With a new book and exhibition celebrating the seminal works that appeared at his solo Whitney show in 2003, the photographer speaks candidly about his life and career
On a chilly night back in February 2003, Ryan McGinley: The Kids Are Alright opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ryan McGinley, then just 25-years-old, was the youngest artist to have a solo show in the museum’s seven decades on Madison Avenue.
I’m not entirely sure the Whitney knew what to expect, as the denizens of downtown piled into the tiny gallery. I overheard a security guard say, “Excuse me, ma’am. Do not lean against the art,” to blonde in a faux-fur coat with slurry eyes. Moments later a security guard said, The blonde shoved on, disappearing into the throngs that jostled their way in and out of the exhibition. The lurid, glamorous and grizzled characters in McGinley's photographs were there in the flesh, celebrating the artist's quicksilver rise to the top. In a period of just five years, McGinley documented the luminous tail of the bohemian comet that swept New York throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
McGinley hung with a squadron of graffiti writers, artists, and personalities that made their own rules – and what remains of those days and nights are the photos. Some 1,600 pictures made between 1998 and 2003, most never-before-seen, have just been released in the new book, The Kids Were Alright, (Rizzoli) to time with an exhibition of the same name now at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver through August 17, 2017.
The documentary-style photographs and Polaroids are raw, sexy images of intense intimacy. Whether partying, having sex, or just hanging out, McGinley’s photos present a portrait of his generation at their most uninhibited peak. McGinley spoke with Dazed about coming of age in True York.
“We lived in this little bubble that woke up at noon and went to bed at 6am and only existed between 14th Street and Canal Street, east to west” – Ryan McGinley
You mention in your interview with Dan Colen that you were on a mission to become a “real New Yorker.” What do those words mean to you?
Ryan McGinley: Oh my God, I was so ready to leave the suburbs. I grew up about 10 miles outside of New York City in New Jersey right over the George Washington Bridge. I felt like there was nobody I identified with out there. Especially being a skater, first. Right around that time I was realising I was gay, second. I felt like there were bigger and better things, more open-minded people interested in art and culture and music. I associated those things with New York because I had been coming in for a long time. I was ready to be a New Yorker and start walking on the same streets that all the people that I looked up to, made all their art and created themselves like Allen Ginsberg, the Velvet Underground, the Warhol scene.
That was all the stuff that I was learning about in books and with Ricky (Powell). There was something about watching Rappin’ with the Rickster on public access (TV) or Robin Byrd – I knew that they were doing it on a tight budget and it was something I could do. That’s why I gravitated to the lo-fi aesthetic. All the pictures in the book are shot on this camera called the Yashica T4, which is a point-and-shoot.
I totally get that. I love the choice of the Polaroid for your work. What does the Polaroid provide that you don’t get from other forms of photography?
Ryan McGinley: It opened up me being able to photograph the person for the rest of the day or night. If you came over to my apartment on 7th Street, everybody knew, it was just this ritual: “Okay stand against the wall,” or “Let’s go up to the roof.” It was the Polaroids and then straight into shooting.
So it was kind of like the gateway drug?
Ryan McGinley: (Laughs) Yeah, it opened the door to other possibilities. You just got one shot so you’ve got to think about what you’re going to do. The person who is being photographed is being celebrated because I would take the Polaroid and then we’d look at it. I’d write their name, the time it was shot, and the date on the back and then I’d stick it on my wall. There’s a photo in the book of me and my boyfriend naked on the bed and above us is like a few hundred Polaroids. At a certain point, people were psyched to get their photo up on the wall. Every wall in the bedroom was covered, and then we covered the ceiling, and then it grew out into the hallway.
Do you see any distinctions when you make a portrait, a snapshot, or a documentary photo – or is there just a fluidity?
Ryan McGinley: I wasn’t making those distinctions. We lived in a vacuum. There was nobody except for us for a good four or five year chunk that was telling us what to do. There were no outside forces influencing us. We lived in this little bubble that woke up at noon and went to bed at 6am and only existed between 14th Street and Canal Street, east to west. We had this little insular family. That, for me, is what makes it documentary.
How did living downtown shape your work?
