A Ryan McGinley story.

by Tim Soter

Recently Ryan McGinley gave a commencement speech at his alma mater, Parsons School of Design.  He kept it brief but interesting with the kind of anecdotes that every photographer, either emerging or established, loves to hear.  I use him as an example when teaching because his work is a favorite among young photo students.  He’s an excellent case for someone that you might think “fell into” his success – a myth that you would certainly like to believe as a photography student – but I had known for over a decade that McGinley worked really hard, producing his own books (pre-Blurb) and sending them out to everyone who he thought had influence and whom he admired.  He touched upon this in his commencement speech.  Not in the speech however are the stories I had heard of his friends, saying that what looked like spontaneity in his photos was often Ryan making them repeat the same action over and over until he got what he wanted.  Until it had the right “feel” of spontaneity.  I’m sure he was having fun but he was also working.  The speech is definitely worth watching.

Back in 2002, Vice magazine was not the billion dollar industry it is now.  They had a small retail store down on Lafayette Street; I dropped in occasionally and one day there was a photo show hanging.  Lots and lots of Polaroids of “kids,” party pictures (when that was still a novelty before the digital age and Instagram) all carefully bordering the interior of the store.  Hanging from the ceiling were several large color photos, prints of the same downtown youth culture.  I really liked the work and had never bought a print before but saw the shot (above) and really connected with it.  I’ve never been a fan of tagging or graffiti but I loved the time of night caught in this photo, the grain of the low light film and the mood of the slight movement of the faraway window light from the background buildings.  I took the photographers name and gave him a call.  I told him I wanted to buy it but I wanted a fresh print – I was nervous that the clips, literally generic black binder clips dangling off of fishing line, would somehow scratch the print.  (Compulsive – yes – but thinking like a true collector, even from print one.)  Ryan McGinley was nice enough on the phone and promised to print me a new one, giving me  the details.  It was printed on Fuji Archival paper, the size was 30″ x 40″ and the price he quoted which I jotted down in my calendar… $250.  Even then I wondered how he could be making a profit since that is about what a color lab would charge for making a print like that.  For the next few weeks I tried to get him back on the phone, but could never reach him.  McGinley never slowed down, he always kept moving – he was already on to the next thing.  The money probably didn’t matter, he just was already focused on the future.

By 2003 he was already a controversial celebrity in the art world, the youngest artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum.  About a year or two after that I ran into him at a bar, sat and had a drink and gave him a hard time about the print, gently ribbing him and knowing that that ship had sailed.  But at least I got to hear him laugh as I told him the story.  In 2011 an exact print of that image, a photo of (now deceased) artist Dash Snow tagging a building, went up for auction expecting to fetch between $6,000 and $8,000.  It sold for $17,500.

I guess I had an excellent eye as a first time collector.