Purple Magazine
— F/W 2008 issue 10

Ryan McGinley

Ryan McGinley, self-portrait


all photographs by RYAN McGINLEY
interview by GLENN O’BRIEN


Thirty-one-year old RYAN McGINLEY is one of the leading artists of his generation. He possesses many of the particular qualities that make today’s young artists so exciting,
but he’s also a hardcore classicist. His pictures would have been appreciated at any time in the history of photography, yet they are filled with the beauty and energy of the present.

GLENN O’BRIEN — The pictures in this show at the Team Gallery in the New York were taken on a road trip. Where did you start that trip?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Upstate New York. Then we went down the East Coast, across the South, up through California, and then back through the North. Every day was planned out. But, you know, there’s always that somewhere the road just takes you. Some things happen and some things don’t. I’ll find a location — maybe on the Internet — and think it’d be cool as a landscape. Then I’ll get there and it isn’t so interesting. So we improvise. Figure out something else to do.

GLENN O’BRIEN — How do you travel?
RYAN MCGINLEY — For the last three years we’ve been driving two vans. This year one of our models was driving and fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a divider. That van was totaled. He and I and two other people were inside. We were plowing down into the bushes. I woke up and thought, “Oh fuck!”

GLENN O’BRIEN — Were you in the back?
RYAN MCGINLEY — No, in the front. I don’t drive. I was sleeping. So was everyone else. So, essentially, everybody in the car was sleeping! The driver sort of woke up and tried to pull back up on the highway, but it was such an incline that the van flipped over three times. But I’m very strict about everyone wearing seatbelts, so everyone was OK. We just got a few little dings.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Was this on the interstate?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah. We went to the hospital and got checked out, and everyone was OK. The next day we brought it to a demolition place, and rented a 15-passenger van. My producer — he used to be a model of mine, but then I realized he was really good with organizing everything, so now he’s my producer — he said, “I’m the only one fucking driving! Nobody else!” So now we just travel in one 15-passenger van — one of those big white ones with the black tinted windows.

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — I thought maybe you toured in a bus like Willie Nelson.
RYAN MCGINLEY — I wish. But you have to have a smaller van because you have to be inconspicuous when you’re shooting nudes. We don’t always have permission, and have to wing it. You’re always avoiding people — such as cops — and if you have a bus, you’re more of a target.

GLENN O’BRIEN — You’ve had trouble with cops?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Once. In a motel. I don’t even know where it was. But it was really beautiful. The second floor, on the walkway. Really nice. We’d just gotten there. I get really anxious in the car to start taking photographs. You’re driving for so long there are so many places that you can’t even think about stopping at. You have to drive by. And I’m thinking, “Oh man, I want to photograph that…” So by the time we got out of the car at the motel, I just wanted to take some photographs. So we put this girl on the balcony. I was shining light from our room out on her. Within like three seconds she was naked. The next-door neighbor opened the door, and said, “What the fuck is going on? I’m calling the fucking cops!” I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. It’s cool. Go back inside. Don’t worry about it.” I was like, “Fuck. Everybody pretend you’re asleep!” So we turned off the lights and pretended to be sleeping, and within three minutes the cops were knocking on the door. “We know you’re in there!” I came to the door pretending to be sleepy. The cop says, “Dude, don’t bullshit me.” I say, “Fine. Whatever.” He’s like, “What’s going on?” I said, “Well, I was just taking a photo of this girl. She was in her underwear.” He goes, “Well, I heard she was naked.” I said, “No. She wasn’t naked…” If you tell the cops there was nudity, they can arrest you. So the rule is: deny, deny, deny. He said, “Are you making porn or something?” I said, “No, we’re making art photos.” I had the issue of W magazine that I photographed Kate Moss in. It was like my credentials. I tell him I photograph people like Kate Moss. So the cop says to his partner, “Oh shit, look at this. It’s Kate Moss, man. All right buddy, have a good night!”

GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s cool.
RYAN MCGINLEY — My philosophy is: do it until someone tells you to stop. Never ask. I shot this girl at a bowling alley at six in the morning. We had to do it before it opened. It was surreal. We woke up at five and were bowling naked at six. It was great. All the people who ran the alley were there, and they were psyched. They were drinking beer at 6 A.M., watching us bowl. It was really fun. This girl was only on that trip for three days. I caught her doing drugs in the bathroom. Can’t be doing that shit on a trip. I sent her back home. But I made a really nice photo of her.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Where do you find your models?
RYAN MCGINLEY — They’re friends, or friends of friends, and we do castings. The girl in
this picture used to date the artist, Dan Colen. This kid was my intern. One day he said to me, “If you ever want me to model for you…” I said, “All right. Take off your clothes. Let me see what you look like.” So he took off his clothes, and he had this amazing body — super-long limbs. Usually when I do nude castings, it’s very artist-model kind of poses: “Stand here, stand to the side, sit down. Sit on the chair.” Then I have people run back and forth to see how they move. Every movement he did was super. So graceful. I thought, “Oh man, he’s gonna be a star.”

GLENN O’BRIEN — Where was this picture taken?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Lake Powell. We were on a houseboat for three days. It’s nice. It could only go seven miles per hour. You kind of just cruise through the land-scape. The water is electric green. It’s great to take photographs there.

GLENN O’BRIEN — You’ve been to Venice, right?

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — The color of the water there is amazing, even though it’s filthy. I don’t know why. It should be brown or gray or something, but it’s an incredible green.RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah, yeah. Like it’s electric. This one was taken at White Sands, in New Mexico, one of my favorite places to shoot. It’s where they used to do nuclear bomb testing. It’s just so beautiful. I’m always trying to shoot at sunset because you get the most amazing colors.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Is that light the sun coming through the clouds?
RYAN MCGINLEY — No. It’s illuminated by two spotlights, the kind that you can buy at a hardware store. I had one of my assistants hold the spotlights on the person. It’s the most abstract photograph in the show, for sure. It’s really weird. People are always asking me, “Did you do that with Photoshop?” But we don’t do work like that on the photographs. This is at Amboy Crater, in California. I always shoot at Jack Pierson’s house. He has a house in the desert in Twenty-nine Palms. He’s been letting me shoot there for the last four or five years. This one was taken about an hour away from his house, at a big, black, dark, ominous crater. It looks like something from The Lord of the Rings when you’re approaching it.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you see any snakes?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Luckily, no. But we were prepared to handle that. We’re very cautious. As much as the photos look like they’re sort of free and wild, we do take precautions. We know what to do when we see a bear or a snake — and how to suck the poison out of somebody. We have first-aid kits and all kinds of boring stuff that’s important to have.

GLENN O’BRIEN — You must go through a lot of sunscreen.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Bug spray, too.

GLENN O’BRIEN — You know the joke about the two guys out hiking, and a rattlesnake strikes and bites one guy on his dick? His friend says, “I’ll go to town and find a doctor. He finds a doctor, and the doctor says, “I can’t come. I’m delivering a baby. You’re going to have to go back and suck the poison out.” So he goes back to his friend who says, “Where’s the doctor?” And he says, “He can’t come.” And his friend says, “Well, what did he say?” And he says, “You’re gonna die!” [Laughter]… Do you use filters?
RYAN MCGINLEY — No. I didn’t study photography at school. I studied graphic design. So I’m not very technically savvy. I use a Leica R8, which is a single-lens reflex camera, and a Yashica 24, which is plain and cheap. I almost always use it without the flash. I don’t really use a flash very much. There’s always available light, or weird light like spotlights or car headlights.

GLENN O’BRIEN — This is a great picture.
RYAN MCGINLEY — I made that in the ghetto in Chicago. We got this roller rink and…

