One On One

Ryan McGinley by David Armstrong

David Armstrong’s intimate photographs portray sitters with a stately poise and focus, their eyes candidly gazing into the lens. His quietly beautiful work, which often focuses on young male subjects, has a nostalgic quality, no doubt informed by his love of Old Masters such as Millais and Van Dyck, and Armstrong has also given a softer edge to a host of super-glossy publications including Visionaire, French Vogue and I-D. His latest subject is photographer Ryan McGinley, who he talks to here about Neil Young, naturalism and swapping the great outdoors for the studio.

David Armstrong: In so many of your pictures, the subject seems so far away. Is that because you feel a sense of detachment when you’re shooting, or are you actively trying to create a big landscape scene?

Ryan McGinley: It’s a little bit of both. I want the big landscape, I want the color fields, the big blues, big greens, big blacks. I’m interested in the relationship between the person and the landscape, and what they can do in it, but yes, there’s also a little bit of detachment. I like to be slightly removed from the situation, in order to have some distance from the model and be able to really pull back and let things unfold in an organic manner while directing it a little.

DA: I was thinking about Casper David Friedrich and the idea of identification of the self with nature. In his paintings, the person is usually very small and set against a huge vista.

RM: That was the idea with the cave photos [the 2008/09 Moonmilk series]. It was about the idea of man versus nature, how powerful nature is, and how big it can be and how small we can be. I was also intrigued by the idea of abstraction within that subterranean landscape.

DA: These new ones feel like they are really about the people. They fit into the general idea of portraits, but I can’t imagine anyone else but you taking them.

RM: I thought about making studio photographs for a long time. When I first started this project I thought to myself, ‘Well, how can I make a black and white photograph in the studio and not have it look like so many other people’s photographs?’ I really worked on bringing in all those actions that I do outside into the studio.

DA: It’s also intriguing to me how there seem to be more girls than boys in these shots.

RM: Actually, people say that to me a lot. They seem to like the photos I take of women more, and they always seem to surprise themselves by telling me that. Which leads me to think, 'Wow, am I really that fucking gay?' [laughs]

DA: There are no repeats of people, right?

RM: No, it’s 96 portraits and everyone has just one.

DM: Do you use a studio camera on a tripod?

RM: It’s a Canon 5D. I don’t mount it on a tripod. I’m moving around with the models; I have to track them. I’m always right there with them— I love getting into it.

DA: So the lights are stationary––it’s not a strobe or anything?

RM: No, I use two strobes. I use soft boxes over them because I wanted all the photos to look kind of glamorous, sort of like old Hollywood studio portraits. I wanted everyone to have a good glow.

DA: Did you ever mistakenly see these photos in color?

RM: Yes, they look totally bananas. I’ve only seen them in color once and I was so shocked that I told my studio manager, ‘Don’t ever show these to me again like this!’ But converting them to black and white, they really make sense and look so beautiful.

DA: Who are your favorite portrait photographers?

RM: There’s so many that inspired this body of work, and not just portrait photographers. Berenice Abbott, Peter Hujar, [Eadweard] Muybridge, Will McBride, [Nobuyoshi] Araki, [Alfred] Steglitz, [Jacques Henri] Lartigue, the list goes on.

DA: How did you arrive at the title for the show?

RM: I listen to Neil Young pretty much everyday. I was just listening to “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” one day and it made sense, because the studio really is nowhere. You’re really stripping everything down, you’re removing the landscape, removing the clothes, and you’re in this very artificial environment where the person is kind of floating in this abstract white space. On top of it, the photo is black and white, which is very far from reality. There’s really nothing to place them in time.

DA: The things that you find beautiful in people are, I think, distinct to you, which is really terrific.

RM: You know, the ones of people on the floor remind me of your photographs of people in bed, which are so you. Whenever I put someone on the floor, I’m like,  ‘Oh, I’m taking a David photograph.’

DA: Have you ever felt a subject is just doing what they anticipate you’d want?

RM: Sometimes that happens. It ends up being like breaking a horse in order to get them to act natural.

If nothing else works, you can wear them down, shooting so much film that they just give up.

RM: That’s what I feel like a lot of these portraits are: wearing a person down to get them to this place where they’re totally themselves and all sense of self-consciousness has left the room, exhaustion sets in, and you catch them at a moment where they have let their guard down. A lot of these pictures actually are the in-between moments.

DA: So many people, when you pull a camera out, feel like they have to look directly at the lens.

RM: This is actually the first time I’ve had lots of direct eye contact in my photographs. I was always scared of that. But I think in a lot of these images it really works. I wanted the viewer to really feel that they’re engaged with the person. What I always try to achieve is the feeling of that brief look that you share with someone at a restaurant, on line at the supermarket, on the subway––that one second that feels like an eternity, and then it’s over.

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