Ryan McGinley 1998-2003

I’d been asked to fly out to Los Angeles with my longtime friend LenArt de Knegt to collect his belongings as he was closing down and selling his home there in Hollywood. I had not met Ryan McGinley yet.

We drove across the country heading back to New York City. As we drove back, the conversations shifted from this, to that, and other things. Some personal, some not so personal. LenArt was moving back to New York City, the place of his birth. I was moving through life. His father, Frits de Knegt, had been one of the major movers and shakers of what was to become known as SoHo, creating the 420 building on West Broadway that art dealer Leo Castelli and others would occupy during SoHo’s heyday.

Upon arrival back to NYC, on what I vividly remember as a glorious spring evening. I immediately got in touch with my friend Dwight Ewell, who at the time, was a highly sought after actor on the independent film circuit. He came to pick me up at my loft on west 29 street. Since it was such a nice evening, we decided to walk to the East Village. But first, he insisted, he wanted to take me to Greenwich Village, he wanted me to meet some new friends he’d met while I was away in California. I complained that I had enough friends already. Could we not meet any more new people? Through our circuitous evening walk to the East Village he lead me to Ryan, who was sitting on a chair having his hair cut. Shirt off, a towel draped around his shoulders serving as a cape. He was immediately charming, as were his friends who were streaming in and out of the swank apartment in a fancy building on Bleecker street near MacDougal. I was to learn that Ryan in fact lived across the street in what can only be best described as a flop-house. On that evening Dwight, Ryan and I, along with all of his friends descended on Cherry Tavern, and thus began our friendship.

At this time, I didn’t hold a favorable opinion of myself. I had, I thought, failed at everything I’d put my hand to, save poetry. The world of art, and the act of creating art, I had long since abandoned. Even though I was around it all the time because I was who I was. I was associated with the art world because of my, to some, notorious past. Because of my relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, I was associated with his notoriety and his fame.

In the beginning, even though he was attending Parsons School of Design, I didn’t view Ryan McGinley as an artist, he had not as yet began to take pictures. In fact, I didn’t see Ryan as a homosexual either, until one night during the budding days of our burgeoning friendship he let it be known that he was gay. So that was that, we had that in common. But yet and still, his way of being gay was unique as far as lifestyles went. His circle of friends were a rough and tumble bunch of mostly straight though sexually fluid graffiti artists, skateboarders, and troublemakers.

The camera came out to play into this scene very soon. Eventually everything was documented. Ryan’s images began to take shape around this core group of friends. If you were one of his friend, you became one of his subjects. Almost immediately, I could see what he was doing. I was beginning to see that he was on to something, because he was becoming intensely interested in photography as an art form and also, our conversations inevitably ended up being about art photography. I didn’t consider myself an expert in the field of photography back then. Though I probably knew more about photography than most. Or at least Ryan saw me as a good source of information when it came to photography. My observations, thoughts, and opinions about photography were often off the cuff and sharply pointed.

Ryan’s enthusiasm for photographing his widening circle of friends grew, nothing was off limits. Most all were willing participants in the debauchery taking place during this period in time. His photographs were beginning to get noticed, people were beginning to talk about them. Drug fueled nights were the norm. The Lower East Side and the East Village were the stomping grounds for these misfits and outcasts, some came from affluent backgrounds, others came from the projects on Avenue D. Ludlow street and the Alleged Gallery played a vital part in Ryan’s development as an artist. Max Fish was the below Houston watering hole for the newly formed IRAK graffiti gang, who’s president was the teenaged Earsnot. Earsnot was a tough, openly gay, African American graffiti artist attached at the hip to fellow graffiti writer Dash Snow, they formed an inseparable dynamic duo. Dash was the inspirational muse for this scene, the lightening rod, a rambunctious free-spirit turned lose on the streets at an early age. Dash Snow was more than central to the goings-on taking place in Ryan’s life during this time, he was Ryan McGinley’s alter ego.

In the summer of 1999 Dan Colen arrived on the scene with his own brand of unbridled energy, 19 years old. Tall, gangly, and ready to hang out. NYC was his summertime pitstop before he was to go off to study art at the Rhode Island School of Design. An early childhood friend of McGinley’s from New Jersey, Colen’s annual summertime vacations in NYC always came attached with a story, or a story in the making.

These were heady times in the world of photography. Times full of new technical advancements, photography was becoming more accessible to the masses. Computers were making photography expeditious. The darkroom quickly became obsolete. Terry Richardson lowered the bar substantially with his digital point and shoot camera and at the same elevated it to a higher standard in terms of what was acceptable in art photography or photography with a pornographic bent. This advent wasn’t lost on Ryan McGinley. Sexually charged photographs and nudity had almost come to be expected in the edgy mid 1990’s of heroin chic and the fashion model as waif. Low art was now high art. McGinley’s work was also art as way of life ala Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, done by a younger photographer traversing the same familiar terrain done afresh. There was a feeling of something new in the air.

