Book Review: Ryan McGinley: You and I / Whistle for the Wind

RyanMcGinley cover copy

“Whoever I’m photographing, I sort of fall in love with in a way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a boy, it could be a girl too. In a sense, my work is about fantasy. It’s like a film in a way. It’s fiction. But, at the same time, it’s really happening. I’m with these people and we’re at these locations and I think that’s why people really like it, because people want to get lost in the world. People also look at photographs like they’re 100 percent real. There’s still this idea that the image I’m showing them is documentary and they can project their own conclusions or stories as to what’s going on. People will come up to me and say the weirdest things about my photographs”.

This was Ryan McGinley’s own explanation of his process of image making as explained to the filmmaker Gus Van Sant. McGinley’s images are sexy, beautiful and in demand across both the commercial and art world’s globally. If you haven’t heard his name you must surely know his images from advertising billboards, fashion magazines or his many personally created books.

Ryan McGinley was born in 1977 and began making photographs in 1998. In 2003, at just 25, he became the youngest artist to have ever had a solo exhibition of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In the same year McGinley was named Photographer of the Year by American Photo Magazine and by 2007 he was being awarded the Young Photographer Infinity Award by the International Center of Photography. McGinley is a photographic wonder kid who hasn’t been able to put a foot wrong.

The youngest of eight children, McGinley emerged himself in New Jersey’s fringe society of skateboarders, graffiti artists, musicians, painters and sculptors before moving to New York’s East Village in 1998 where he covered the walls of his apartment with Polaroid pictures of everyone who visited him there. Two years later he held his first exhibition and by 2002 he had published the first book of his work titled The Kids Are Alright. It was a handmade, self published and distributed publication which he sent to people he respected in the art world. One of these books was given to Sylvia Wolf, the Director of the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington and author of The Digital Eye: Photographic Art in the Electronic Age who immediately ushered his work onto the walls for that Whitney exhibition.

Since 2004, Ryan McGinley’s style has evolved from his early documentation of his friends in real-life situations towards an aesthetic which involves creating settings in which the situations he has envisioned can be documented. “I got to the point where I couldn’t wait for the pictures to happen anymore,” he has said. “I was wasting time, and so I started making pictures happen. It borders between being set up or really happening. There’s that fine line.” McGinley shoots 35mm film and makes his photographs using Yashica T4s and Leica R8s, he is not a technical photographer.

His images are often shot directly into the light or at night, they luxuriate in film grain and express the importance of the captured moment, the hedonistic exuberance of youth and the assumed innocence of shared sexuality. McGinley’s work is cinematic and he has spoken of the influence on his images of Terrence Malick’s film, Days of Heaven.

McGinley’s images are created around concepts or projects such as his two-year road trip, on which he traveled to dozens of Morrissey concerts in the US, the UK, and Mexico creating densely saturated in concert images featuring candid shots of fans, in which he regularly zooms in for seductive close-ups of Morrisey enamored kids. Or his I Know Where the Summer Goes collection, in which McGinley and his troupe of friends travel the country as he photographs them, sometimes clothed and often not, while they leap fences, lounge in a desert and play together in a tree.” His images then appear as books, editorial, exhibitions and advertising. Commissioned or self-initiated, McGinley’s images have become instantly recognizable. His visual language is defined, controversial but commercial.

Now two of the most prestigious photographic book publishers — Twin Palms in Los Angeles and Rizzoli in New York — have published major monographs of the still relatively young photographer’s life so far. Twin Palms’ You and I is described by them as McGinley’s first retrospective ‘monograph’ (by this I assume they mean his first collection of works from more that one project) and features images personally selected by McGinley from his first decade of work. It is, as you would expect from Twin Palms, a beautifully printed, large format tome, which serves as an excellent greatest hits compilation or primer for anybody looking to find out what all the fuss is about with McGinley and his work. Many of the selected images are instantly recognizable to those who know his work and despite the occasional image which to me jars the freewheeling image narrative (particularly those that seem too informed by the work of Robert Mapplethorpe) it is the perfect McGinley compilation.

Not to be out done by Twin Palms, Rizzoli have their own McGinley monograph titled Ryan McGinley: Whistle for the Wind complete with contributions by novelist and critic Chris Kraus, writer, artist and activist John Kelsey and Gus Van Sant. Just like You and I Whistle for the Wind is a beautifully designed, printed and presented volume of McGinley’s work. The difference between the two is that Whistle for the Wind covers all of McGinley’s career up to this point. It is therefore another first on the McGinley monograph front. Inevitably there is an element of image repetition between the two books, and yet both feel like essential records of McGinley’s body of work.

There is no doubt that the first ten years of his career saw him establish his vision. Through the pagination of You and I we can both see and feel him pushing his own boundaries, whilst flexing the narrative he had decided to be his own. The images which take this journey on to the present day within Whistle for the Wind see him consolidate that narrative and start to deal with its subtleties of detail. As such both titles not only have a reason for being, they also begin to form a joint narrative through their focus. If you are already a fan of McGinley’s work you will want to own both; if you are looking to find out more about him then Whistle for the Wind is probably the best one to start with. Having said that, if you are looking to find out more about where McGinley’s work comes from then You and I is probably the one for you. In other words I can’t recommend either of these books over the other but I can recommend the work of Ryan McGinley.

© Grant Scott 2012

Ryan McGinley: Whistle for the Wind: Contributions by Neville Wakefield and Dave Hickey. Interview by Gus Van Sant
Rizzoli. £30.00
ISBN-13: 978-0847838318

Ryan McGinley: You and I
Twin Palms. £39.00
ISBN-13: 978-1931885515

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