profile: Ryan McGinley

PHOTOGRAPHS. Of pretty young things. Where nudity is the norm: whether in solitude with nature or amongst friends of a similar disposition. Voyeuristic connotations may be provoked. And he has come up against much criticism. 

But there is something strangely compelling about viewing Ryan McGinley‘s photographs. They offer us a window; through which one gazes, fascinated. Emotions are stirred: admiration, disgust; jealousy, lust. Questions may be asked. Would we do what they have done? What kind of person likes or dislikes these images? 

I for one am in a slight quandary. On the one hand I am drawn in by the world that McGinley presents to me, perhaps due to the fact that (as Caroline Stanley writes) the photographs ‘can be nostalgic, innocent, and sexual all at once because it’s not about capturing youth, but some shared fantasy version of it.’ I am caught in a reverie of carefree frolicking. 

But on the other hand, these images seem just a little bit too contrived, too ‘cool’. The colour saturated yet weathered feel, and flares of light entering the frame from all angles emphasising or obscuring certain aspects, are reminiscent of days before the digital camera. An effect that many today are trying to recreate. 

And at times the apparent spontaneity of an image is doubtful. Though this may be intentional if one is to interpret McGinley’s images as simply presenting fanciful notions of what it is to be young, rather than a reality.

Yet he has clearly got something right. McGinley is the youngest artist to have had a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York. And his black and white photography is not only sensitively shot but shows a true admiration for the human form. 

I think that what I like most about McGinley’s work is the juxtapositions it often presents, involving a subject matter that can be both beautiful and awkward. And the nude is not always explicitly present, at times simply alluded to – a reliable presence that can be located if sought (most notably in his Moonmilk series). This is what makes me believe that he is not using the body in a exploitative manner but simply as a tool. I am as yet undecided as for what though. 


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