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — It looks like it’s outside in a sandstorm.
RYAN MCGINLEY — We smoked out the roller-rink. Our themes for this summer were sand, smoke, and fireworks … and a lot of falling. I’m definitely interested in the idea of falling. We travel with a trampoline. We can set it up in thirteen minutes and take it down in seven. We can do it anywhere. But I wanted to do more indoor stuff. When you have your birthday you can rent out the roller rink for just you and your friends. So I thought, why not rent it out and see if we can do some naked roller-skating. It was awesome. It was an all-black roller rink, and we asked them to play hip-hop music for us. They were looking at us like this was the craziest thing they’d ever seen in their entire lives. They loved it. It was so great. We totally smoked it out. By the end you couldn’t even see five feet in front of you.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Is that a smoke machine that uses oil, or…?
RYAN MCGINLEY — We have two kinds of smoke machines: one that works indoors like they use in clubs, and another that they use on movie sets. If you’re outdoors, it just fucking smokes out like crazy — the whole area.
It looks like a hot-rod.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh … this is the trampoline picture.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yes. My goal is for people to look at my pictures and not think about how they’re made, but just to think about how they look. In a lot of the photos the action is performed over and over. The photos make the action look very casual and simple, but I may have the model do it numerous times. This one probably flipped 250 times into blasts of smoke, over a few hours, and that’s the photo we got from it. That’s my favorite title, too: Dusk Flip Smoke Strip. Because it’s right at dusk, while the last bit of light was in the sky. We print the photos anywhere from 5 by 7 inches to 7 by 10 feet. I’ll look at one photograph in different sizes and then choose the size that’s appropriate. A lot of people ask, “Why is this one small and that one big?” It’s because they’re the size that they should be. Of course they ask, “How do you know?” It’s because we print in every size. This one was shot in this really great place called Great Sand Dunes, in Colorado. It looks like The Planet of the Apes. Huge, gigantic sand dunes. This was the first day. I actually made two photos there. We had to walk about a mile out. This is one of my favorite models. I have been shooting with him for about three years now; he’s just so good. He can anticipate exactly what I’m thinking. He just saw me staring at these cracks — crazy steep. And he just…

GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, it looks like it might have been dangerous.
RYAN MCGINLEY — A lot of the shots are dangerous.

GLENN O’BRIEN — How did he get to this spot? It’s kind of amazing.
RYAN MCGINLEY — He’s just really good. He loves to tumble and stuff. It’s really good when you have someone who knows exactly what you want. The best model can offer you something you never expected. I give people direction, but it’s always nice when models do something by themselves. You don’t have to say anything.

GLENN O’BRIEN — People think modeling is totally passive. But, you know, I’ve worked in fashion for half of my life, and when you see a model like Linda Evangelista work … you look at the contact sheet and every picture is different. This picture is funny. The guy is nude and has so much hair down there but no hair up here.
RYAN MCGINLEY — I know. We call him The Centaur. Because he has no hair on his head, but from his ass down he’s a fucking animal. It’s really great. I was telling him he has to read the book about Darby Crash, the Lexicon Devil, because Darby had no hair on his head, but was completely hairy from the ass down.

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — It looks like he was getting waxed, and then decided to quit.
RYAN MCGINLEY — A lot of guys I’ve photographed have hair in weird places…This is another sand dune, a really good one. It’s at the intersection of four states, called the Four Corners. You can stand in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada almost at once.

GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s Indian country, right?
RYAN MCGINLEY — I don’t know. I think of it as Mormon country. We’re always running from the Mormons. We pissed them off a lot.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. There was a wild picture in The New York Times. Hundreds of heretic Mormons who still practice polygamy getting arrested.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Sounds just like Big Love. 

GLENN O’BRIEN — More extreme. They were hauling off women dressed like they’d come back from the nineteenth century.
RYAN MCGINLEY — I just met a gay kid who writes for Big Love, an ex-Mormon.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Have you ever been to Salt Lake City? It’s funny: there are a lot of good-looking people there.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Mormons are hot. I always want to pick up the ones trying to solicit people in Chinatown. They’re always handsome guys in button-down collared shirts. But they only want to talk to the Chinese; they want to expand their religion, to branch out to different races. I lived in Chinatown, and I’d ask, “Why don’t you want to talk to me?”

