Portrait by Jack Pierson
Funny story: This summer I got scouted by Ryan McGinley. I was walking up Broadway in New York when a petite blonde girl cornered me: "Excuse me, do you have representation?" Honey, the only thing I'm representing is the ability to work braces and army boots in this 90 degree heat. Why do you ask? "I work for a photographer, and I think you've got the perfect look for one of his shoots." I took the proffered glossy business card. 'Ryan McGinley'. What, the New York photographer, enfant terrible of the 00s Ryan McGingley? What the…
While photographer Nan Goldin and filmmaker Larry Clark were seducing the art world in the 90s with their visceral depictions of New York down-and-outs, Ryan McGinley was photographing a side of the subculture that was liberated and joyous. He took pictures during sex with his boyfriend, of his friends stealing Kiehl's toiletries from houseparties and graffiti artists scaling public buildings. Amidst a whirlwind of hype and hyperbole, he became the youngest person ever to be given a solo show at The Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003. He was 25. His show The Kids Are Alright became emblematic of a new optimism against the bleak backdrop of a post-9/11 art world, and he hasn't stopped since. In addition to touring with Morrissey and making a short film with his "brother from a different mother" Tilda Swinton, Ryan's taken a roster of models (he calls them his 'children') on extended nude photoshoot trips across the USA every summer since 2005 .
My shoot with Ryan never happened (maybe it would break his rule about keeping the personal and professional separate), but we've remained friends ever since we met that day. His sense of wonder and adventure is infectious - with him you learn to expect the unexpected. A Hyde Park picnic leads to splashing with kids in the fountain, a quiet night in becomes dancing to Dr Dre on a rooftop 'til the early hours. Below, he tells us about his latest summer adventure, not masturbating, and why his photos aren't erotic.
Um, it's nice. It was a little bit weird at first, 'cause you kind of go through withdrawal from being away with 15 people for a month straight. But then I guess you fall into the New York state of mind.
Where did you go on your trip this time?
From New York we went west through Ohio, up into Iowa and Minnesota, and then we came down through Colorado, and then cut over to Kansas, and then went down, through Tennessee, and then back up the East coast to New York.
That's an incredible about of land!
[laughs] Yeah, we covered a lot! Everyone was nude in all the shoots, and I was just trying to find the best kind of natural landscape that I could. We shot in Michigan one day, and we flew kites. That was was really cool - just these really beautiful sand dunes with green grass popping up everywhere, and nude people flying kites. And then I did a lot of stuff with fireworks also. They're really nice, the way they light people's skin. It's just such a beautiful light that comes out of them - it's really unexpected.
I think your photos are sexually charged though. The models in your Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere studio series have an openness which is kind of sexy.
You know, I think it's vulnerability more than anything. I would say that my black and white studio portraits are a lot more intimate than my colour work. But I think it's more of how the viewer kind of interprets the person's feeling or the look in their eyes.
Do you find it easy to have a split between professional dealings with sex and nudity, and then your personal sex life and being turned on?
Yeah, more so now than it used to be. When I first started making photos I photographed my first boyfriend all the time during sex and other really intimate stuff, and then at a certain point it started to change and I began to start setting photoshoots up and going on trips. On the first trip that I went on I brought this guy that I was dating along, and it just didn't work out, 'cause it was sort of like bringing your boyfriend to work, you know? There were deep emotions tied up with it, and as the years have gone on I don't do that any more. When you do these long journeys you have to be in the mindset, the same way that a boxer prepares for a fight - a boxer won't masturbate for a few months before his big fight. You just have to keep really focused, and you can't really mix the two.
So you grew up in Ramsay, New Jersey as the youngest of eight.
Yeah. It was strange! My Mom had seven kids in seven years, and then eleven years later she had me. My parents were involved in my life, but my brothers and sisters wanted to be my parents and to take care of me. It was amazing, because I was around all these wild teenagers. My eldest brother was a real rocker, and then I had a brother who was really into the stock market, and we would go through supply and demand. And my sisters were really into Adam Ant, and then one of my brothers was gay - he was a drag queen and his boyfriend was a Barbara Streisand impersonator.
[laughs] That's amazing.
Yeah, I started coming to New York to stay with him and his boyfriend from the age of about four. They would do these little drag shows for me - my brother did the Wicked Witch of the West and his boyfriend did Barbara Streisand. I just have memories of being so fascinated, and having really fun sleepovers and laughing a lot. But then as I got older my brother got AIDS and then he got sick, so that was really a big part of my life. It was tough, because it was before the protease-inhibitors and all the drugs that keep people alive and healthy. It was really a pretty hardcore AIDS death, and going through the steps of that was part of my teenage years. That was definitely really hard, and I think that it has had an effect on the kid of work that I make. My work is really about celebration and about freedom and stuff like that, and that's a response to those years which were about suffering, and the complete opposite of that.
