Ryan McGinley is now so closely associated with photos of hot young people naked in caves, fields and forests, it’s funny to think it was his images of life in downtown New York that first brought him to international attention, and led him to become the youngest artist to hold a solo show at the Whitney Museum, with 2001’s The Kids Are All Right when he was 25.
In fact, his Polaroids of life running round the city, doing drugs all night and tagging rooftops and subways with Dash Snow were so emblematic of the scene at that time, that Larry Clark once camped out in the apartment he shared with Dash and Dan Colen with the intentions of filming their wild shenanigans for a fly-on-the-wall tv series.
But everyone who has lived in a city will know that feeling of being there too long. So, inspired by Easy Rider and the Beat tradition, Ryan took to the road for the next five summers, travelling the country with a band of models in a van who were willing to be photographed nude, looking to capture “a freedom from the modern world – a fantasy world.”
Now 14 years later, Ryan has amassed such an extensive body of work taken in nature, that his latest solo show in Europe—at Bergamo’s GAMeC in Italy—is curated around the each of the seasons. We got in touch to ask him whether a connection with the natural world is a yearning that comes with age, whether certain landscapes inspire specific thoughts, and if he has a secret survival skill.
How much time do you spend in nature? Is there one spot in particular you keep returning to?
I spend about 50 percent of my time shooting outdoors in nature and the other 50 working in my studio in Manhattan. I love shooting photos in White Sands National Park in New Mexico – my models can be very playful on the soft sand hills and everything in the photograph is so clean with just pure white sand and cool blue skies. It’s the ultimate outdoor studio. I do a lot of trail running with my dog, Dick, around where I grew up in Northern New Jersey.
Do you have a favourite season, or is it more about observing the changing of the seasons, and how time is stored and recorded in trees, rocks and landscapes?
I love the weather in the summer because my models can be the most free with their warm relaxed bodies. The psychedelic colours of the trees and landscape in the Fall is my favorite though, it’s nature’s fireworks exploding. My favorite aspect about shooting in nature is that it always remains timeless – the nude body against the natural backdrop will always be classic.
Is a yearning for nature something that comes with age, that has grown over all these years of living in the city?
I’ve always had a strong connection with nature, I grew up playing in the woods in New Jersey. It’s where I find spirituality, beauty, and peace of mind. The way it’s constantly changing fascinates me, and I’m always inspired to take photos there.
Can certain landscapes inspire specific thoughts?
I think the landscape inspires my mood more than anything. I always try and see the potential in a landscape to make an interesting photo, it’s one of the most crucial parts of my process. I try to then isolate a small part of nature to only show the most interesting and most colorful piece within the camera’s rectangle. It’s a real art form to be able to see it and feel certainty.
Do you consider your photographs in nature to be works of Land Art (even if Land Art usually takes sculpture as its point of departure)?
No, because we aren’t leaving anything behind. I’ve always followed the hiker’s philosophy of “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.”
How would you define 21st century hedonism?
I think many people take away a hedonistic feeling from my photographs which makes me happy for them. I want the images to try and feel free and loose. Making them isn’t always pleasurable, it’s a lot of hard work outside the frame. My most recent series shot only in the winter on snow and ice was very painful – my models sacrificed their nude bodies and their warmth for the sake of my art.
Do you believe in black and white photography, or is it a disservice to nature’s beauty?
I love black and white photography – everything always looks good in black and white. Sally Mann‘s black and white photos in nature are mind blowing. For my personal work, I prefer to use black and white in a studio environment.
Do you have a secret survival skill?
I meditate daily, I’m a vegetarian and I own a rescue dog. When I’m having a hard time surviving I call my mom, Mary Jane, and I always feel better after talking to her. My personal G.O.D. is the Great Out Doors.
Do you have a favourite book of travel or nature writing?
Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
What are your three indulgences (these can be emotional as well as material)?
I go to the cinema at least twice a week. I enjoy eating gourmet food by creative chefs, and I love thrift shopping in different cities around the world.
And what three things do you deny yourself?
Alcohol, drugs, and red meat
When and where are you your best self?
When I’m with my boyfriend Marc. All I want to do is enjoy life with him and give him love and affection.
‘Ryan McGinley: The Four Seasons’ opens at GAMeC in Bergamo, Italy, tomorrow and runs until 15 May.
Opener: Crimson & Clover, Upstate New York, 2015
All photos by Ryan McGinley courtesy of the artist, Team Gallery and Galerie Perrotin