On One Hand

April 26, 2008

Ryan McGinley is Back

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 5:48 pm
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My high school photography teacher once whispered to me, I want to show you a book I ordered, but you can’t let anyone see. He was a teacher with a reputation for crossing the line, letting students grade themselves, passing out European fashion magazines with photos of topless women in sexual poses, and, according to rumor, smoking marijuana in his office during planning hour.

He pulled me to the corner of the classroom, which was itself in the dungeonlike basement floor of the school, with windowless cement walls and studio props decorating the room. I sat near the teacher’s desk, lit by a glowing red buddha lamp with long tassels hanging from the velvet lamp cover. He had me promise I wouldn’t make a big deal of the book before he’d let me look at it, afraid of getting in trouble with the school. Flattered by the respect my teacher was giving me by singling me out to see the book, I accepted the invitation.

The book featured the work of Ryan McGinley who, at 24, was the youngest photographer to have his own exhibit in the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, but was still largely unknown. The photographs – mostly of naked 20-something boys from the city’s Lower East Side – were taken in an intimate snapshot setting, blurry, sometimes overexposed, and casual, sometimes indoors, sometimes out in a forest or park. The premise of the collection was that the photo subjects were McGinley’s own friends, most of them gay, and in some of the pictures the boys were outright having sex with each other. I remember one photo of a young naked girl leaping through a shower of firecrackers, her flayed pubic hair puffing out from between her pressed thighs, her small breasts tipped outward in opposite directions. Another page revealed a wall of polaroids of everyone who had slept in the photographer’s own bed. The most striking photo was a close-up of a man’s crotch, his blue jeans spattered with drops of semen.

Ryan McGinley – 2002 Book Cover

This was when I was seventeen years old and obsessed with the city of New York, for exactly the kind of image this book represented. While the Suburban world around me celebrated the seething, venomous sexuality of heterosexual American white teenagers – a role I could neither play nor mimic – the universal sexuality in McGinley’s life was inaccessible to me. The closest I came to finding it was through Internet porn, which, even in deviance, still idealized glistening, eerily hairless bodies, biceps the size of spaghetti squashes and artificial bleached-blonde hair. New York City, a place I had never actually been, was a fantasy where I’d go to escape from the world of stripes and squares.

And suddenly I was in on something that lent credibility, prestige even, to the grotesque, Earthy lifestyle that could make room for me, shattering the hegemony of jock-and-cheerleader youth sexuality. It wasn’t trashy titillating sitcom entertainment like Friends or softcore porn like Baywatch. It was high art, at levels that the self-obsessed teenagers of Dawson’s Creek could never reach because they were typical and boring, and challenged nothing.

McGinley’s subjects were mostly skinny white boys, their whiplike arms dangling, ribs protruding, portrayed from random unflattering angles. It was perfectly attainable, natural and innocent. I don’t often remember names, but held on to this one, and would google Ryan McGinley every few months from then on to see if any new collections had come out under his name. Usually there was one website with a couple of his cleaner photos, a 50-word blurb in the back pages of an Online art and fashion magazine, and a 10-line Wikipedia stub.

That list is lengthening now, 5 years later. McGinley is rising above the fringes of deviance into mainstream professionalism; he was recently selected to work on the New York Times Magazine Portfolio and produced an extended shoot of actress Kate Moss. His work is more structured than its former happenstance, intimate style that first captivated me; McGinley now hosts casting calls to select groups of young people to take on road-trips across the country, where they’re photographed naked in various exurban settings as an overarching theme of McGinley’s work. As an age-old question that finally, in my case, strikes close to home – one has to wonder if the art loses something by becoming well-accepted or routine.

If I hadn’t grown up Catholic, if I hadn’t grown up in a clean-cut suburban community, Ryan McGinley’s photographs would have meant nothing to me. The excitement was not only in their wholistic approach to sex and life, but also in their deviance. GLBT civil rights and improved attitudes toward sexuality represent a long-fought achievement and also, ironically, a profound loss. My only hope is that in my life I’ll produce something that does for a future generation what McGinley’s photos did for me at age 17, offering a long-awaited quiet glimmer of freedom.


  1. hey mate…

    thanks for the add back…I’ve admired your writing for a while now…

    I met McGinley at party way back in 98-99 when I moved back to the states, and I saw that show of his at Whitney. It was an excellent exhibit in itself, he does have talent.

    There always is that question of “the edge vs. the mainstream.” I wonder about it myself. I’m not an artist, I just tinker with a camera.(but I feel like I am heading into social documentaries.)

    My thoughts on the how people drift into the mainstream kinda goes like this…”Money.” I might be wrong take a person like Julian Schnabel, he was on the cutting edge of art in the early 80’s, he’s got boatloads of money, now he makes films. But then again “Before Night Falls” is an excellent flick.

    While researching a paper back a few semesters ago I came across an American artist living in Berlin Will Mc Bride who’s not very well know here because his subject matter nude teenagers just would not fly in America. It’s weird itself that he hard an hard time but Larry Clark didn’t.

    Anyhow I need to get back to my research …hang tuff..

    Comment by bon_homme_dane — April 27, 2008 @ 3:00 am | Reply

    • Re: hey mate…

      I’ll def. check out Will McBride… when I’m not in the library. Is he in the UK? I don’t normally think UK when I think “Europe” but his name seems European.