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — Maybe they want to fuck the Chinese because they know they won’t talk. [Ryan laughs] I always used to see Hasidim in the meat districts picking up Puerto Rican transvestite hookers. Hanging out at Jackie 60.
RYAN MCGINLEY — The Hasidim, yeah. They’re always at the gay clubs really late at night. Because you know they’re all married and they’re at gay clubs, in the back room… It’s really kind of sad.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Are those fireworks in this photo?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yes. It’s my favorite thing to do. We usually set them up in a space like this. We buy a lot. Every time we go into a fireworks store, it’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” We buy them pretty much every few days. They’re illegal in about half the states, so we stock up when we’re in certain states. They’re my favorite shoots because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s total pandemonium. My favorite thing about photography is surprise, the unexpected: getting the photos back and looking through them and not knowing what I’m going to get. Finding one photo that totally works. Fireworks are very special for that. Because there’s an element of danger and an element of mystery — and because it happens so fast and you only get what you can get.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Is all the light in this picture from the fireworks?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah, it’s all from the fireworks.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Isn’t it dangerous?
RYAN MCGINLEY — A little bit. Basically it’s just sparks. We don’t buy the ones that make explosions. We buy the ones that say, “Emits shower of sparks.” They shoot sparks about seven feet up into the air. But it doesn’t really do anything to you. But if you’re jumping over them fast, you might get a little heat on your leg, but it’s not too bad. We’re cautious.

GLENN O’BRIEN — There’s an injury in this shot.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah. That was from a car accident. We realized we really had to treat this guy with kid gloves. In the first week he fell out of a tree, crashed the car, and had a panic attack when we were doing scuba diving. It was super-traumatic. This is just another falling photo. Taken with a broken camera I’ve been using for years. The shutter is broken so you never know what the fuck you’re going to get with it. You get these really beautiful fades.

GLENN O’BRIEN — I know people who buy certain Russian cameras for that reason.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Oh, really?

photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes, because they leak. So you never know what you’re going to get.
RYAN MCGINLEY — This one is in an area in the Badlands called the Grasslands. The Grasslands are so big. It’s like fucking hundreds of miles. We were driving, and my producer said, “Well, where do you want to shoot?” I said let’s just pull up on the fields and start shooting. This is probably at two or three in the afternoon. We shot until about nine in the evening, when the sun was setting. This is the third picture I took that day.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Are those cattle, or buffalo?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Cows. Actually, I don’t know.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Steers? Bulls with no balls?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Something like that.

GLENN O’BRIEN — This one looks like the movie, Badlands. I think it was shot in the Grasslands.
It’s got that color.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah. I love Terrence Malick’s films. I always adhere to his philo-sophy of filming at sunrise or sunset — they’re the magic hours. He always tries to do that. I think that’s why his movies look so pretty.

GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s why they cost so much to make. [Both laugh]
RYAN MCGINLEY — We have a saying on a trip, when it’s not the magic hour. We’re driving, and it’s like, “Fuck, man, we’ve got to do the shoot, now.” We call it the tragic hour. I prepare binders of inspirational material for our trips. Some come from screen grabs of movies I like. Some come from amateur photos I find on the Internet, or from nudist magazines, or from artists I’m inspired by. From Camera Annual, Sports Illustrated, or Patagonia catalogs — all kinds of weird shit. I travel with a stack of them. We’ll go through them and find things that are interesting as starting points, to set the mood so everyone knows what I’m going for. We propose different ideas. For this one I bought clear ponchos because I saw a picture of nudist women in clear ponchos sitting on a dock in the rain, and I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s really pretty. I want to remake that.” For most of a trip we never used them. Finally, on one of the last days, it was raining, and I said, “We have to use these ponchos.” Everyone was like, “No way, man. They are so gay.” But I said, “Oh, come on. Let’s just use them.” It was freezing that day because of the
rain. Everyone was huddled up together. These two guys were huddled up together.


photo Ryan McGinley

GLENN O’BRIEN — Like when it’s raining and all you’ve got is a dry cleaning bag.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Totally. Everyone says, “Body condoms! Full body condoms!” I’m like, “Yech, no!” But I call it my big gay photo of the show… This is a girl I’ve been working with since 2001. She sets the standard for all the other models. She’s totally bonkers — and amazing. She’ll do anything, and is so excited about it, it makes me excited. I do try to push people to go as far as they can. I’ll shoot them for as long as I can. Until they say, “All right, Ryan. That’s enough, dude. Let’s call it a day.” I’m always saying, “No, wait. One more picture, one more picture.” Which turns into ten more minutes, then ten more minutes turns into a half an hour, until people are like, “Fuck this. I’m going back to the car.” But she’s up for anything. She’s a real performer and a real comedian.

