Vice: So is the photo you took for this issue’s cover real?
Yes. Lily got into a fight the night before I made that photograph and she got a black eye. We were in White Sands, New Mexico and I made that image during the magic hour—one hour before the sun set. It’s my favorite time to shoot pictures.
Why were you guys in New Mexico?
Last summer I went on a trip across the United States, starting from New York and going all the way to California and back. I traveled with five boys and five girls for close to three months.
Photo Issue cover photo by Ryan McGinley
That sounds crazy.
Planning it was insane. I tried to follow a strict itinerary and stick to specific ideas for photo shoots each day. Sometimes it worked, but there’s always that element of surprise and mistake and that’s what I love. It’s like when you see something you totally didn’t map out, and you just say, “OK” and go with it. All the best work comes out of what you never expected to happen.
Did you always want to be a photographer?
I never thought I was going to be a photographer. I began making work at the end of 1998 and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, am I a photographer? No, I’m not a photographer.” For four years I was just taking pictures because I was really into it and that’s just what I did because I had to do it. Then at the end of 2001, once I started to show my work a little and right around the time Index published my first book, I remember saying to myself, “Oh, I’m actually a photographer now!”
Your work has really changed direction since you started.
Well, now I think about my photographs more the way a director would think about a film. That really came about from being on the set of the
. Mike Mills asked me to come and photograph behind the scenes for a week in 2003 and I sort of had an epiphany.
Which was what?
I was very inspired watching Mike work these 14-hour days, everyday, going from location to location and producing massive amounts of work. I realized that I didn’t want to be this photographer that’s just doing one photo shoot here and then another photo shoot there. It was stressing me out too much. I wanted to spend time thinking about exactly where I wanted to shoot and what I wanted to shoot and the people I want to photograph together. Then, after making all this work, I’d come back and spend the next six months editing and putting it all together.
I think I’ll work like that until I actually have the balls to go ahead and make a film!
Dakota and Lou Pucci on the set of
So working on the movie inspired the structure of the road trip project, but how did you decide on all the traveling and outdoorsy-ness that went into the photos?
After I moved to New York in 1996 I never wanted to leave. But then in 2002 I went upstate to visit my friend Dan Colen, who had been painting in a barn all summer. I brought a group of friends with me that I’d been photographing at the time. I realized that I really liked the idea of taking people out of the city. It brought out a freedom and energy. People really let down their guard and I liked photographing that.
But pretty much everything up until my exhibit at The Whitney Museum in 2003 was shot in New York. After that I had this feeling that I needed to get out of the city. Getting these kids who live here to leave is now a key part of my work. I could never produce the photos that I now make if I only shot in New York.
When you’re in the city it’s like you can’t get out of your mind what you have to do tomorrow or what you have to do later that day. When you take somebody out of the city for an extended period of time they quickly leave all that behind. I think since most people are not from New York, it reminds them of being a kid and being free, which is exactly how I want my subjects to be.
What do you do when you’re not taking photos?
All I do is work. I’ve dedicated my entire life to photographs. In some weird twisted way I think that becomes a conflict for me because all the people that are involved in my life are also a part of my photos. I can’t separate my life from my artwork and I feel like that’s a problem I have to work out.
You shoot a lot of film. How many shots does it take to make one good photo?
I haven’t figured out the ratio, but when it comes to photography and making a photo that I’m happy with, it’s all about excess. Shooting and shooting and shooting, and the subject doing the action over and over and over.
I really have no clue how to use cameras or lighting. I never formally studied photography. I studied graphic design, so I’m very makeshift with lights and I’m constantly looking at my cameras trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m also a master at breaking cameras. I’m always getting them wet or dropping them. What I really like is when things are easy and the camera is just an extension of my hand.
INTERVIEW BY IAN BAUMAN
Ryan has a show of new work, called
Sun and Health
, up from October 28 to December 2, 2006 at Galerie du Jour / agnès b. in Paris.