Ryan McGinley has a childhood memory in which he’s sitting alongside his seven brothers and sisters during mass, listening to the priest preach about sin. “I grew up very religious, very Roman Catholic,” says the American photographer whose portraits of naked misfits made him an icon to the Vice generation. “I was taught to believe in sin and Satan, and it scared the shit out of me.”
It might not seem to square with his reputation, but faith has played a huge part in McGinley’s work. He was taught religious art at school in New Jersey and remembers staring at The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo’s depiction of God giving life to the first man, in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
“It was probably the first piece of art that spoke to me,” he says today. “The almost-touching fingers. Adam nude. That was the first glimpse of a naked man’s body. I still remember the impact it had on me.”
Michelangelo’s worship of the human body is reflected in McGinley’s searing portraits of the “like-minded weirdos” he has met over two decades of life in Manhattan, which comprise the exhibition Pretty Free – originally due to be on show at London’s Marlborough Gallery this month, but now accessible online.
“The human body is beautiful. It was created by Mother Earth, our goddess. But posing nude is still an act of rebellion,” McGinley says. “Even Michelangelo had trouble with nudity. Many people thought his fresco was outrageous, more suitable for a public bath or a tavern than a Catholic chapel.”
McGinley’s ability to reveal who we are through our bodies comes from deeply internal experiences. McGinley was the youngest by seven years. He grew up in a crowded house in Ramsey, a middle class suburb of New Jersey, the son of a Korean war veteran who worked as a traveling salesman for Owens Corning, a roof insulation company.
He remembers silently watching his teenage brothers and sisters in awe. But, by the time he was 10, each of his siblings had grown up and moved out, leaving him “feeling like an only child”. Then, as he hit teenagehood, his older brother Michael, a student at School of Visual Arts NYC, suddenly moved home.
While it wasn’t talked of, Michael lived in New York with his boyfriend, Richard, a Barbara Streisand impersonator. He was McGinley’s first introduction to art; to the downtown stars of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat and the old New York doyens Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
“He taught me a lot about creativity,” McGinley remembers. “How to do theatrical makeup; he would put a witch’s nose on me and then blend it in with makeup. He did my colour chart and showed me what colour of clothing looked best on me. Michael turned me on to oil sticks and watercolours. He taught me choreography and how to be performative. He was 17 years older than me, and he had a huge impact on the way I see the world.”
Michael had Aids, an illness his family, and America at large, did not fully understand. McGinley spent much of his teenage years nursing his brother before heading out to skateboard and spray graffiti to the sound of Wu-Tang Clan and Ramones.
For all his carefree bravado among his friends, it was a stressful time; McGinley has spoken of his family having to secure his brother’s bedroom door with a chair so he couldn’t reach a kitchen knife, of once calling for an ambulance in a panic when he found his brother in a near-coma after swallowing all his medication.
He remembers wheeling his brother in a chair through the Ramsey neighbourhood and concocting to their neighbours a story about Michael having cancer. The family feared what the community would do if they knew the truth.
“Aids was considered a gay disease,” McGinley says. “And there really weren’t many gay people in the suburbs on New Jersey. When my brother came home sick, people were scared. When he got Kaposi’s sarcoma – spots all over his face and body – we tried to hide them with L’Oreal make-up. It sounds so sad now. But at the time we were just trying to protect him so he could live with us in peace. We did the best we could with what we had.”
Michael died a few months after McGinley’s 17th birthday. “He passed away from Aids at the same time I knew I was also gay. That created some complicated emotions. The only gay men I knew growing up were my brother and his group of friends. They all contracted the disease and died one by one. So, in my teenage mind, I associated being sick and dying with my sexuality. I developed a very masculine personality at the time to unconsciously combat my queer impulses.”
In 1997, at the age of 19, McGinley enrolled as an art student at New York’s Parsons School of Design and moved to Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. “My first room-mate was a female dominatrix,” McGinley says. “She realised I was gay and helped me come out. She was my guardian angel.”
From there, McGinley “unleashed”. He paid his way through school by selling weed and spent every evening exploring the illicit riches of the East Village.
