'the kids were all right': ryan mcginley looks back at the images that made him famous

In anticipation of his upcoming early career retrospective at MCA Denver, 'The Kids Were All Right,' Ryan McGinley selects eight photographs of personal importance.

by Adam Lehrer
01 February 2017, 2:35pm

Ryan McGinley's early career retrospective The Kids Were All Right will display photographs taken between 1998 and 2003 as well as 1500 never previously exhibited polaroids taken during the same period. Many of the images in the show were originally featured in the self-published book The Kids Are All Right, that captured McGinley's circle of artists (Dash Snow, Dan Colen, Agathe Snow), graffiti writers, (Earsnot) and other wild New York creatives captured in glorious hedonism and led to his 2003 exhibition at The Whitney (at 25-years-old). Whereas McGinley's forebears like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark made images with palatable darkness, McGinley's bask in the joy of the moment. "I was much more lighthearted and adventurous," he says. No matter how wasted his subjects are in these photographs, they always emanate the joyous exuberance of freedom and youth. McGinley's early art is about people coming together (as the scene grew heavier and friends like Dash's addictions worsened, McGinley transitioned to more studio work, though he says the evolution was due to the overnight success he received after The Whitney show). He loves the suggestion that his work shares themes with the films of P.T. Anderson; both artists deal with the creation of families and all the joy, shared experience and psychodrama that comes out of it. "It was pre-Internet so I was one of the only ones out taking photos," says McGinley. "I really believe [my friends and I] were magnets to each other for specific reasons, chaotic families. I got to New York and was able to form a tribe and remake myself. I wanted to take action."

McGinley chooses eight photographs from the show of personal importance to him for i-D and explains what he remembers about taking them.

Dash (Manhattan Bridge) (2000)
"This is Dash on the Manhattan Bridge. He was the kind of guy that would stick his head out the window on the bridge to tag and I was the kind of photographer who would stick his head out the other side to document it. I just love this because it's very New York."

Sam Ground Zero (2001)
"We went down to Ground Zero to see if we could help out and this is actually at dusk but the cloud of smoke was so dense from the towers falling that it looks like it's a night photo. This guy is wearing a T-shirt over his face because it was hard to breathe. It was devastating to see. I called Jack Walls and said "The towers fell", and he said "I know", and then he said, "You've got to get out of downtown." I said, "I'm going down to photograph it", and he said, "Of course you are."

Jack (Poetry Reading) (1999)
"I met Jack Walls at a party at his big loft next to Madison Square Garden. There was a Mapplethorpe book and Jack came up and introduced himself and I said, "I'm learning about this guy in school." I flipped a few pages, and he was in it! We became fast friends. We'd hang out at this bar on Avenue A, Cherry Tavern, with all the graffiti writers and then we'd go next door to this gay bar next door, I.C. Guys, and drink there. On Sundays they'd have poetry readings and Jack would read his poems. At the time, Jack was known as Mapplethorpe's boyfriend but didn't consider himself an artist. I think seeing me get a Whitney show inspired him. Now he's an amazing painter and poet."

Dan (Bloody Eye) (2002)
"One late night partying, Dan [Colen] said he was going to get beers. It was about 3:45am and he didn't come back for like an hour and a half. He said he got his ass kicked by six Polish men that were in their sixties. You know how sometimes the tallest guy is the guy people gravitate towards and always want to fight? That was Dan."

SACE (2000)
"Dash Snow was one of the leaders of the IRAK graffiti crew and would write 'SACER' or 'SACE' on walls. I identified with the compulsive nature of graffiti and I loved how obsessive Dash was about writing graffiti. One of the most beautiful things I remember about him is that whenever he smoked a cigarette he would unconsciously write his tag with smoke. There is this sushi restaurant on Avenue A that was our spot. I was recently there with my boyfriend and I looked at the table and I saw the 'SACER' tag inscribed in it. It's nice to know that someone who's gone can still say, 'Hey motherfucker.' I see these SACER tags all the time."

Ryan (Blood) (1999)
"I guess because of the gay thing we thought, 'If anybody is going to give us a problem about being gay we're going to kick their asses.' There were some guidos out on the street one night that were saying homophobic comments so the blood on my face is from head butting somebody. It's somebody else's blood. Coming home we were laughing our asses off just because I don't think the people expected some gay kids to kick their asses."

Agathe and Dash (Black Leather) (2002)
"Agathe and Dash were the first couple who really let me into their private love life and that was big for me. Their relationship was so open to me and they loved me taking photos of them making love and just their love affair with each other. It was so nice for someone to trust me so much. To just let me into that room. It was one of the reasons I started gravitating towards nude photography."

Puke (2002)
"I did this series where I'd drink ipecac to throw up on my camera. At the time agnès b. was a really big patron of mine and wanted a photo of mine on a T-shirt. I wasn't into the idea but Dan said, "Give her the photo of you puking and the shirt will become a piece of art and nobody will ever wear it." It was funny because she made it like a frenchman's T-shirt: long sleeves with a scoop neck. Really weird. It came back and we were like, "What the fuck is this T-shirt?" It was funny to see celebrities wearing this funny frenchman's shirt with me puking on it."

'The Kids Were All Right' will run at the MCA Denver from February 11, 2017 to August 20, 2017.


Text Adam Lehrer
Photography Ryan McGinley

Ryan McGinley
the kids were all right
MCA Denver
adam lehrer
art ryan mcginley