I am–or was–not a big fan of Ryan McGinley. When I saw that he’d been interviewed in this month’s issue of The Believer, I was apprehensive because (1.) The Believer has disappointed me with its photo coverage before (last year’s piece on Ralph Eugene Meatyard turned out to be a waste of time) and (2.) I couldn’t imagine that McGinley had anything interesting to say. I turned to it as a kind of personal Fifteen Minutes of Hate.
In that respect, it was disappointing. I found McGinley’s story–both of his life and his explanation for his art–much more captivating and more sophisticated than I’d guessed. His background in skate culture came as a surprise to me, but I love this quote:
[S]kateboarding is a lot like photography because skateboarding is about making something out of nothing. You’re using the urban landscape as a playground and you’re making ideas for doing skateboard tricks–using a handrail or some yellow curb on the sidewalk–and photography is about the same thing for me [ . . . ] You have to sort of create these scenarios to shoot, these ideas to work, and you have to use the world as the backdrop for your photograph. (p. 49)
I expected quotes like this: “I just wanted to make a picture of people naked in a tree”(p. 52). What I didn’t expect were quotes like this: “It’s really a world–you have to remember that. People look at photographs and believe them as truth and they always will. People look at my photographs and think this is real–this life exists. Even if they know that it doesn’t”(p. 56). McGinley admits that his images are a fantasy, a world of forever young, comfortable, naked men and women bumming around and enjoying themselves. And when he talks about how his images are made, and the sorts of choices he’s making in them, it’s illuminating–like how he’s spent years figuring out how to expose film to get the kind of artificial colors you see in his beautiful series of Morrissey fans, Irregular Regulars.
One of the main reasons I hadn’t respected McGinley was that his images felt unconsidered and overwhelmingly reliant on young nudes for their impact. It got me thinking about other fashion-like photographers, and the numerous fashion photographers who have been or are trying to be accepted as art photographers–from Richard Avedon to Annie Leibovitz. It struck me that I was almost completely willing to accept work by past or dead fashion photographers as art (Horst P. Horst, Man Ray, Avedon), I was not very interested in contemporary photographers of the same ilk (Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, etc.). While all those thoughts were gelling in my head, I read this post at Conscientious, including the two links to two slightly divergent but equally vitriolic takes on the show of Vanity Fair portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
Some of what’s going on here is typical reactionary behavior: when someone is dead and canonical, we don’t learn about them as an artist whose place in the canon could be protested. Hence the more general respect for older Vanity Fair work, even when that respect’s founded on an unsubstantiated, quasi-mystical assertion that the work shows celebs “as they really are” (whatever that means) as is the case in the article that made Jörg Colberg nauseated. (Great example: compare today’s ebullient praise for Margaret Bourke-White as feminist icon to James Agee’s critique of her hypocrisy–making a name by photographing the poor while wearing pricey and impeccably tailored fur coats–at the end of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.)
Waldemar Januszczak seems to exorcise his own fifteen minutes of hate in his review in the Sunday Times, which I think deserves a serious dissection. It’s indicative of a general backlash against vanity which never seems to run out of steam, despite the fact that’s it’s been raging since the Middle Ages. In my next post, I’ll talk in more detail about Januszczak’s disgust: where it seems to come from, whether I think it makes sense, and how his rhetorical strategy works.
Top image © Ryan McGinley. Bottom image © Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair.