leo Castelli, Ileana Sonnabend and Mary Boone first introduced the work of Gilbert & George, John Baldessari, Bruce Nauman, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and many others to the art market, reigning over both a creative and financial boom that lasted more than fifteen years. But by the spring of 2000, the city’s most influential galleries had collectively moved uptown in search of bigger and hipper spaces, and 420 West Broadway was in the midst of being renovated into luxury apartments.
As an ambitious student at Parsons School of Design, Ryan McGinley saw this as a perfect opportunity. In a corner of the building that was still under construction, he mounted an exhibition of his own work entitled, ‘The Kids are Alright’, a collection of photographs that impulsively documented his friends skateboarding, partying, tagging, shagging, doing drugs, running wild and generally relishing their youth in New York City. In conjunction with the show he self-published a book of the same title, which he sold at the opening, and sent off to a selection of his favorite artists, photographers, editors, gallerists and curators.
The gamble paid off, and within weeks McGinley received commissions from a number of influential publications such as Index and Vice, as well as high praise from a wide range of important figures within the art world. By 2002, ‘The Kids are Alright’ was hanging on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at twenty-four years old, McGinley had become the youngest artist to have ever had a solo exhibition at the museum. McGinley’s subsequent creative evolution has since followed an archetypal American narrative: having found friends, recognition and inspiration in the big city, the artist turns his back on metropolitan life in search of deeper understanding within the expansive American wilderness, often spending long periods of time away from home, and more specifically, on the road.
In the mid-nineteenth century, after studying at Harvard University, publishing several essays and poems in prominent journals, and developing friendships with notables such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau abandoned the city of Boston for the rural, Walden Pond. He explained, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’
In the summer of 2003, McGinley moved out of New York for the first time in years. He rented a house in the mountains of Vermont, and invited friends from the city to visit him every week, primarily so that he could photograph them. During such visits, McGinley attempted to document his guests’ various shenanigans, but soon realized that without the buzz of the city, some intervention was needed on his part to keep both the parties and the pictures interesting. In a recent interview with the New York Times, McGinley explained, ‘I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore. I was wasting time, and so I started making pictures happen.’ This gradual shift, from the documentation of spontaneity to the partial construction of events, is familiar to anyone who has followed the developments of photographic practice in recent years. But McGinley’s work from this period stands out as a remarkably successful balancing act, hovering between the elative experience of capturing an instant in a photograph, and the contrivance of knowing that such an instant would never have occurred had it not been for the desire to photograph it.
Ten years after Thoreau took to the woods, a prolific New York journalist by the name of Walt Whitman self-published a collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, which included ‘Song of the Open Road’:
‘Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me…
Strong and content, I travel the open road…
You express me better than I can express myself;
You shall be more to me than my poem.’
More than forty years before the automobile was invented, the myth of the American road-trip was born.
Inspired by his successes in Vermont, McGinley took to the road during the three summers that followed, repeatedly crossing the American continent in two vans, and again inviting various groups of friends along in order to photograph their exploits. Each trip was carefully cast, organized and researched, and was primarily centered around locations that suited the artist’s more distinctively defined scenarios. Set in sun-bleached deserts, idyllic swimming holes, verdant forests and roadside motel rooms, McGinley’s road-trip work portrays his cohorts frolicking mostly in nature, and nearly always in the nude. Because of his concentration on youth culture, his diaristic approach, and his off-the-cuff handheld style, McGinley is often linked with photographers such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. Yet as with McGinley’s previous work, this recent series entirely lacks the threatening air of danger, guilt, sadness and remorse, which so often permeates the photographs of preceding generations. What was once urban debauchery is miraculously transformed by McGinley’s imposed relocation; hipsters morph into Mercurial nymphs who inhabit a seemingly bacchanalian Neverland, or a shame-free Eden long before the Fall. McGinley’s approach doesn’t appear to contain a single ounce of irony either, a voraciously dominant theme within both contemporary photography and fine art. Instead, there is a powerfully genuine sense of freedom, euphoria and innocence in these photographs – although mostly in their twenties, McGinley’s subjects behave more like young children, laughing, jumping, splashing, cycling, embracing and even bathing together, blatantly ecstatic without even the slightest twinge of self-consciousness.
In a recent article on Jack Kerouac, Louis Menand described the literary atmosphere of 1950s New York in a way that very much echoes today’s art world: ‘Irony was the highbrow virtue of the day, and the Beats had none of it.’ In The Dharma Bums – published half a century before McGinley himself hit the road – Kerouac recounted, ‘[W]e borrowed Sean’s jalopy and drove about a hundred miles up the seacoast to an isolated beach where we picked mussels right off the washed rocks of the sea and smoked them in a big woodfire covered with seaweed…There were natural caves on that beach where Japhy had once brought big parties of people and had organized naked bondfire dances.’ As if he were channeling Kerouac’s Beats directly from the page – in style, in practice, and in spirit – McGinley’s photographs are not only documentation, but are also the manifestation and celebration of complete inhibition. Even though (or perhaps precisely because of the fact that) these images are so thoroughly controlled and then, at the last minute, set free, they seem to inspire that same idyllic state which was often defined by Kerouac and the Beats as ‘Dharma’, when one simultaneously understands and wholeheartedly lives, purely and forever, in the moment.
From Titian’s bacchanals and Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, to the photographs of Thomas Eakins and F. Holland Day, countless correlations could be made between McGinley’s imagery and that found in literature, art history and the conventional history of photography. But looking carefully at McGinley’s oeuvre, it appears that his real inspiration is derived from much more everyday sources, such as the nudist magazines and found photographs that he himself collects, or the slew of amateur pornography and teen snapshots that are now so overwhelmingly omnipresent on the internet. And perhaps by acknowledging such sources, McGinley can be much more neatly placed within the finest traditions of American photographic practice.
In 1938, Lincoln Kirstein praised the eye of Walker Evans as ‘anti-art-photographic…elevating the casual, the everyday and the literal into specific, permanent symbols’. Since Evans, many of the country’s greatest photographers have often used the layman’s ‘mistakes’ as the starting point for their own photographic approach: Winogrand’s signature tilted frame, Friedlander’s invasive shadow or conspicuous reflection, and so on. Similarly, McGinley intentionally incorporates the ‘flaws’ and ‘accidents’ of the auto-focus, point-and-shoot generation into his own creative technique, using glaring on-camera flash, double-exposure, over-exposure, awkward colour-shifts and the subjects’ direct interaction with the camera to introduce further expressive possibilities into his photographs. ‘It could be said - it doubtless has been said - that such pictures often bear a clear resemblance to the Kodachrome slides of the ubiquitous amateur next door,’ John Szarkowski wrote, in his 1976 introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide. ‘[I]t should not be surprising if the best photography of today is related in iconography and technique to the contemporary standard of vernacular camera work, which is in fact often rich and surprising.’ In many ways, McGinley has simply updated this argument, appropriating current vernacular camera work to convey a sense of genuine sincerity to the viewer. In the same way that the polished seamlessness of digital manipulation has all but stripped photography of its perceived veracity, McGinley’s intentional imprecision reintroduces notions of integrity and authenticity to the medium. Despite having been constructed, McGinley’s pictures seem inherently honest and trustworthy precisely because of their amateurish appearance, their idealistic subject matter and their insistent inaccuracy. Ultimately, McGinley has revealed that, within the sophisticated and rather paradoxical world of contemporary imagery, it is not reality but fantasy – portrayed with intentional imprecision – that often rings most true.