Over the next month we'll be bringing you interviews with a bunch of the photographers featured in our new photo issue, Still Lifes. This interview with Ryan McGinley was originally published in The Vice Photo Book in 2007.
Vice: How did you get first involved with Vice?
Ryan: Well, I knew Jesse from when he was editor at index Magazine. He was friends with Gavin and he liked my photos so he sent Gavin over to my apartment to look at my work. This was in 2000. I had a tiny room and I spread out all my photos on my bed for Gavin to see. He looked at them and pointed to the one of Dash in a Clash t-shirt hunched over a bed doing drugs and said, “I want to use this one for the cover. It’s got everything that Vice is about in it: Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” That was a really big deal for me because it was my first magazine cover. I was just starting out and no one knew my photos then. I remember he said something like, “Oh man, these photos are so good that you’re not gonna wanna work for us in a year from now, you’re gonna be too good for us.”
That was nice of him to say.
Yeah, and then the cover came out and it looked like a dog shit on it. The color registration was way off. It looked like someone color-copied it a hundred times. Gavin gave me the magazine with a written note that said, “I’m sorry, sometimes this happens. We’re retards.”
Oh, it wasn’t that bad! It just looked a little darker than the original. You can still see all the pertinent details. It just looked like Dash had black hair instead of blonde hair.
Um, yeah! His blonde hair looked black? I would say that’s a problem! The colors in that photo are beautiful and it just looked terrible. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. In the next issue they printed four pages of my photos in the Vice Pictures section and that was kind of a big deal too because it was 16 pictures total and it generated a lot of response.
How did you become photo editor?
No one at Vice knew about photography. I was like, “What are you guys doing?” And they said, “Well, why don’t you be our photo editor then?” So I curated the photo section for about a year and a half. And I suggested doing an all photo issue and assembled the first Vice photo issue. I went over to all the photographers’ studios and basically put together the roster of photographers that Vice has now used for years. Tim Barber, Richard Kern, Bruce LaBruce, Terry Richardson, Patrick O’Dell…
OK there, Mr. McBragley.
Hey, I’m just stating the facts. Oh, and I showed Dash Snow’s Polaroids for the first time. And then Bruce LaBruce wrote that article about the IRAK graffiti crew. You remember, the one about how Dash set the Christmas trees on fire and the car exploded and he had to flee from the cops and all that. Those were the photos and stories that made people say, “Holy shit, these kids are crazy.” People freaked out. It was insanity.
It was all so exciting at the time.
And it was real. We were all complete fucking maniacs. Like the Dan Dusted photo, that was taken on my roof after Dan had smoked angel dust all night. He was at Dash’s house and the dust gave him tunnel vision, so he blindly felt his way home at 9 AM by clinging to the sides of buildings, naked, with just that blanket wrapped around him and graffiti covering his face and body. When Vice ran that photo, Dan was going to school at RISD and he said strangers would come up to him going, “Oh my God, are you OK???”
Do you wanna tell the infamous karaoke story?
I don’t really remember it. I just remember that I almost electrocuted my penis. Why don’t you tell it?
OK, well, it was winter of 2000, and me and Jesse and Gavin and a few other people were doing karaoke and you busted in all wasted, acting crazy. You had just gotten out of jail.
Oh yeah, I had all these warrants, and the cops came into my apartment in the middle of the night, pulled me out of bed, and dragged me down to jail. I was in the tombs for a few days. And then that was the night that I was released, so I got totally obliterated to celebrate.
Yeah, you came in and immediately stripped down naked. You grabbed the mic and started yelling some bullshit and then you pissed all over the giant TV monitor. Then you started puking, but it was just liquid—you were puking pure beer. And then you fell down in a pool of your own pee and puke and just sort of writhed around. I remember I ran to the bathroom to get paper towels and I tried to wipe it up. You grabbed the wet paper towels and threw them in my face and I had to run back to the bathroom to dry heave. And then you just darted out. It was winter and you ran away without any shirt on. I can’t remember if you even had pants on. We all thought we’d never see you again.
Hahahaha. I think that’s when all the Vice people fell in love with me.
Well, you also ruined karaoke for all of us. We couldn’t do karaoke for months afterwards because it all seemed so anticlimactic.
I have no idea how I made it home that night with no clothes on. I went back to the karaoke place the next day because I had been wearing this old Air Jordan t-shirt that I had since I was a kid and I wanted it back. I asked them if they had my clothes and they looked at me like, “You? No. Get out!”
It was pretty hard to top that night. Maybe a close second would be the party at Jesse’s house when you came out of the bathroom with semen all over your face. You sat down on the couch totally nonchalant and when we all realized what was up everyone was delighted. Except for me—I had to run to the bathroom to go dry heave again.
Hahaha, sorry. So aren’t you gonna ask me about photography or anything?
Boring! OK, OK. 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. 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!”
How did your photos go from being so New Yorky to all this idyllic nature stuff you do now?
After I moved to New York in 1996 I never wanted to leave. And pretty much everything up until my exhibit at The Whitney Museum in 2003 was shot in New York. 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. After that I had this feeling that I needed to get out of the city. 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. I could never produce the photos that I now make if I only shot in New York.
You shoot a lot of film. Like, A LOT. 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 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 the master of 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.
What do you like about having your work in Vice?
The reason I like Vice is because it reaches young kids. Teenagers read it and I think that’s awesome. And I think it’s amazing that it’s still free. I like that Vice runs photos on the cover without any words and that the cover photo doesn’t have anything to do with what’s in the issue. Magazines never do that.
Do you have any advice for young photographers out there who look up to you?
Hahaha, I don’t know, advice for young photographers? That sounds so gay.