Ryan McGinley: Naked youth and America’s Great Outdoors

text: Taka Kawachi


Ryan McGinley is a young photographer, renowned not just among his own generation in the United States but also in Japan, where he has had a great influence on local photographers.

I lived relatively close to Ryan during my time in New York, and I once had the opportunity to visit his apartment thanks to a magazine assignment. That was 15 years ago, and we’re still in contact.
I took my first step into the clutter that was “Ryan’s world”. Snapshots he had taken were pasted all over the place, together with clippings of Morrissey; one side of his apartment was taken over by a shelf filled to the brim with what seemed to be cult movie DVDs. It was pretty much the kind of room I expected from a sensitive music- and movie-obsessed young man.

I still remember when, on a different day, I caught sight of him at an art gallery. Headphones around his neck, seemingly in another world, completely immersed in the photography works in front of him. He had an aura that told me, “do not approach me”.
The interview we then did was completely different to my impression at the gallery. Despite his young age, he answered my questions promptly and profoundly, as if it was a second nature, and while I stopped to think, he rapidly fired questions at me about movies I had seen or liked. I guess that’s something about him that has not changed a bit over the years.

In his apartment, Ryan showed me a small 50-page photobook he had made by hand in 2002, titled “The Kids Are Alright”. Together with his friends from downtown NYC, he documented scenes from their everyday life. Ryan, who had studied design and photography at university, designed the snaps he had taken since his student days, printed them out at print shops and bound them into little books himself. He then sent them out to editors of his favorite magazines and other people in the art world, and—isn’t this amazing?—the following year, fresh out of university, he was contacted by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He became the youngest person to ever hold a solo exhibition at the Whitney.

《 Taylor (Black & Blue)》 C print 2012 ©Ryan McGinley / Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York / Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo

After that exhibition was held, he somewhat stopped taking street snap-style photographs. He was searching for a new direction, and announced a project that was to solidify his entry into the art world — ‘Road Trip’, still considered to be his masterpiece. For around ten years, beginning in 2004, he headed out on trips in a modified during the months of June, July and August, together with models and staff, to capture a series of nudes in America’s wild nature.

What he had taken was reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Bible — completely naked couples climbing trees or running through golden fields of barley; young people gleaming with carelessness and freedom. The dreamy colors of the photos and the scenes he chose create a special aesthetic that makes it difficult to tell which part of his photos is fiction and which is natural.

《 Jessica & Anne Marie 》C print 2012 ©Ryan McGinley / Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York / Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo

Ryan McGinley held a major exhibition at the Opera City Art Gallery in Tokyo in 2016. Along with stand-out pieces from his “Road Trip” series, he exhibited works from new series — red, brown and wheat impressions of “Fall” and white, blue snow and ice of “Winter”. Then, there was his “Yearbook”, a massive, ambitiously large project that covered a 30m long wall in photographs of nude, young people.
In front of his outstanding, colorful work, I managed to talk to Ryan, whose scope and presence had only improved since I last met him a few years prior.

《 Jacob (Red Blueberry)》 C print 2015 ©Ryan McGinley / Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York / Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo

– Ryan, long time no see. What’s the concept behind your Tokyo exhibition?

“I wanted to personally select works that I wanted to exhibit from my early period in 2002 all the way to my most recent that I took in the fall and winter of 2015, but in a simple layout without putting up anything deemed unnecessary like extra walls and things. This wall of 500 portraits is actually meant to be an installation of photographs filled around a small room, but I heard that exhibiting photographs of genitalia is forbidden in Japan, and although it wasn’t something I wanted, the use of a wall got around the issue (of not showing them) through a lot of ingenuity (laughs).”

– It is quite an incredible number of portraits, and all of them completely nude. However, they’re not professional models, are they? How did find all these people?

“A casting director found these people on the streets and at concert venues where I then photographed about 10 of them each time at a pace of two times a month. It’s no surprise that most of them aren’t used to posing for nude photography, but I like how that feeling of awkwardness is in stark contrast to the portraits you find in the yearbooks of high school and college graduation photo albums.”

– Your recent work is what could be described as an ice world, and while the images are beautiful, it seems like you chose fairly dangerous places to shoot nude photography.

“I went to into the mountains located in the northernmost region of New York State to take those images. As photographs they are beautiful and dramatic, but the fact is it was below freezing and the models were completely nude — hardcore conditions for a shooting location. In any case, safety for the models was by far our number one concern. To do that we had an insulated tent heated by a basic powerful heater and made them wear stockings that resembled bare legs. We shot at most for only a few minutes – and looking closely at their bodies in the images reveal the physical signs of being without insulation in that time – but even this gives us a feeling for their true selves.”

《 Ivy (Bubbles)》C print 2015 ©Ryan McGinley / Courtesy of Team Gallery, New York / Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo

– You previously worked with film cameras but if I’m not mistaken you completely switched over to digital sometime in 2010.

“Yes, all of my work is taken with a digital camera, so for the winter shoots I just shot as much as I could in the short space of time available to us. Any adjustments and image treatments I’ve done after I got home to my New York studio.
(While browsing through SEIN)
Do I know about SIGMA? Of course I know about them, and I have long been curious about their cameras and lenses but unfortunately I haven’t used them yet. I do have a great interest in them, so next time I would love to try out their cameras.”

Taka Kawachi

Benrido, Overseas Division Director

Taka Kawachi has extensive international experience, having graduated from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco, to then working in New York City as a book editor and curator for 15 years. Returning to Japan in 2011. In 2016, Kawachi published his first book “Art no Iriguchi (Entrance to the Arts) ”.His publications illustrate his experiences of art and photography, and offer readers an opportunity to engage with the history and subjects of both regions from his unique point of view. He is currently the Director of the Overseas Division of Kyoto’s Benrido, working to disseminate the classic and rare photographic process of Collotype, and produced portfolios of Saul Leiter and J.H. Lartigue, etc. His latest publication is “Artists: Masters of Architecture and Design” (Akatsuki Press).

Ryan McGinley


Born in Ramsey, New Jersey, in 1977. Held an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York when he was 25 years old. He is currently regarded one of America’s most important photographers, known for his nude photography in America’s landscapes and portraits of amateur models scouted on the streets. The exhibition ‘Ryan McGinley BODY LOUD’ was held at Opera City Gallery in Tokyo in 2016.

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