You've told me before that you like being gay because it gives you a questioning perspective - do you think that your brother was formative in instilling that?
Yeah. I think that it was all my brothers and sisters - I was definitely raised to question authority. My teenage years involved drastic changes in subcultures based around drugs. I was always kind of punk, because I was always a skater, so that was the initial subculture that revolved around [punk bands] Fugazi and Operation Ivy and stuff like that. And then I started going to Grateful Dead shows and doing acid, and then that sort of led into more of like a rave thing. I started going to New York, and going to these clubs called N.A.S.A. and The Limelight, and I experimented with ecstasy and Special K. And it wasn't like my family promoted it, but it wasn't an issue when I got home, just as long as I could keep my grades up!
What did you look like in your days as a raver?
[laughs] Well rave culture had kind of evolved, and there were these things called Polo Ravers, which were kind of like this morph between Hip-Hip and a raver. There was a period from 1993-94 when Ralph Lauren made these really super-beautiful clothes in insane primary colours, and we would wear like head to toe XL Ralph Lauren clothes. That's what we wore, and we would also wear these baggy pants from this store called Liquid Sky that Chloë Sevigny used to work at. She was part of the scene, and we'd all hang out in Washington Square Park and go dance all night.
I'd love to see a picture of you from back then, that sounds amazing!
That's the thing - I don't really have many pictures of me when I was younger, because I wasn't really into photography and it was before digital cameras. It's sad - I feel like that's why I take so many pictures now!
And you love to take mini-movies on your iPhone!
[laughs] Yeah, all the time - everyone's always getting on my case about it! I love making movies. I make photographs for the sake of art, but I still have that side of me where I just want to make photographs of my friends with my cell phone. Those are the photos that I love the most, actually.
Well, you first became acclaimed for doing exactly that - for taking photos around New York and of your friends. What was that whole time like?
R: It was just so fast that I can't really remember. Basically I was on a lot of drugs. I was just this crazy downtown kid who was out every night of the week, going crazy on rooftops, bars, and running in subway tunnels. But I always had my camera on me, and I was always taking pictures. And there were a lot of people who really helped me out and supported me. I guess the first thing was that Index [legendary New York arts magazine which ran from 1996-2005] published a book of my work - that's when my career really took off. It was just insane after that, and it's never stopped since then.
How your film with Tilda Swinton come about?
Our joke is that we call each other 'brothers from different mothers.' I feel like that she's the cutest boy! When she dresses in more boyish clothes, she's totally like a boy that I would be interested in. Basically Pringle of Scotland asked me to do a project for them, and one of their requirements was that they had to use a Scottish person as their actress, and of course immediately I was just like 'Tilda Swinton!'
Like, no two ways about it.
Was it filmed on her island?
Yeah, it's shot on the island where she lives - it's like three hours from Glasgow. The first day we started I had a lot of really crazy ideas, and the production people were like "I don't think you should as Tilda to do that, maybe we should get a double." And there was just this one moment where she saw me from across the way, and I think she knew what was going on, and she pulled me aside and said "whatever you want me to do, just ask me and I'll do it for you. I believe in your artwork so much."
It was the most special moment where we totally just clicked, and I knew that it was just two artists together. She did all this stuff in this film that was really difficult, you know? Like, we went into these really tight tunnels in this crazy cave, and she crawled through this window that was, like, the size of a large book and hanging off the side of this castle. I just have so much respect and love for her that she did that for me. And then I had dinner round her house, and it was really good.
What did she make you for dinner?
She made some really nice fish. She's a very healthy eater, and it was just great to spend time with her and her kids at her house.
Your first photography book now goes for crazy amounts on the internet - does that feel weird?
Not really. I don't get weirded out by anything. I'm very open to whatever.
Yeah, I think you're pretty grounded.
I feel pretty grounded. I live my life to be a good person, and I try to be as good as possible. I've been listening to a lot of Nina Simone lately, and she does this song Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.
Oh, I love that one.
There's this line in it - I probably won't get it right - but it's like, 'No-one alive can always be an angel, but I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, so please don't let me be misunderstood.' That's kind of like how I feel, you know? I definitely try my hardest to be good, but obviously you can't be all the time! [laughs]
I don't wanna be misunderstood.