​All Roads Lead Home: An interview with Ryan McGinley


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The Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort currently hosts the exhibition Ryan McGinley- Photographs 1999-2015, a modest and practical title that lets the impressive body of work speak for itself. McGinley (1977, Ramsey) is most renowned for the work he creates whilst on the road: long journeys during which young models are invited along to travel through caves, forests, deserts and everything in between. These journeys are the epitome of freedom, art and transcending the mundane. Like McGinley says: Join the circus and run away from home. The journey is the destination.


The amount of photos shown here bear witness to a slight photographic addiction, but before you got into photography you painted and were interested in poetry. Your photographs encompass an element of both practices, is that by choice?

Yes, I always pay attention to structure, composition and color. A photo definitely needs to have a poetic feel to it. It's hard to describe what poetry means to different people, but I think it should never feel contrived. I want you to look at a picture of mine and believe that I just stumbled upon that scene; it should feel free and true even though I staged most of my shots carefully. Besides that it should also be clear that I took the photo, the same type of energy must always be present. That is what I love about photography; that it can capture that split-second in which all those elements come together.

Who are the people in your photographs?

Mostly they are artists themselves. It is very important to me that I have a connection with them, and that they understand what I do, because when I tell somebody to roll off a hill for the 25th time to get the shot, they really have to believe in the art. They have to believe in my vision.

How do you establish that relationship of trust with your models?

I think that trust is already present in my ideas and in the series that I have made; my models know what I do. My vision is always very strong. I am like a director and the people I work with have to believe that through my vision and my way of working, we can produce something amazing. Everyone has to believe something magical will happen.

So they don't necessarily have to trust you, but they must believe in your process?

Exactly, but sometimes the process changes. I can let everyone walk up a hill before I realize that the photo will suck, after which we have to move again. In those moments people have to bear with me and be willing to still pose for me.

Besides your road trips, you shoot a lot of studio portraits. How do these relate?

Well during the road trips, you always have to be prepared in case everything goes wrong. You don't have a hold over the environment and plans can - and will - suddenly go down the drain. In the studio on the other hand, you can control everything and it's just about the person you want to photograph. These shoots do determine who I would like to take along with me on my next road trip. There has to be a vibe because when we travel we are like a family and we're in each other's space 24/7. So it's essential to select the right group of people.

So you explore the characters in your studio, and mix them up to ensure a productive synergy is present during your road trips?

Yes, every individual has good and bad traits, but some personalities just don't mix well so it's important to be selective. For example, if you have two people in the group who need a lot of attention, they will constantly compete with each other, which obstructs the creative process. Now that I have more experience, I know who I should pick to get the energy that I need. I mostly look for people who are completely free and can surrender to what is happening then and there. I can't be like that myself, I never live in the moment but am always planning and thinking ahead.

In your pictures there is a lot of freedom and hedonism. Are your pictures an exploration of those concepts since you find it difficult to surrender yourself to them?

Definitely, my pictures come from the part of my personality that is striving to be free and careless. I long to live in the present. But, even when taking those photos I am always busy planning the next shot, or making sure everyone gets lunch and gets back in the van on time. I am basically like a soccer mom who plays chess all the time.

The people in your pictures convey a message of freedom and carelessness while a lot of young people constantly worry about careers and expectations. Are your pictures an act of defiance against this?

I think those worries are very human and that they occur equally to everyone. Whether you want to be an artist or a doctor, I don't think anyone can defy that. The people in my pictures are just as concerned about how they should move through their lives as anyone else, but during these shoots I can at least give them a sense of freedom and romanticism that they will remember and take back with them.

All of your photos were shot in America, do you think you could do a road trip in China and come back with a good series?

I think I could do, but I don't think I ever will. I love the American. Until I started doing these trips, I had never travelled. I always watched movies like 'Easy Rider' and just thought: that's cool. I find it amazing that all the different landscapes and people I encounter from New York to the Midwest or the West Coast to New Mexico are all part of the same nation that I am part of. And ironically enough, I never want to be too far away from my house. I like the idea that all roads lead home.

Drugs play a big part in 'Easy Rider', does that also apply to the road trips you embark on?

No, I think everyone has the idea we are constantly on drugs but since these road trips are so costly, we can't afford to just go tripping without being productive. Being out in the open and creating art with each other is elevating enough for me.

The interview with Ryan McGinley is also available in Dutch.


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