The Dreamer: Ryan McGinley


By William Van Meter

How the prolific photographer made New York debauchery, nature, and nudism the iconic aesthetic of the past decade.

"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.

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