      I hate the word “artist.” I know some writers who call themselves that, and it always strikes me as a statement of superiority. I suppose it is a linguistically useful term, I just consciously try to avoid elitism whenever I can, to the extent that I piss almost everyone off by insinuating that they’re elitist.

      I agree it’s about money. I also believe that any impression or image you have of any well-known person in the world is not really what’s going on in his/her own head. That doesn’t necessarily apply to, say, your parents, or spouse, but it applies to the image politicians, musicians, artists, and activists craft for themselves. The epitome of being a “cool” artist is the idea that he or she consciously resists going mainstream and doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks. But everyone cares what people think, they just seemed to not care because they weren’t popular yet. Everyone also thinks they can be the first artist to go mainstream without letting it corrupt or change what they’re doing. It’s 2008… still waiting for that the first one to accomplish that.

      I hadn’t added you because I’m really, really bad at checking who I need to add. I check like once a year. Yesterday I added this guy who said he has been commenting for about 3 years and I assumed he was on my friends’ list all along.

      Comment by ononehand — April 27, 2008 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

      • Re: hey mate…the epitome of being a “cool”

        McBride is actually American..there is a wiki site on him…he lives in Berlin, well has been for most his adult life.

        I understand the mistrust for the word “artist.” Being a the son of an illustrator, I have heard my share of critique of art in whatever form. I am not artistically inclined like my father or gifted in drawing, but that doesn’t make any less imaginative, which to me, is the most important quality that human can have after loyalty..maybe they go together.

        Money, well it makes the world go round. My Dad illustrated children’s books allot in the 70’s ( which he hated) in addition to his journalism stuff. Asked why he did it? Money.

        In my teens and 20’s was as a chef. So naturally I want to see a certain “appetite” satisfied by my viewer. How I get there ..to the final product and what people think about, well that’s generally where I give a “shit about what anyone thinks.”

        Let me tell yeah, as a history student (focus American and European political struggles and social movements).. I struggle with writing, it’s not the ideas, but the general rigidity about writing for history, the argument and the defense. I’m finishing a double BA in HIS and POLYSCI with a minor in Media this summer (math class) What have I learned in my 5 years as an undergrad, well there may opinions in the world, but there also many different ways to skin a cat. I finally got decent feedback after 12 seminars in History…it took a while but I got it.

        This past semester I had the WORST reads of my 5 years in school. FUCKING HORRIBLE…I just stopped reading and looked shit up myself. Hey I got B+’s and A-‘s on my midterms. (sorry about the long rant) I finally got one good read only after I found it for a research paper.

        Anyhow I have read your posts, you have an excellent command of the English language, and express your ideas very clearly, keep at it…

        hang tuff.

        Comment by Anonymous — April 28, 2008 @ 12:41 am

      • Re: hey mate…the epitome of being a “cool”

        Who wrote this comment? Same person or someone else?

        I’m not sure how I feel about Will McBride, after looking up more of it. I don’t oppose nude pictures of underaged teenagers because I’m a puritan, I oppose it because you can’t give consent as a minor. Because the rest of society IS puritan, you could end up doing something that haunts you for the rest of your life.

        Comment by ononehand — April 28, 2008 @ 1:30 am

    • Re: hey mate…

      I just thought of this – in 1998/99, Ryan McGinley must have been like 19 years old. Was he even doing photographs then? How would you even know to take note of it?

      Comment by ononehand — April 27, 2008 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

      • Re: hey mate…

        He was young I don’t remember his age at the time, but I sat next to him in a friends kitchen in the East Village during a fellow art students birthday party.

        We talked because he mentioned he was going to school for photography, and I mentioned that my Dad was a political cartoonist for the Washington Post but never went to art school, but still made it.

        I don’t know if we talked homo-stuff, art or political stuff, then again I had few drinks…he had small Minox camera and TLR camera. I found him interesting easy to converse with.(compared to many artist friends and acquaintances)

        I have a photographic memory, one the reasons why I study History and Media, and probably the reason why I remembered him @ the Whitney.

        Comment by bon_homme_dane — April 28, 2008 @ 12:05 am

      • Re: hey mate…

        Huh. Well, nice. He seems like enough of a non-elitist by his work – but you never know.

        Comment by ononehand — April 28, 2008 @ 12:20 am

  2. I enjoyed reading your take on Ryan’s work.

    In the past few weeks I’ve had the privilege of being able to organize all of Ryan’s digital files, and it’s interesting to observe the changes in style. There are the obvious differences from earlier work (Kate Moss), but at the same time, I feel like he’s really stayed true to himself and is continuing to make beautifully transcendent art that speaks to its generation. I’m glad to see that he’s getting the appreciation he deserves.

    Comment by _shakeappeal — April 29, 2008 @ 5:38 am | Reply

    • I think it was a lot about timing, being 17 and the fact that it was the first thing I saw of a bigger world out there. Plus there is a lot of erotic gay artwork that borders on pedophilia – but Ryan McGinley was young and most of the people he photographed were about his age. Not that I’m calling everything he does “erotic.”

      Anyway, it has changed a lot through time. I think his earlier work was a lot more organic than his newer stuff, which is more obviously staged. I think I liked the older work better.

      Anyway, I’m adding you, because I like your style.

      Comment by ononehand — April 29, 2008 @ 5:51 am | Reply

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