GLENN O’BRIEN — It seems like most of your models are pretty athletic.
RYAN MCGINLEY — That’s definitely a requirement.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you ever use dancers?
RYAN MCGINLEY — No, not really. Mostly I use art students, writers, actors, actresses, painters, or photographers — people in the creative community. Because they just get it. It’s hard to find people who are willing to pose nude. But when you look at the photos, you don’t notice they’re nude. We also film everything. I’ve been videotaping the shoots for the last five years. When you look at the videos it becomes something totally different. Seeing a romantic, beautifully composed image being made is ridiculous. The dialogue between a photographer and a model is completely stupid. Like these weird nudist videos.

GLENN O’BRIEN — When I look through a fashion magazine I think the stylist is over there, the make-up artist is here, and the lights are here, and the client is sitting there. I’ve lost my innocent eye.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Well, it is really hands-on. That’s the thing I hate about fashion shoots — there are so many fucking people there that don’t need to be there. You know? The shoots we do aren’t at all like fashion shoots.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, well, the clients want to get out of the office…
RYAN MCGINLEY — There really only needs to be three or four people at a shoot. And there always ends up being ten. It just kills me. Because I do these shoots — shooting for 90 days, every single fucking day. It’s two assistants, a producer, and me. That’s it. You don’t need all the other people. I guess if you’re doing a story about hair or a certain kind of fashion thing you do… We shoot film, which nobody sees, and Polaroids. We have an SX70. We’ll pop off a few of those every day and make a little scrapbook out of them. But I don’t see anything until I come home. I send the film back in FedEx boxes. I learned a really good trick from Bruce Weber. He said, When you send your film back, break it up into two boxes, so that if they lose a box, at least you’ll have part of the shoot.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you work with Bruce Weber?
RYAN MCGINLEY — No. He photographed me once. It was a really amazing experience. Just to see the way that he works was inspiring — the way his team anticipates his movements, and the way he interacts with the subjects. In Bruce Weber world it’s very casual, and such a pleasant experience.

GLENN O’BRIEN — When you get out your trampoline, or have your fireworks going, do you
play music?
RYAN MCGINLEY — We play music during every shoot. One of the intern’s jobs is to carry the boom box around at all times. And to make sure the batteries are charged every night. The music never stops. We have a soundtrack to all the photographs.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Who’s the DJ?
RYAN MCGINLEY — I’m the DJ. I make all the mixes. It goes from some oldies to The Stones. The Stones are always really great to play. And it’s always upbeat music… We made a slingshot the day we shot this picture. We went to a hardware store and got all this stuff and made this human slingshot, and we slingshot people into the air. The photo is called Ann (Slingshot). It was
really fun. You didn’t get that high up, maybe five or six feet. But it was interesting.

GLENN O’BRIEN — Was it a blanket-toss kind of thing?
RYAN MCGINLEY — Yeah, but with really thick rubber. One of the guys on the trip was really handy. I had this idea. You know, I just draw little sketches. “It’d be really cool to slingshot somebody. How can we do that?” And he said, “I think I can make it.” He figured out all the logistics. The girl, Ann, had just had surgery on her ovaries, or something like that. I said, “Are you going to be all right?” She said, “Yeah, yeah.” So we started hiking on a sand dune and she got heat exhaustion. That’s vomit in the corner of that photograph. She just puked. We got her a cold towel with some water on it. I asked her if I could take her picture. This is the most formal photograph in the show. I never make photos like that. It was actually made in a bowling alley. You’d never know it. I don’t know — it kind of reminds me of Paul Outerbridge.

GLENN O’BRIEN — You often can’t tell where your pictures were shot.
RYAN MCGINLEY — Someone asked me what I like about the transition between photographing in New York and in nature. The thing I always search for, and the thing I like about nature, is its timelessness. It’ll always be the same. You can look at a photo and not be able to place it in time. You could place it within the age of color photography, but not really within time. When I shoot indoors, I try to work with the elements, so someone could look at the photographs and guess if they were taken there at this time or that. You can come up with your own conclusion as to where it is, and what was happening.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2008 issue 10

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