McGinley’s Mirror, 2018

Ryan McGinley

This book is populated by photographs of my friends. Most of them are artists —dancers, architects, photographers, actors, painters, musicians, fashion designers, choreographers, performers. This project is about community — my community. Some are family, college friends, brothers-in-law, moms, aunts, former models or ex-boyfriends, many of whom I’ve photographed for other series of my work. Rather than shoot them as I have before, I asked them to photograph themselves in their own spaces using a set of written instructions I devised to help guide the process.

I began this project with an eye toward exploring new ways of seeing the human body. I wanted something that included playfulness and creative problem-solving with an emphasis on photographic exploration. I wasn’t present for any of the photo shoots. Instead, I wanted to empower the subjects, while stripping my photography down to its conceptual roots. I was excited by all the visual possibilities. 

I sent a few assistants with fifteen door-sized mirrors to the subjects’ homes, armed with instructions that could be read to them during the course of their shoots. The model could also opt to complete the shoot completely on their own. The instructions came from distilling the directions I normally give my subjects when shooting. I wanted to let them examine themselves over the course of shooting five rolls of film with the kind of camera that fewer and fewer people are accustomed to using. No opportunities to self-edit. 

The instructions for the earliest sessions were short, but they evolved and grew over the course of the project. As I developed the film, I would respond to the photos I was seeing and add more instructions for the next participant. By the end of the project, the list of directions was quite long.

I’ve always been fascinated by projects in which the artist conceives of the idea and provides instructions, but the work is executed by others. Conceptual projects like these have so many visual possibilities and points of contact. A photographer should also be able to conceive of a work and then delegate its actual execution to others. For this project, even though I wasn’t present, I felt like the models were still working within my photographic language and the themes I have explored for years — nudity, sexuality, gender, beauty, and fantasy. I wanted to give them permission to examine themselves nude with a camera. For a lot of these models, it was their first time shooting so many rolls of film, investigating their bodies for an extended period of time.

I’m a big fan of instruction pieces by Conceptual artists, like Miranda July’s “Learning To Love You More” assignments, Rob Pruitt’s “101 Art Ideas,” or Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit.” The idea and inspiration for this project came from a really diverse range of sources: the fighting scene in the mirrored room from Bruce Lee’s movie Enter the Dragon, trying on clothes in a dressing room with multiple mirrors, FaceTime, make-up tutorials, profile pictures on dating apps, thirst traps and Versailles’s iconic Hall of Mirrors. The reflection of self, how one sees themselves, how they want others to see them, is central to modern life. I like calling these my Sol LeWitt selfies.

There were two parts of the process: the instructions and the realization. The photograph becomes a reality only when the nude model realizes the work. These instructions can be carried out by different models in many different ways, allowing for infinite possibilities that I could not predict. I’d edit down the rolls of film to a single photo, one that I felt captured the model’s spirit.

One’s living space is a rich, complex environment. I’ve always loved seeing how people live; how they optimize space or live in clutter. There’s authenticity in a person’s apartment, in their meaningful possessions and décor, which tells you a lot about their interior lives. Ideally, your space is meant to reflect your personality. People feel relaxed at home. Seeing a person nude in private space with their belongings offers a tremendous amount of intimacy. Urban living is brutal and most New York City tenement apartments are very small. A lot of these photos are taken in the artists’ apartments and in their personal rooms. I love the variation that comes from using mirrors within an extremely confined space. The multiple reflective surfaces generated unpredictable angles and made things look trippy and psychedelic.

These images depict a particular moment in time, from the spring of 2016 through the summer of 2017. My favorite works are the photos with babies, cats, or dogs—they really reinforce this notion of community, of family. The subjects range in age from 19-87 (not including the babies), and most of the models’ apartments are in New York City. The models represent such an interesting cross-section of life in the city (and my life in particular): 

Mela is the only model that appears twice; she completed the project pregnant, and then again with her beautiful daughter Amethyst after she gave birth. A champion of artists’ books and publications and a fan of being in the buff, Shannon sadly passed away a few months after he participated in this project. This is one of the last nude images taken of him. Marc’s 5th floor apartment is rent controlled, which is one of the most coveted things to have in New York City. He’s a Williamsburg lifer and has been in that space for 25 years. I spent 10 years of my life visiting him there when we dated. Imma is a transgender woman who recently completed facial feminization surgery. I think about her happily becoming the person she sees herself as in that apartment. Magdalena’s place is packed with stuffed animals, she has chests filled with them, while she spends her days designing apps. Erhl’s apartment is a skate and graffiti flop house. I love all the graffiti on the walls and can imagine the smell of spray paint fumes in the room. Sophia is one of New York’s nightlife legends and she insisted on keeping her heels on for the entirety of her photo shoot. Erica is a queer femme breast cancer survivor and sex educator. She underwent a double mastectomy at 28 and wanted to pose nude to show women of color what their scars would look like.

For me, the human body has always been the most interesting subject. The body is magnificent, alluring and graceful. I told my models to try to keep an open heart and mind while they study themselves. A lot of models said that after they completed their shoots, the process helped them get over their body shame and other insecurities. The best part of this exercise is that anyone can carry it out, and become part of this project.

Many of the instructions I wrote were informed by my choreographer because I wanted to make sure the models explored movement. Many of the actions described in the instructions are the ones I use myself during my own shoots. I love to experiment with poses in my work and when I make photographs. I always play music to get the vibe right; to have fun and not be afraid of getting weird.

I like listening to The Beach Boys song “In My Room” when I look at these photos, “There’s a world where I can go, And tell my secrets to, In my room.”

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