Nothing makes us think of summer more than the sunkissed photographs of Ryan McGinley. Shooting his friends drinking, partying on rooftops and getting trashed, Ryan taps into the hedonistic spirit of a generation, of late nights and early mornings. Ryan frequently sets off in his tour bus across America with a dozen or more models and a camera. Capturing his subjects feral and naked, running through fields, climbing trees, clambering through caves and splashing through lakes and waterfalls with ecstatic abandon. His photographs possess the dreaminess, freedom and breathtaking beauty that comes from being without your clothes, disconnected from the world full of carefree optimism and a belief that anything is possible. As temperature gets ever hotter, we caught up with the NY based photographer to find out what makes his summers smoulder...
Why do you prefer shooting outdoors?
It keeps it diverse and fun. Usually I’m always on the road, shooting all throughout the year. Sometimes for months at a time and sometimes for just a week or two. I own a tour bus so it’s easy to hop in it and hit the road and travel around to all these unknown places. If I stay at home in New York for too long I get antsy and I need to get away from the city and travel around the country. I try to make the most of each day and s hoot at as many locations as we can.
What are some of your favourite memories from shoots?
One of my favorite days was in the early fall when we were flying kites at Lake Michigan. We had an entire part of the beach to ourselves at sunset and it was really windy and warm. It was one of those experiences where you have to close your eyes and take in a deep breath to realise how good you’ve got it at that moment. We shot photos flying kites and then went swimming in the ocean holding up large sparklers in the water until the sun disappeared under the horizon. Another unforgettable moment that will be burned into my brain forever is when I watched an albino skunk eat granola out of one of my model’s butt cracks!
When you’re travelling for extended periods of time, how do you keep spirits up?
When you’re travelling with a group of fifteen people for weeks on end it’s important to mix the days up. If I didn’t it would get very monotonous. I learned that the hard way when shooting my cave project in 2009. After a few days straight of grueling cave shoots, we would have to shoot something different or else I would’ve had a mutiny on my hands. I try to keep the journeys safe and well balanced so everyone is happy.
Do you think young people in the digital age can still lose themselves in the same way?
Yes, as long as you’re not friends with your mom on Facebook! Just get your privacy settings right and don’t put your actual name on your blog. The digital age just gives young people digital independence. They all have digital cameras to document their lives and it’s free to take a photo and upload it immediately. It’s surely going to change the face of photography. I look at young aspiring photographers’ blogs everyday.
How do you recruit your subjects?
Here, there, and everywhere. I find a lot of people when I’m out on my bike riding around New York City. I’m not actively looking for people but if I’m doing an errand or going to the movies and I see someone I like, I’ll always stop them and give them a card. Most people take about two months to get back to me. I think they’re initially nervous to pose nude and then they tell their friends about it and one of their friends knows who I am or something and says they have to do it. Lots of my friends will recommend people that they think I’ll like. I also have Phoebe, who does casting for me. She travels to rock festivals and to art schools and cities across the world to help find me people. I’m interested in photographing artists mostly because they are the people who get what I’m trying to do and are willing to take the ride with me.
Do you have favourite models you’ve worked with?
Aww, that’s like picking your favorite son or daughter, I can’t do that! Everyone has their own amazing traits. The stories are endless but I love all my children equally. Actually I shouldn’t call them my children. I’m the biggest child and need to be taken care of the most!
How important is it for you to build a relationship with your subject before you start photographing them?
The most important thing is the trust between a photographer and his or her subject. That’s one of the reasons I travel for such extended periods with a group. Over the days you start to understand a person and those emotions come through in the photographs. My models understand what I’m trying to accomplish in my work and what I’m looking for in them to make a successful image.
What is the most liberating thing about being naked?
Feeling the breeze on your balls.
Do you see nudity as a means of empowerment?
I once saw this ad for Hawaii that said, ‘Let’s get away from it all’. I think that’s what I’m trying to accomplish in my work. Nudity plays a big part in that and I’m very interested in the human body and observing the way it moves. But you’d have to ask my models if it empowers them or sets them free. I can’t speak for them. All I know is by the end of my trips people always say they feel weird wearing clothes.
Where is the most outrageous place you’ve been naked?
I was once in Chicago and my friend Joey Curls hooked me up with an organised-crime-owned supermarket. The owner was “interested in art” and let us shoot there at midnight after it closed. We brought a smoke machine, turned it on high and made this very strange, dreamlike atmosphere. It was extremely weird to be walking down these foggy aisles watching people run around naked amongst the Doritos and cartons of milk.
How do you hope to change people’s perceptions of nudity through your work?
I hope they help people relax, so I won’t have to be constantly looking over my shoulder for the cops when I’m shooting these photos!
In a dream world, if you could photograph anyone who would it be?
Is there ever a time when nudity is not appropriate?
Food and nudity do not go hand in hand.
What do you feel naked without?
Ironically, I feel naked without my gold ‘Let’s Get Naked’ necklace. I had a bunch of them made for everyone I’ve travelled with. It’s like a little trophy to say, “I survived three months on the road with Ryan McGinley!