After 9/11 happened, everyone in the world wanted to know what was going on below 14th Street. Photographer Ryan McGinley was a core member of the rough-and-tumble 1990s New York scene that gave us artists like Dan Colen, Hanna Liden, Dash Snow, and Agathe Snow, and that seemingly everyone was paying attention to after the demise of the Twin Towers. It was a life-changing period of time where the only things that mattered were those 14 blocks and that group of people; what they did and how they did it. There was lots of love, lots of ideas being passed around, and lots of energy, basically.
The line between where McGinley begins and New York City ends is liminal. At 39, the photographer, known for his vérité images of American subculture, has built a career that in many ways has been informed by the mythology of the metropolis. The photographs he created in New York City from 1999 to 2003, are of a period defined by hopelessness for many Americans – synonymous with the onset of the Bush Era, 9/11 and its aftermath. These images, which pre-date his famed “road trip” series, capture the exploits of the artist’s social circle, members of an outlaw creative community based in New York’s Lower East Side. McGinley’s work became a significant addition to the legacy of American subculture photography forged by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Nan Goldin, and is characterized by his idiosyncratic mixture of hopefulness and self-awareness, as well as his unembarrassed disclosure of the melodrama of youth. Through photographs of his debauched, frequently naked friends, laughing and weeping, taking drugs and having sex, tagging walls and pissing off roofs, we admire the inextricably intertwined joy and heartbreak of youth.
Most of McGinley’s subjects are themselves artists, many of them highly recognizable: his childhood friend, the painter Dan Colen; Kunle Martins, better known by his graffiti moniker Earsnot; the late photographer and multi-media collagist Dash Snow. The photographs vibrate with the charge of creative community, emanating the contagious exuberance of being young and beautiful, and also down and out, in New York.
These suspended moments, captured before McGinley became the youngest photographer to have a solo show at the Whitney, in 2003, eventually appeared in his now-iconic handmade book The Kids Are Alright, and propelled the then 25-year-old McGinley to international notoriety. McGinley’s projects at this stage in his career was the obsessive documentation of his own life, its most intimate and debased moments, to the degree where the image and its reality is blurred, the photos and experiences extensions of one another. While his photos themselves were made with a Yashica T4 point-and-shoot camera, hardly novel technology at the time, the particular confluence of their content and context was unprecedented: the widely shared images anticipated our modern moment, in which private and public life are merged, and then posted online for all to see.
His photographs of the past ten years, however, are more ambitious, complex, and more expensive to produce. They’re the result of studio shoots or, more often, of costly and complicated road trips across America. His subjects explore caves, do flips off barn roofs, trudge through mud, run through fields with sparklers, climb waterfalls, hang from trees, and leapfrog over one another. Not to mention he’s mentored a generation of influential young photographers, from Petra Collins and Sandy Kim to the late Ren Hang, and also has become a ubiquitous force in the music and corporate-advertising worlds. He’s shot countless commercial campaigns for global brands including Marc Jacobs, Uniqlo, Wrangler, Myspace, and Levi’s.
What’s most impressive about McGinley is not his prolific work ethic, but the fact that without market support he was able to get himself a show at the Whitney. The snapshot nature of McGinley’s work underlined youthfulness and how radical it was, and the overwhelming New York City machine had no responsibility for his success whatsoever, which is part and parcel of why he has become this odd, mythic creature for young people. The guy did it all himself. His photographs are probably the reason why more things than you can ever count, look the way they do; McGinley’s images anonymously have, and continue, to infiltrate the collective subconscious.