”I love the idea of the unexpected.”

Light, space and time. Those are the classic ingredients for photography, which have been reinvented, rediscovered and rearranged again and again for almost 200 years. And just when you thought that the subject might have exhausted itself, that nothing new could be done, someone comes along and interprets them in a way that hasn’t been seen before, not quite like that. As it happens, this latest someone is called Ryan McGinley.

In just over a decade, McGinley’s work has gained a momentum and a popularity that is breathtaking. To give a little glimpse of its scale: For the opening of his last show in New York in 2010, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, an estimated 5,000 visitors turned up, forcing traffic in SoHo to a standstill. Influencing an entire generation of young photographers, one can trace his visual style not only to blogs and magazines, but to gallery walls, fashion editorials, music videos and advertising campaigns. In short: Ryan McGinley is the photographer of now.

It is easy to see the appeal in his work: Celebrating the sweet and fleeting state of youth, his photographs are suffused with color, light and energy. Naked kids climbing trees, running through the desert, rolling down hills, suspended in the air, diving into lakes, leaping through fireworks – there’s a lightness and carelessness and beauty to McGinley’s images that is utterly addictive. They spark a sense of movement and vigor and joy that, in an inherently still medium such as photography, is notoriously hard to convey. He captures that moment that never was, the teenage experience you wish you had had. His work transports an idealized, weightless state of freedom, youth and innocence, unburdened by age, worries, gravity or even clothes, for that matter.

Not that McGinley portrays a flawless utopia: On second sight, the imperfect is in the details. His models will have scars or a black eye; they are not the kind to be seen in advertising. It’s arguably what makes his images even more attractive and accessible: These kids are real. They are alive. They have character. They could be you or me.

Ryan McGinley’s steep ascent within the world of photography appears almost as effortless as his images: Born in 1977 in New Jersey, he moved to New York in 1996 to study graphic design at Parsons School of Design, where almost by accident he discovered his love for photography. Incessantly shooting his friends and surroundings, McGinley inadvertently documented the microcosm of youth culture in New York at the turn of the millennium in a body of work that stood out for its energy and optimism, despite the grit and rawness of the images – a style that should later draw comparisons to the work of Nan Goldin, Larry Clark and Robert Frank. In the meantime, McGinley befriended a group of local artists and creative types – among them his close friends Dan Colen and the late Dash Snow – that would soon be hyped as a ‘new movement’ by the press, a label based more on the excessive lifestyle the three had in common than their actual and quite disparate work.

A first, spontaneous DIY exhibition in 2000 quickly led to a series of further and bigger shows in Berlin, Paris and Milan, as well as at the renowned PS1 and the Whitney Museum in New York, where at 25, McGinley was one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo exhibition. However, he was not only embraced by the art world: Magazines, fashion labels and advertising companies were also quick to catch on. From Vice – where he worked as photo editor for a year – to The New York Times Magazine, from the US Olympic Sports Team to Levi’s, McGinley applied his style with astonishing versatility, yet without compromising his vision or integrity. To this day he remains unfazed by the deep-rooted if antiquated division between art and commerce: gallery shows and YouTube, advertising campaigns and editorials, personal and commissioned work – anything goes in a time where boundaries are blurring and the world is becoming increasingly intertwined.

It’s with impressive ease that Ryan McGinley navigates not only different media and genres, but also pushes his personal work from step to step: from documenting downtown New York on the loose to creating invisibly staged dreamscapes in a series of increasingly elaborate photographic road trips across the USA over the course of five successive summers – amounting to an endless summer of 365 days – to classic and minimalist black-and-white studio portraits, his photographs create a kaleidoscopic vision of youth with all its hopes, fears and dreams.

And so for the past ten years, McGinley has continuously been one step ahead, and is already taking the next corner of his young career – like the teenagers in his images, like youth itself, always on the run, always looking for the next thing, but always with the unmistakable energy and optimism and lightness that ultimately characterizes all of his work. Because no one these days sculpts light, space and time quite in the same way as Ryan McGinley.

Interview by Martina Kix
Introduction by Kai von Rabenau
Photography by Ryan McGinley
Design by Eva Gonçalves and Kai von Rabenau

Read the interview in issue #27 of mono.kultur, available from selected shops. You can also order directly from us via our online store mono.konsum.