Self-Portraits
from New York

Interview with Ryan McGinley

Photography by Ryan McGinley Text by Yumiko Sakuma

Photographer Ryan McGinley has lent his talents to artistic collaborations with UT.At a time when New York was abnormally quiet, we asked him about the past and future.

Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

2020 Napanoch
Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

Self-portraits let you be whoever you want

Ryan McGinley contributed photography to the 2020 Fall & Winter UT collection. In the self-portraits seen here, Ryan wears the T-shirts we created using four photographs from his archive.

“In my view, the T-shirt is a mainstay of style. When I was a kid, I used to collect all kinds of T-shirts from the bands I liked or concerts I had been to. Hippie, punk, skater, labor activism. All these phases that I’ve passed through came with different sets of clothes, but I’ve always enjoyed the fetishism of T-shirts, how they create this opportunity for interpersonal exchange. Having my work printed onto a T-shirt, versus being displayed on a wall, makes it part of the movement, style, or story of whoever wears it—and in that sense, T-shirts are like a personal extension of a gallery or museum, a sign of which tribe you belong to, and a way of communicating with others about what you love.”

2020 Napanoch
Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

Self-portraits are something of a rarity for Ryan.

“I’m a portrait photographer, which means drawing vitality from connections with other people. But these days (due to COVID-19) I’m not able to express myself in the usual ways. Lately, I’ve been commissioned to take photos of myself, and when I do I try to channel the energy of my favorite artists. If you think in terms of gender, people are assigned a single role at birth, forced into this one identity, which can feel so confining, but self-portraits allow you to create another world, make your fantasies a reality, liberate yourself from that identity, and become the version of yourself you want to be.”

Channeling another person’s energy, even when you photograph yourself-for Ryan, expressing himself through photography means celebrating and illuminating your community.

Moonmilk, 2009 @Alison Jaques, London
Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

“The subjects that I choose for my photographs have qualities that I don’t have. I’m a little shy and reserved, more of an observer, so I search for people who have bigger personalities than me. As the director, I choose the atmosphere and scenery, offering instructions here and there, but it only works when the spirit of the subject can come through. That’s what I want to capture, in a display of energy.”

Moonmilk, 2009 @Alison Jaques, London
Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

Over many different series, Ryan has relied on different situations and techniques, but his subjects, whom he refers to as “collaborators,” have always been expressive people like activists, performers, photographers, and dancers. And through it all, a common theme of youth.

“My work has free spirit, a sense of adventure, and a sort of rebellious element. I’m forever projecting my inner child. When I was a kid, I searched for landscapes no one knew about or spots in nature I could skate, and used these as a backdrop for my work. I think that’s where the mood and energy of my work comes from. It has a spirit of resistance. Artists are always challenging society and received identities. The bulk of my work comes from that spirit.”

While COVID-19 has made this sort of photography difficult, Ryan has used the opportunity to continuously examine his relationship with media and expression.

Animals, 2012 @83 Grand Street Gallery, NYC
Ryan McGinley Short Sleeve UT

“As an artist, this has been a process of going back to basics. Remembering how I first fell in love with cameras, I’m meditating over ways that I can redefine my approach. Things will probably be like this for a while. I could try shooting over FaceTime or Zoom, or go outside and use a telephoto lens or drone, or find ways to connect with people while observing social distancing.”

At the same time, Ryan is also thoroughly examining his own reaction, as an artist, to the current situation.

“I’ve realized how I took so many things for granted, travelling the world, photographing groups of people, going to concerts and gallery openings. I’m worried about the older members of my family, and I’m doing my best to protect them. Still, as an advocate of natural conservation, I think the earth needed this chance to heal. Every day, I ask myself what I can learn from this experience. Most people have been rekindling connections with friends and having meaningful conversations. Everybody is uneasy, but this has also been cathartic. A time for artists to immerse themselves in the creative process. If you give an artist a rule, they’ll reinterpret it into a work of art. I’m really looking forward to all of the amazing art to come out of this.”

Facing the quiet streets, Ryan has reaffirmed his connection to New York.

“The city right now feels gentle and loving. Every day at 7 pm, we open our windows and drum on things to make some noise. My boyfriend Marc plays his violin or cello, and I bang on a pot with a wooden spatula. It’s a gesture of support to people in the healthcare industry, but it also makes us happy, and having everyone in the community participate makes it really lovely.”

Ryan McGinley
Photographer
Born in 1977 in New Jersey. Debuting with The Kids Are All Right, a self-published collection of photographs of friends, at twenty-five he had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Subsequent work has utilized a variety of scenery, from the outdoors to the studio, while always focused on expressive individuals.
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