“Honestly, it was really the golden period of gay bars,” he says. He remembers, in one long monologue that doubles as a glorious tribute to old New York, a night walking down Avenue A. “You could start at Nowhere Bar on 14th Street and catch a glimpse of Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields,” he says. “13th Street had The Phoenix, where we’d play pool. David LaChapelle’s studio was a few doors down. The Cock on 12th Street was the most wild; it’s where everyone bought their drugs.
“The Pyramid was on Seventh Street; they had the legendary drag shows. Sixth street had I.C.Guys, the smallest gay bar in Manhattan; they held poetry readings with Eileen Myles and parties for Bruce LaBruce. Sixth had Eastern Block, too, that’s where the best DJs would play. There would always be a party at Mistress Formika, which was under a sushi restaurant on Fifth Street, and Fourth Street had The Boiler Room, which is where all the cute NYU college students were. Then on Tuesday nights there was the Beige party at the Bowery Bar on Fourth Street and Bowery; that’s where all the gay models and celebrities would hang out in the courtyard.”
“I would do the entire bar crawl with my Yashica T4 and shoot 10 rolls a night,” continues McGinley, before adding wistfully: “All those places are gone now.”
McGinley lived that way – “as a fly on the wall” – for the best part of five years. “I saw myself as part of a tradition,” McGinley says. “Following in the footsteps of Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin, shooting my tribe in Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
His earliest pictures, shot on his Yashica and a Polaroid, are soaked in a kind of wild euphoria. They are often rough and physical; pictures of semen, urine and blood, of a girl’s face covered in cocaine or a boy’s covered in bruises. But the images are often quiet and tender too; McGinley’s first boyfriend asleep, or the two of them smiling and kissing in bed, or Ryan photographing himself as he cried.
McGinley printed and self-published an edit of his Polaroids in a book titled The Kids Were Alright, and, after a DIY exhibition in a vacant building on West Broadway, managed to get the book passed into the hands of Sylvia Wolf, the then director of photographs at Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2003, just after McGinley’s 25th birthday, Wolf curated an exhibition of McGinley’s portraits at the Whitney, making him the youngest artist in 30 years to be granted a solo show at one of New York’s most venerable art institutions.
Well-paying gigs for brands like Levi and Marc Jacobs duly followed. Then came magazine commissions to shoot Beyoncé and Brad Pitt. McGinley, who had never boarded a flight before, was suddenly travelling the world. He was soon able to set up a studio next to a bridal shop in Chinatown; it’s still spoken of as a modern-day Warholian factory for Insta-famous artists like Petra Collins and Sandy Kim. His style was widely replicated by photographers from an increasingly globalised scene, most notably the late Chinese photographer Ren Hang and Thai artist Ohm Phanphiroj.
Many artists respond to recognition by offering up more of the same. McGinley saw his ascent as an opportunity to change. “I was born a child of the woods,” he says. “And so my work became more about travelling and using nature as a backdrop.” McGinley began to organise summer road trips into the American wilderness. If his early vistas were dank apartments, subterranean bars and Escher-like rooftops, McGinley now photographs his naked ingenue as they scale trees, lie in secluded lakes or dance in the depths of hidden caves.
McGinley’s recent imagery, exhibited for the first time at the Marlborough show, is his most compositional work yet, orientating his youthful bodies in the flood of colour and light that nature provides in full bloom. “For the first 10 years, my road trips were exclusively in the summer,” he says. “Now we have started to shoot in the fall and winter. The colour palette of each season drastically changes the photograph.”
McGinley is now a celebrity in the East Village. Yet he still attends church in New Jersey. He drives over the Hudson to his childhood home, picks up his mum and sits next to her in the pews.
“I love to hear her sing,” he says. “I still think churches are the most beautiful buildings in the world; the high ceilings, the stained glass, the way the light beams through it.”
He still has faith. But, these days, he doesn’t worry so much about Satan. “I just follow a simple mantra,” he says. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
• Ryan McGinley’s Pretty Free is online at London’s Marlborough Gallery.