This Week In Photography Books – Ryan McGinley

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

A month or so ago, I was watching an episode of the new cartoon, “The Avengers.” (For the purposes of this article, let’s say my 4 year old was with me. Less pathetic that way.) Regardless, Captain America turned to Iron Man and said, “Leaders lead.” I’ve heard that line a couple more times in the ensuing weeks. I suppose it’s in the Zeitgiest.

The opposite sentiment, beyond ubiquitous, is, of course, “Haters hate.” Most popular in hip hop, but now everywhere, it refers to that ever-so-glib portion of the population that likes to tear down others’ efforts, but lacks the stones to put forth their own creations. And I used to be one of them.

Oh, how I enjoyed being a Ryan McGinley hater. I was so well suited to the job. Living in Greenpoint in 2002, when he was first getting traction, I saw a photograph at Priska Juschka in Williamsburg. The lovely Dakota, naked as the day she was born, was illuminated by flash while frolicking in the black ocean. OMG, I said. How hard is it to sell a photo of a gorgeous naked hot chick? Anyone can do that. Whatever.

Then, the legend grew. He too was from New Jersey, and ambitious. Plus, he was younger than I was. When I saw his solo show at the Whitney a couple of years later, my eyeballs almost liquidated in all the seething hater-dom. “Are you kidding me,” I wondered. “How is this different from Nan Goldin?” I fumed. “He’s just photographing downtown cool kids. BFD. Could it be any more derivative?” Yes, I was jealous. But it felt so good. Because in my heart, I was sure that I was better than he, and that was all that mattered. (Fools. I’ll show them all…)

Fast forward to 2012, and the release of Mr. McGinley’s brand new monograph, “You and I,” just published by New Mexico’s own Twin Palms. Can’t review this one, I thought. I’m the charter member of the Ryan McGinley hater club, and what’s the point of trashing his book? But then an odd thing happened. I checked back in with myself, and realized that I had, at some point, transcended the hate. I suppose, as I grew up, I realized that everyone walks his/her own path. Success comes to different people at different times, if at all. Mr. McGinley was an art star, and I was just some guy. C’est la vie. And that’s when I got very curious to see this book.

Yes, it’s filled with photographs of naked pretty young things. (Far more boys than girls, if that means anything.) But so what? It’s not like he’s selling these things at a porn shop. There are easily more than a hundred plates, shot over a ten year time range. What I mistook long ago as cynical booty-peddling has clearly become the artist’s obsession and passion, as valid as anyones’. In book form, it all makes sense.

Certain symbols are repeated, fireworks, falling, caves, rivers, trees, motion, all as backdrops or partner effects to the nude youths. (Or as Joe Pesci might say, the nude “Utes.”) Much as I once saw these subjects as hipsters trying ever-so-hard, in “You and I,” it’s hard not to imagine them as nymphs or wood elves, perhaps Roman gods on a time-traveling vacation throughout the American West. (Where it seems much of the book was shot.) Yes, it all happened, and these are real people, but they don’t seem so. The allegorical/metaphorical nature of work shines.

The color palette is lovely, blues, greens, yellows. The mood is consistent, as is the shooting style. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to hang most of these photos on the wall, (particularly the cum shot, which you know has to be there,) but in book form, they’re pretty great. Definitely his own thing. Nan Goldin’s name never came up in my head, which says a lot about Mr McGinley’s evolution as an artist, and my evolution from hater to open-minded artist/writer/whatever-the-hell-I-am.

As some readers believe everything I examine is a suggestion for purchase, please do read the above carefully. You might enjoy this book, you might not. Clearly, the subject matter is kind of a love it/hate it thing. But at the very least, I can say that this book is well worth looking at, as it coalesces the vision of an important American Artist. (And now, my 27 year old self is dying a slow, painful death, somewhere deep within my psyche. Good riddance.)

Bottom line: Fantastic book, perhaps not for everyone

To buy this book visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye.

There Are 40 Comments On This Article.

    • You don’t have to like, appreciate, care, understand, or give a fuck about someone else’s work or success – but, you should appreciate the fact that they’re making it. It’s good to know there is still a place in the world for art. I’m over my hater-ness too. It takes energy away from my path.

  1. i like these photos. but i feel like i think too much about the creator of them while looking at them because McGinley is such a celebrity. not saying that is bad or anything – just reality. if i knew nothing about the creator and the process i think i would like them more. maybe i just like there to be more of a mystery surrounding the creator of the work.

    • That’s an interesting point, some dude. Kind of like Tom Cruise can’t play a character, b/c we only see Tom Cruise. Once I chose to look at this book on it’s merits, I enjoyed it very much. It really does dive deep into the power of beauty and youth.

  2. I have had a very similar relationship with his work. While i cant say that i have come around as much as you have, the hatred has indeed subsided. I just prefer a more technical polished image in general. Maybe i am just jealous about all the free spirited nakedness going on here.