Ryan McGinley: Our apartment was basically the flophouse for skaters and graffiti writers and queer punks. There were so many characters and everyone was excited to be in front of the camera. The East Village was cool because there were so many bars. We would start off at this gay bar called The Cock. Then there were so many house parties, art openings, and adventures writing graffiti. They’d end up on rooftops, in subway tunnels, on the bridge. Every night, I would go out with ten rolls of film in my pocket and just shoot whatever was happening.
At what point did you decide that you were going to be in the photographs as well?
Ryan McGinley: When I was working for VICE I did this whole series where I would puke on my camera cause the Yashica T4 was weather-proof so you couldn’t submerge it but it could get wet. At one point I was puking into a toilet and I thought, “Oh that would be such a cool photo if I puked on my camera” and I actually got a shot. I was the art school kid. I didn’t really study photo at (Parsons) but I was friends with all the photo kids. I went to school for painting my first year, poetry my second year, and at the end of my second year, my dad found out that I switched to poetry and he was so pissed. So then I switched to graphic design because I was really into magazines.
Then at the end, I switched to photography. I had met people like Ellen (Jong), who was doing her pee series everywhere. I was like, “This is so rad! I can’t believe that a person can make a whole body of work peeing around New York City.” We were all trying to find something that was our own weird photo that we could do.
“We were magnets to each other because we all were children of chaos” – Ryan McGinley
I like how this book goes through the time where you’re in a bubble and then *poof* The Whitney. What was that like?
Ryan McGinley: Everything happened in this year and a half period for me. All my photo friends were having their Senior Show but Parsons wouldn’t let me participate because I wasn’t actually in the photo programme. I was so pissed off. Out of spite I decided, “I’m doing my own show.” I had a friend whose father had a storefront on West Broadway and I said to him, “If I clean it up for a weekend, can I have an exhibition?” and he agreed. I printed all these poster size pictures for that show. Since I was in graphic design, I cranked out like 100 zines on my Epson printer. I gave about half of them to the people in the photos, and I had about 50 left so I just started sending them out to magazines like Index, The New York Times Magazine, Dazed, i-D, and The Face.
Right away Index called me. What did the guy say to me on the phone? “These photos are awesome. We want you to come into work for us, but really I just want to party with you.” (Laughs). I was like, okay cool. I met with them and they gave me an assignment to go to Berlin to photograph this electronic musician and I was like “Fuck.” It was a real moment for me. I had to do everything I was doing with my friends with a stranger in an hour – and then also across the world. I remember having really bad stomach aches, the whole range of emotions, like not feeling good enough and wanting to quit, but I did it and got these beautiful photos.
Then, Peter Halley at Index said, “That handmade book that you sent me, I love it. I want to start a publishing company so can we publish that book of yours.” So we did that and that book made its way to the desk of the Curator of Photography of the Whitney, Sylvia Wolf. She called me up and said, “Someone gave me your small book and I really love it. Can I come down to your studio and see what you’re up to?” She came down four times and would sit there, very proper, with a yellow notepad and take notes. At the end of that summer she was like, “I think what you’re doing is really great. Would you want to have a show at the Whitney?” And I was like, “Fuck yeah!” (Laughs).
The New York that you photographed, it’s only 15-20 years ago but it feels really far away. What is it like looking back? What do you see now that you didn’t see then?
Ryan McGinley: It feels cathartic. I haven’t looked at it since I shot it. I guess, first and foremost, all the people that aren’t alive anymore like Joey (Semz), Dash (Snow) – I was so close with those guys. We were inseparable. Then there are some other people in the book who committed suicide. It makes me think that we were magnets to each other because we all were children of chaos. I can see more now, the characteristics that drew me to those people. My brother had just died of Aids. I loved my brother so much. I was raised by him and his boyfriend and their friends. In 1995, my brother was the last one to die and I was his caretaker, me and my mom. And, right at that time, I was developing gay feelings. It was high school. My mind was like a fucking war zone.
Looking back I think about how there’s no coincidence at all that I met the people who were part of my crew. We would have met each other either way, whether it was an after place or a bar in the East Village. It’s just a gravitational pull that pulls you in and it’s just the pull you’re giving off because it’s chaos in the brain. I think about that a lot looking back at this book now.
The Kids Were Alright – published by Rizzoli – is available now