Ryan McGinley's Advice to Young Photographers: Don't Compete

By Matthew Leifheit

All photos examples of Ryan McGinley's early work, courtesy of the artist and Team Gallery

I didn't go to Parsons's graduation ceremony last month, but people tell me I missed a remarkable commencement speech delivered by photographer Ryan McGinley. Luckily, his studio already put it on YouTube. It is almost certainly a good idea to pay attention to whatever advice McGinley gives to emerging photographers for a number of reasons. For example, he had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, when he was 25. He also was named Young Photographer of the Year by the International Center of Photography in 2007, and has since been called things like "the most important photographer in America" and "the pied piper of the downtown art world." He also used to have my job as photo editor of VICE, where he gave buckets of deserving young artists their first chances at editorial work.

Here are some gems from McGinley's speech. Consider them useful pieces of career advice for young photographers, from a guy who knows. He opens, "Everyone always says it helps to picture [the audience] naked to calm my nerves. Unfortunately, that’s another day at work for me."

"By my fourth year in school, I was shooting every day and every night. I photographed every little thing—all my food, doorways covered in graffiti, and my friends and roommates. I tortured my first boyfriend, Marc, by capturing each moment of our relationship. I was obsessed with documenting my life. So that’s my advice to you: Find something to be obsessed with, and then obsess over it. Don't compete; find what's uniquely yours. Take your experience of life and connect that with your knowledge of photographic history. Mix it all together, and create an artistic world that we can enter into."

"If you only like shooting cell phone photos, then do that. If your dad works at a construction site that looks cool, use it. If your mom breeds poodles, then put them in your photographs. Use the camera to take what you know that others don’t, what you can access that others can’t, and the people or things you connect with, to construct your own world."

"Be busy. Seek and find a way to do what it is you want to do. Identify what that thing is and do it. Don’t stand around too long having conversations about it. Do it. Refine it. Do it more. Try it a different way. Keep at it until you break through to the next level. Don’t talk or think yourself out of doing it. Put one foot in front of the other and let it happen organically."

"I realized I could make intimate pictures of strangers. It was a breakthrough for me. I found that most people liked being photographed; they like being paid attention to and being told to do things they normally wouldn’t do. I learned that all I needed to do was ask."

"Say yes to almost everything and try new things. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t be afraid to work hard. Do your pictures—don’t try and do somebody else’s pictures. Don’t get lost inside your head, and don’t worry what camera you’re using." 

"I once heard the legendary indie director Derek Jarman had three rules for making his art films: 'Show up early, hold your own light, and don’t expect to get paid.' That always stuck with me. Approach art like it’s your job. Show up for photography every day for eight hours. Take it as seriously as a doctor would medicine."

"Remember, it’s romantic as hell what we do."

"Take photos of everything. If you are working hard—really hard—opportunity will come. And when it does, you better be ready for it with your camera in hand."

Ryan McGinley is a good photographer. See his previous contributions to VICE here. 

Matthew Leifheit is current photo editor of VICE. Follow him on Twitter.

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