    At the end of the day, you have to hand it to Ryan. He has done well for himself.

    (ha “Utes”. probably the first My Cousin Vinny quote on here Jonathan. Nice)

  3. But nowadays you don’t get compared to Nan by shooting nudes, you always get related to McGinley

    The book looks beautiful though.. It looks like himself, the character Ryan McGinley

  4. I loved his work at first, and then I loved it again the more I kept looking at it…then it…never….changed… Naked sexy people, running around, being naked, hot, sexy…Contax T3s are kinda cool…yeah…

    Now I just think his work is most interesting when he’s forced to keep people’s clothes on. His NYT Mag (I think that’s what it was from) spread on actors up for Oscars a few years back was beautiful.

    But otherwise, yawn. Great boobs! Oh look there’s a naked skinny guy running again… Sparklers are pretty! It’s like an urban outfitters catalog with more penis.

  5. I’d be curious to know what people thought of his fairly well-known policy of giving his assistants/interns cameras with film on these road trips and then making them sign NDAs and non-compete forms so that he owns all of their photos.

    • IMO, it’s no different than someone like Damien Hirst or the many well-known painters in the past that had assistants make their paintings.

      Anyone can punch a shutter, and his style is non-technical. But like Hirst or any of number of artists’ studios, the ‘art’ comes from the concept and the personal vision. Presumably, McGinley selects the images and approves, if not directs, the final result.

      When I was an assistant/second shooter in a large studio, there was a similar arrangement.

    • same as photographers who use camera traps or trigger remote cameras to get additional coverage. i think it’s smart to have people operate the cameras for you if it achieves the final result you want.

    • If people are working under his direction and using his equipment then where’s the problem? No real difference between this and having multiple cameras on a movie shoot or multiple remotes at a sports event.

  6. jesse koechling

    i suppose what i find lacking in his photos is a sort of attachment to the subject. it has little genuine emotion that reaches out to me. they aren’t bad photographs by any means. i simply look at them and they really don’t say much of anything to me. perhaps this reflects more upon me than it does the photos.

    • yeah. it’s like i don’t really feel anything even though the photos are good/interesting? too detached or something

      • Cynthia,

        It’s a really good book. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people who really don’t like his work would enjoy the book. It’s got a nice theme and rhythm to it, and I like that the magical realism/fantasy vibe is strong. (As then it becomes less about hitting you over the head with desire and insecurity.) I’m also a sucker for color, and McGinley uses it really well.

        I think part of why I changed my mind is just the way I’ve grown over time. At worst, McGinley’s work projects that “velvet rope/ you’re not cool enough” energy that makes people feel bad about themselves. In that respect, it’s not that different from the way Advertising functions. Create a bad feeling, and relieve the symptoms with consumption of a product.

        Over time, I came to realize that these kids are not that cool, and I wouldn’t want to hang out with them, even if the opportunity presented itself. Now, I think they just ought to eat more, and take themselves less seriously. So given that I don’t crave their approval or resent their beauty, it makes it far easier to judge the work on it’s mix of style and vision.

        • Thanks for this response, Jonathan. Although you made many excellent and thoughtful points, I also just laughed my ass off.. which is always appreciated.

  7. scott Rex ely

    I think it’s about the capacity of people, as viewers to build visual libraries in their minds. The pleasure and beauty modes are always more open than say the critical thinking ones. Mr. Mc Ginley’s work contributes visual morphemes to those modes that we keep adding to our collective vision. His success is his timeless representations of both beauty and pleasure and possibly innocence, without being to obvious about any. The hating says more about the relationship between the haters and the people who financially subsidize or act as industry mediators/arbitrators of the work.

  8. He is using the snapshot esthetics in an unpretentious way. It seems to come straight out of a definitive person and have character. And he doesn’t seem to care at all what others think. It’s the courageous originality which is attractive.

    I find images in his work that show me something, and it’s not at all clear right away why this image was taken. In some images the “reason” may never pop up. This causes a strangely jarring directness, and effect of experience.

    So I’d say his work feels like unbranded individuality.

    It’s puzzling to me why his work causes people to hate him. But it’s probably a similar effect Terry Richardson has on some. Both McGinley and Richardson apply techniques that are so low key and understated that many may think there’s nothing there, while in fact, hidden underneath the snapshot surface, the keen eyes and personalities of these two photographers are very much at work.

  9. The difference between Mcginely and others is the pursuit, it is endless, persistent, like the drip from the kitchen faucet needing repair long ago that has worn through and stained the porcelain. Eventually there is a breakthrough.

    I don’t get anything from his photographs. Since he is so focused on his style it means there are lots of others, which I enjoy, to explore and be persistent with the exploration. Thanks JB

  10. Another dude

    I love the book and I love the work, my only issue is always the same with his photos. Who actually took them, him or the gaggle of assistants he also has constantly shooting? I know half of his Levi’s photos were shot by an assistant with a T4.

