November 19, 2017

An Interview With Ryan McGinley

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by Peter Boesch.

To celebrate the new Polaroid OneStep 2 camera, Ryan McGinley is helping us discover the next generation of instant photographers. McGinley first started using Polaroid for silk screening whilst studying graphic design at Parsons, only to find out he “didn’t have much of a life in crime as a graffiti writer” and gave up the silk screening to pursue a career in photography. And despite being compared to the likes of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, his images are instilled with something inherently positive, a lightness of being – the rawness of youth. As such his work is filled with hedonism, drugs, and various bodily liquids. But they show so much more. Love and silliness and undertow of tenderness that you can almost cut with a knife. A contemporary paradise. Innocent, curious nude bodies exploring what it means to be human. In this exclusive interview, he describes how his Polaroid obsession got started, and why the medium continues to draw him in to this day.

My Polaroid Cameras 98-03′ Included in the museum exhibition focusing on my earliest photographs thru Aug 20th @mca_denver #TheKidsWereAlright #mcadenver

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How did the exhibition at the MCA in Denver come about? What did it feel like to physically hold those Polaroids in your hands again, after all those years?

It came about because of Nora Burnett Abrams, the curator, who suggested we do a museum show focusing on the first five years of my photographs. Rizzoli published a beautiful catalog of the exhibition. Polaroids have a specific smell of the chemicals that create them, and they still had that wonderful smell. The immediate physical nostalgia associated with it. Because when you take it the immediacy of sharing it with the person who you just shot – all of that is encased in that Polaroid object. It literally has history’s DNA on it from the moment you took it.

Why did you display your Polaroid cameras in Denver? What do they mean to you now? Which one is your favorite?

I displayed the cameras because I think it’s important to see an artist’s tools. I remember all the flea markets and drug stores that I purchased my cameras from over the years. My two favorites were the Polaroid 600 and the Polaroid SX-70. The SX-70 is still the most beautifully designed camera ever made.

You sport some mean straps on them. Are those guitar straps? How did you attach them?

They are vintage camera straps made in the ’70s. The first one that I attached to my Polaroid camera I took off my brother’s Nikon. And then I started collecting the hippy straps at different flea markets to put on my new Polaroid camera.

When selecting which images to display and which to archive how important do you think the momentary choice at the time is vs how it changes over the years? Do you remember hating pictures at first and then ending up loving them?

When I started exhibiting work I rarely include self-portraits in my exhibitions but over the years as I developed as an artist and photographer I decided to show them, to reveal how vulnerable I felt.

How did you decide to be a photographer? What was the biggest doubt you had to overcome to do that?

I needed a few years to eat, breathe and sleep photography before I felt comfortable owning the label of a photographer. I always considered myself an artist from day one. But I think it took me a good 3 years to accept that photography was going to be the path I took for the rest of my life, hone my vision and develop a style.

Over the years you talked a lot about how the camera helped you to get over your shyness. How it was something you could disappear behind but also is a means of communication that enabled you to interact with people. Did the Polaroids in your hands build a bridge?

When you take a Polaroid photograph rather than shooting on another kind of film you immediately connect with your subject because you have the shared experience of viewing it and passing it back and forth. Everyone understands the ritual of the process; from the way the Polaroid film develops to the connectivity it creates.

Despite heavy themes, your images denote something positive. You’ve said you “like things to look very casual and very real” and mentioned that casting is one of your favorite things. How do you choose which subjects to photograph?

I love to work with other artists, people that are behind my vision and are willing to go the extra mile to create an extraordinary photograph. Working with other photographers, in particular, is a plus because they can understand the process of making a great photograph.

You are known for your generosity. Starting with your zines, how you promoted your work and that of your friends. How about generosity today? Is there any advice you can give to the new generation of artists?

I think it’s important to pick a cause that you have a personal connection to that you can stand behind. Over the years since my brother passed away from AIDS in the mid ’90s – I’ve always worked with HIV charities to help that cause and promote awareness. From traveling to Africa with Bono to donating photographs each year over a decade to organizations like AMFAR. Recently I joined as a board member of ACRIA to help further their cause.

Apparently, you spent time sanitizing your Instagram account. Slapping emoticons (the modern-day fig leaves) over certain parts of the human body. This seems to be the opposite of what your work stands for. How do you feel about the new censorship?

I’m a firm believer in #freethenipple but those are the guidelines that many artists have to work with so I just go with the flow and practice radical acceptance.

Getting Polaroid-ed by #DashSnow HBD, Miss U lil’ Angel #tbt

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You guys did a lot of drugs back in the days, and were burning through Polaroids like a wildfire. You have stopped doing drugs since, but you still get high on taking pictures. Are Polaroids a really hard drug? What makes them so addictive?

Addiction and obsession go hand in hand. To be a great photographer you have to be obsessed with taking photographs, it’s a healthy obsession. Polaroid film and real film are the real shit and hard to quit.

One of your friends, Marc Hundley said that during your Polaroid obsession phase, you watched every documentary on any type of artist. What did you learn from that time? Which one(s) do you recommend?

Probably my favorite documentary is Hearts of Darkness which is the making of Apocalypse Now – which is a real lesson in sacrificing everything for your art even possibly your sanity. I think that it’s important for an artist to educate themselves on the history of their medium so they can deconstruct it in order to shape their own vision.

How did getting out of the city and starting to shoot in nature change the experience of your working process?

Shooting in nature is more of a spiritual experience. You have the peaceful and quiet vastness but it’s also a playground. Nature is always changing and regrowing and becoming something new which doesn’t happen in the same way in the city.

Mike Mills said, “there is so much love coming from your camera”. As a decipherer of the human condition, how do you set about photographing a feeling?

First, you have to set up a circumstance where a person can express emotion, I like to do it through music and movement. Second – part of my artistry is being able to recognize and edit the material into that one beautiful moment that can be understood by everyone.

Happy 💥 Holiday

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Ryan will be curating a group of emerging photographers for our #NewOriginals project. Their work will be on display in an upcoming exhibition in NYC this December.