Ryan McGinley was born on the 17th October 1977 in Ramsey, New Jersey USA. The youngest of eight children, he made his first tentative steps into the world of photography by filming his friends skateboarding. It was when he attended the Parsons School of Design however, that he started to record his friends and lovers in a more intimate and detailed way which took his photography in a whole new direction.
As he continued documenting his friends the idea of showing the results was just as important to him. In 2000 all this work culminated in a one week show in a SoHo store front but to ensure he was on his road to fame McGinley produced a 50 page booklet to accompany the show. The booklet served several purposes. Firstly it was cheap and thus enabled him to keep the costs down, secondly it was portable and thirdly it allowed him to link with many more artists in the creative field as he forwarded the booklet to photographers and magazines he admired.
This early work (later published as ‘The Kids are Alright) contained images of his friends having fun and allowed the viewer to enter McGinleys circle of friends and all their activities such as skateboarding, graffiti writing etc that they carried out. Sylvia Wolf describes this perspective in her essay as an ‘insider documentary ‘Sylvia Wolf Essay: ‘Out of Bounds’ 2011.
There have been comparisons made between McGinley and Larry Clark or Nan Goldin both of whom photographed the intimacy of a close circle of friends. In comparing both works though McGinley shows us his friends more from the perspective of a participant than an observer or voyeur. Whilst Clark and Goldin also shared and photographed inmate moments, their images are detached in that participation was kept to a minimum so as not to disturb the moment. McGinley’s photographs are fresher and border on innocence and although he too does not appear in them, the suspicion is that he orchestrated the events. In fact McGinleys photographs are so intimate that you feel without his presence the activity photographed may not actually have taken place, so perhaps he is more a catalyst.
In his later work McGinley follows this view point further stating “I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore” Sylvia Wolf Essay: ‘Out of Bounds’ 2011, and led to him packing friends (and volunteer students) into transport and along with several hundred rolls of film and heading out across America to such venues as White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Once there his subjects would strip down to socks and trainers and participate in any games, dares or situations that McGinley would create.
In encouraging his friends to participate in this way, the nudity is almost forgotten and therefore takes on a type of innocence not seen since the early days of the Greek Olympic games where all tests of prowess and courage were performed in front of peers whilst nude. In looking at his photographs of nudes running through the sparks of fireworks and bonfire embers, its easy to imagine the cheers and applause as each runner ran the test and passed the finish line, scathed or unscathed depending on their luck.
The black eyes sported by both ‘Tim’ (Black eye) 2005 and Olivia (Sparrow) 2010 are also testament to the severity of some of the games in that his subjects did frequently get injured. Chris Kraus Essay: Pseudo-Fiction, Myth, and Contingency 2012
McGinleys fresh approach to insider documentary photography brought him to the attention of fashion icon Wrangler. The simple innocence of a naked or semi naked youth in a wild place perfectly fitting Wranglers sales approach to the youth clothing market.
McGinley whilst so productive behind the camera, rarely puts himself in front of the camera. Whether by chance or design he was photographed at a Morrissey concert by one of his friends. A big fan of the musician McGinley leapt onto the stage and was physically removed by the security but not before the picture of him (with Morrissey in the background) was captured.
Since McGinley’s first exhibition in 2000 at the age of twenty two he has regularly exhibited all over the world such is the appeal of his work. His latest exhibition was at Ratio 3, San Francisco under the title of ‘Yearbook’ but critics are wondering whether the bubble has begun to burst for him.
Ariel Rosen writing a review of the exhibition questions whether this latest direction for McGinley is evidence he is running out of steam and states “I wonder what he will be doing in ten years time?” Ariel Rosen Review: Ryan McGinley’s ‘Yearbook’ San Francisco Arts Quarterly 2013
Ryan McGinleys meteoric rise to fame was in part self generated. The fact that his photographs managed at the same time to tap into the public psyche triggering a connection perhaps with our own childhood memories has also contributed to his success, after all who cannot remember running naked in a back garden on a hot day at the age of 5 or 6 when the cool water of a paddling pool beaconed?
McGinleys pictures contain these same elements in their simplest form, kids having fun. Now he is no longer the kid from the block, in that he is now grown up, one wonders where his photography will go next.