    • I don’t really have a problem with this. With the convergence of still and video photographers are more and more taking on the role of a director. I don’t know why we as still photographers are so obsessed with the idea of who pushes the button. Besides, if we label him as an artist then suddenly it’s not unsual at all that he does not physically create all of his work.

      • Sorry so late to respond to this, but for me, the importance of the craft actually IS pressing the button, especially if you equate the craft to taking that negative and then printing it in the darkroom; from start to finish, an image that you physically made, light to film, film to light to paper. But that’s just me.

        Semi related: I also kind of take issue with photographers claiming to be directors of behind the scenes video of their shoots. Sure they’re directing the action that is being photographed, but they generally aren’t directing the behind the scenes camera person.

  11. Richard Bram

    I have mixed feelings about McGinley’s work but do not grudge him success. For what it’s worth, we use the same lab in New York, Griffin Editions. The folks there say he’s very pleasant to work with and works extremely hard. For that alone he gets points in my book.

  12. If this is what people fifty or one hundred years from now will be looking back at when they consider the photography of today I doubt they will have very many kind things to say. I don’t know McGinley. And I certainly don’t hate him or his work. I am sure he works really hard and some of it is ok. But I just don’t think it’s anything special or very interesting. But then I’ve never been enamored of the so-called snapshot esthetic, which seems as much as anything else an excuse for an absence of technical skill, if not imagination.

  13. As an unrepentant McGinley hater, this review reminded me of a review of Lana Del Rey’s new album, on Gawker. The writer compared her to Avril Lavigne, as in: all teenage girls hated Avril Lavigne at first, since she was more or less forced on them as the New Cool Thing, and then, somehow, by hanging around long enough, it became OK for them to like Avril Lavigne. The writer cited this review of Avril Lavigne from Rolling Stone: “Truth be told, Lavigne has a great voice, a good shtick and a qualified staff of hitmakers. We should all just learn to get along with her, because she’s gonna be with us for a little while.”
    Anyway, that’s my review of the review, in reviews. I also hate Wm. Eggleston and Radiohead, so I might as well move to the moon, because there’s no escape.

    • Hey John,

      You had some strong opinions in the comment section for a month or so last year, and then disappeared. In the past, you seemed quite the contrarian, so I’m not surprised that you’d disagree with me here. But before you go ahead and equate me with an Avril Lavigne apologist, you might consider that this is a book review. Have you seen the book? Or are you just rushing to judgment based upon your preconceived notions and generalized sense of rebellion against popular tastes?

      RE: Radiohead, do you hate it all? I’d rather eat rat than listen to Kid A, but OK Computer is about as good an album as has ever been made, so let’s not forget that little is concrete in this world. As to Eggleston, you might not like his work, but are you the type of hater to declare that it sucks, or only that you don’t care for it?

      • It’s more like jealous hatred really – in the case of Eggleston and Terry Richardson and, I suppose, Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin, they all kind of fall into the category of – damn, I wish I thought of that! It looks dead easy, and they get paid! Eggleston’s work is, for the most part, a snooze, my Mom has some old outtake Kodachromes that she thought were mistakes that I think are just as good and if I printed them and snuck them on a wall at a retrospective, no one wd. know the difference. His practice is based on the idea that if you drive around the south for thirty years and take pictures of everything you see, you will get some good stuff eventually, like monkeys typing for a thousand years after a while write “Hamlet”. In McGinley’s case I see him as sort of the Green Day to Eggleston or Tillmans or Goldin as the Ramones – like he took it, watered it down, the timing was better, it got embraced hugely and everybody thinks he’s a genius. The work in the book – I’ve seen it – it’s not terrible, but McGinley’s greatest artistic success, like Damien Hirst, lies in marketing.

        As for Radiohead – how did those whiny limeys become The Most Popular Band In The World? Modern white pop is divided between the insufferably twee, like Flaming Lips or the horrifying Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes or any girl singers that sound like Feist, and total bummers like Radiohead and every band that cites Jeff Buckley as an influence. Me, I only listen to doo-wop, straight up!

        • this comment is a “I hate the player and the game” comment with a little “they were lucky” and “it’s just marketing” thrown in for good measure.

    • @ John Eder,
      Your comment reminds me of the comments on Gawker where the commenter will display an unhealthy knowledge of everything that’s ever happened on the internet. That’s my review of your comment.

          • Hey Rob,

            This is definitely the healthiest comment trail we’ve had in forever. I’m loving it.

            John, the last time we went through this, you debated with me two days, back and forth, and then tried to promote a show you were a part of in LA. I have a long memory for this sort of thing.

            If you’re going to engage in dialogue, I do appreciate that you at least try to be witty and well-informed. But hating people just because they’re successful is a trope that’s likely to stand in your way. That’s what Rob meant by hating the player and the game. If you want to continue to be a participant in this online community, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Just don’t assume that you’re right, and everyone else is wrong. It’s counter-productive.