Photography by David Needleman
Ryan McGinley is happily munching coconut jerky in his favorite restaurant, Euphoria Loves Rawvolution, in Santa Monica. The 33-year-old’s attire is so casual it’s on the verge of disintegrating. Both shoulders of his hoodie are ripped, exposing a frayed T-shirt riddled with holes and bleach stains. He just got out of yoga class -- he has practiced most everyday for the past six years. "But I'm not super New Age!" he insists. A vegetarian for a decade, McGinley is lean and youthful.
However, the slender frame shown in some of the photographs that document the first stage of his career might have less wholesome derivations. His renowned 2003 debut series “The Kids Are Alright” captured the joie de vivre and decadence of millennial New York City -- a lineal passing of the torch from Nan Goldin and David Armstrong. McGinley documented him and his pals puking, partying, fucking, and tagging graffiti. The collection gave McGinley his first solo show, at the Whitney no less, and a 26-year-old art star was born.
"All the early articles were like, 'Is this kid a flash in the pan?' " McGinley says. "It was 50/50 with supporters and haters. Once I turned 30, all that toned down. Now they talk about other people and say their work is like Ryan McGinley's." Immediately after that first show, McGinley announced an about-turn in his approach. "All the work I had done was documentary," he says. "I wanted to direct people and set up situations." He went out that summer in a bus, photographing models, climbing trees, and cavorting outdoors (mostly nude). The specific narrative of his prior work was lost, replaced by mystery, magic, and carefully composed beauty. But this artistic volte-face wasn’t just for aesthetic reasons.
"My friends wouldn't model for me anymore," McGinley says. "Marc, my first boyfriend, would always get pissed off that I was taking pictures all the time. He was so annoyed I was snapping every moment of our relationship. The rest of the people who I was photographing went on to become their own artists, like Dan Colen and Dash Snow." Wanderlust also fueled his new style.
"I never traveled as a kid," McGinley says. "My parents used to take me to colonial Williamsburg and dress me up. That was my fucking vacation. It was terrible. I wanted to see America."
The summer odyssey has become a yearly endeavor. McGinley just finished his latest meandering trek from New York City. But now, the budget is a lot higher -- he owns his own short bus, and his posse consists of two producers, two camera assistants, and five models. They camp out every night and do three photo shoots per day. "I get a good mellow crew so it's not like a reality show," McGinley says. "I shoot so many and edit it down to just this one moment. This summer, I was making a lot of photos with animals. I spent about half the time at zoos and farms and with exotic animals." So, the nude models were paired with wolves, cockatoos, and the like.
"My models look like my brothers and sisters when they were teenagers," says the photographer, who grew up the youngest of eight kids in Ramsey, N.J. "The work is about idolizing them and the adventures I had with them when I was younger. One twin sister was a cheerleader, one was a stoner goth. One brother was a business guy, another an athlete." Ryan was closest to his gay brother Michael.
"I spent most of my time with him," he says. "His boyfriend was a Barbra Streisand impersonator. Their apartment was drag pandemonium. He was the funnest bro to hang out with. The others wanted to teach me baseball." Ryan devoted his teenage years to skateboarding and painting. When Ryan was 13, Michael returned home. He was wasting away from AIDS.
"We told people he had cancer," Ryan says. "People in the suburbs didn't know gay people and thought you could get AIDS if you got spit on. He passed away when I was 16. Losing my brother is the biggest thing that has happened to me."
McGinley moved to New York City to attend art school and soon befriended a gorgeous dominatrix/prostitute who lived upstairs from him. They hooked up a few times, but McGinley was hesitant to have sex with her. "She said, 'If you don't want to fuck me, you're fucking gay,' " he remembers. "I was like Maybe. I don’t know.
“That night, we ended up at this after-hours,” he says, "And there was this really cute guy, Harry. She talked to him and we ended up back at hers. She said 'I'm going to kiss Harry and you’re going to kiss me and then you’re going to kiss Harry.' I was so nervous my mouth was bone dry and I started making out with him and that was it. This made sense! I never hooked up with a girl again."
At the School of Visual Arts, McGinley shifted from studying painting to poetry and then graphic design. All are apparent in his meticulously composed fantasist photographs. He finally picked up a camera and started documenting his social circle during a design course. It was a fortuitous time for this type of work—photo blogs had yet to emerge, and the all-digital era was still on the horizon.
McGinley has carved out a successful career beyond the art world without compromising his work in the slightest. His recent Levi’s advertisements could work in a gallery show. And he’s rendered everyone from Olympians to Oscar nominees in sumptuous abstracted portfolios for The New York Times Magazine. This year, he shot Lady Gaga for the cover of Rolling Stone, an image that revealed pathos and emotion, instead of a pop star in a wacky get-up.
"When I was shooting her," McGinley says, "she was doing things like giving the claws and doing poses. Her mom was there and I said, 'Mama Gaga, come here.' At that moment, the guard went down and you just saw a daughter talking to her mother. That's the cover image." The Gaga shoot gave him even more credibility with his nieces and nephews than when the characters on Gossip Girl debated where to hang their Ryan McGinley, the ultimate symbol of cool.