As Ryan’s school days at Parsons began to wind to an end, the question arose as to what was he going to do with himself? I approached LenArt de Knegt about this. Together we went to see Ryan at his 106 east 7 street apartment to see his work. It was decided then and there, LenArt would give him a show at 420 West Broadway! This would be the last show at that iconic location being that the building was in the process of being sold, but not quite just yet, there was enough time for one last show. The times were changing in SoHo and so too was the art world, little did we know that this show was to foreshadow the career path of Ryan McGinley, and that the art world would soon come knocking, curious about the young kid from Ramsey, New Jersey with the colorful lifestyle.

Over the years, the inventiveness of Ryan’s photographic vision has helped reshape the landscape of photography, as evidenced by a new generation of photographers that seem to imitate his work and his way of life. His long summer, “naked” road trips, are now undertaken almost as a prerequisite by some up and coming photographers that want to take pictures and share their life and adventures, traveling across country with their own crew of models, having fun in the sun.

The unrestrained spirit of the early works eventually gave way to more romantic images, grand shots of outdoor spaces, cavernous abysses populated by naked youth. The energy is spread out. But the photographic eye is the same, the same voice can still be heard. These early works are languidly poetic, sometimes they’re emotionally dense, sometimes they can be shocking. A few of McGinley’s early pictures are uneasy to digest. For example, Dan Colen under a sky of gray clouds on the roof of 106 east 7 street, his torso scrawled with graffiti after a night of drugging it up on god knows what, or Ryan’s battered and bleeding face after a fist fight outside Max Fish, or Jake Boyle lying fucked up in the gutter. But also, some are beautifully carefree, full of a certain humor that can make you smile, a little kid in glee, or laughing faces on a Coney Island rollercoaster ride. Some can be brooding and introspective like the shot of Marc Hundley leaning against the wall in an eerily lit elevator, hooded head bowed. Is he wasted? Is he sad? Did someone just break his heart? Or another shot of him riding in the back seat of a car staring directly into the camera. What is he thinking? A memory that sticks out for me is on the morning of 9/11 friends were all calling one another checking to see if all was well, are you okay? I spoke with Ryan. Telling him to stay home and be safe, he replied “What!? What do you mean!? I’m going down there to see it!!” I hung up the telephone thinking, ‘of course he’s going down there, he’s a photographer, he’s an artist’. Later I saw the photograph’s taken on that day. There’s one photograph that’s especially memorable; Sam riding a bicycle through the dust, his face covered with a rag or t-shirt or bandana, or something, anyway, it’s covered, it’s a beautifully sad portrait of that day.

Now, looking back, another story unfolds in my mind. I used to throw a Wednesday night soiree at a small bar/ restaurant called Black & White. It was my job. I was the host, receiving a small percentage of the register at the end of the night. Ryan regularly attended these nights. They all came, celebrities, nobodies, artists, troublemakers, the room was small and cozy in a good way, everyone came. They all came because they knew that I would “take care of them”, supplying them with free drink tickets and guaranteeing that a good time was had by all. One winters night in January 2001 at around 3am I was hanging outside in front of the bar saying goodnight to a group of patrons that’d been in the bar that evening enjoying themselves. It had been a good night, I remember. This was the time of year when dried, highly flammable Christmas trees are stacked at the curbs along the sidewalks through out the city. Exiting the club came Ryan McGinley, Bruce La Bruce, and Dash Snow along with several others in a group. As they made their way east on 10 street I saw Dash reach out with a lighter and swoosh the stack of Christmas trees near the corner of 10th & 3rd Ave. went up in flames! Needless to say Ryan captured the trees being set ablaze with his trusty little point and shoot camera. Treating it as a photo op with Bruce La Bruce along with Dash’s wife, Agathe Snow, standing in close proximity of the burning trees! Ironically enough, they too were taking pictures of the flames with their cameras! All this happened very fast, literally seconds. Then they all ran off into the night laughing as the flames shot ten feet high into air. In no time flat the whole fire department was there. The street was blocked off. Everyone hid inside the bar until the fire was extinguished and the coast was all clear to leave. This not so little stunt was dangerous. I thought to myself, enough is enough. I was going to get even. So, the next day I decided to play a joke on Dash. I called him up and told him that the cops were looking for him for arson. He fell for my story hook line and sinker. Panicked, having an innate fear of the police, he got on a plane and fled to Texas the next day. Ryan and his posse of friends were not allowed to attend the weekly Black & White Bar Wednesday night parties any longer. The Christmas tree incident was the straw that broke the camels back. They were effectively banned. But not for too long, all was soon forgiven. This story is illustrative of what it was like being around Ryan McGinley and his crew in those days. It was always something, if it wasn’t one thing, it was another.

Jack Walls
@hifibangalore