It’s a safe bet that shooting a car commercial isn’t particularly high on the wish lists of most established contemporary artists. But from the boyish excitement photographer Ryan McGinley displays when talking about his most recent collaboration — a shoot with Mercedes-Benz new CLA class, model of the moment Karlie Kloss, and Chloe — you wouldn’t know it.
McGinley is nothing if not adventurous. He has photographed friends jumping naked on trampolines against pristine landscapes, in caves, or in his New York studio, and famously mailed copies of his first book to editors personally — an act of self promotion which allowed him to become the youngest artist ever to land a Whitney solo show, at 25. Thus, the helicopter excursion in the California desert for this commercial is only the latest in what has practically been a career founded on wish fulfillment. Alexander Forbes of ARTINFO Germany sat down with McGinley at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin to talk about the new clip (“Mind of its Own”), moving between art and fashion, and his latest work in Tokyo and New York.
Starting with “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” you have gotten some flak for the increasingly fashion-y tendencies in both your artistic practice and things you were doing on the side, like this current collaboration with Mercedes. From your perspective, how has that all played out?
I’ve been doing a lot of fashion stuff, but I don’t really think about it very much. A lot of people say that you have to do one or the other, but for me it’s very much project to project. What was cool about this particular project was that I got to make this awesome film. I got to hire helicopters and do all these crazy shots. I’ve always been obsessed with “The Shining” — there’s that awesome opening shot where they follow the car up to the hotel, and I always wanted to do something like that or even to just direct a car commercial. You see them so much on TV, but I’ve always wondered who actually makes them.
It’s a little change of pace from riding around in an RV photographing your friends jumping on trampolines?
Yeah, that’s what makes it so awesome, you know? I get to go from camping for three months, only eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to riding around in a helicopter and making a Mercedes commercial. There’s something exciting about that and I don’t feel any shame about it. For me, one project just informs the other project. I’ve made a lot of films but never a commercial. A lot of Hollywood directors, ones I admire, make commercials on the side between movies. I’m the nerd that sits around and watches all of them. In the same way, I like the thought that someone who is into my art or into my photography might see the commercial and say, “Hey, Ryan made this really strange, abstract, dreamy car commercial,” and think it’s also cool.
On a basic level, though, what separates your artistic and commercial work is the nude.
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess she [Karlie Kloss] could have been naked running after the car, but it usually comes down to how the project is structured. I was lucky this time because usually they pick the designer, then the artist, and then the model. But I had worked with Pringle a few years ago to make a film with Tilda Swinton and the designer there at the time is now the designer of Chloe, so I thought it would be great to bring Claire [Waight Keller] in as well after having picked Karlie. I really was able to play around with the whole thing. I got to use this young band out of New York called Diiv. They’re my favorite new band, so it was really nice to be able to feature them and help them out as well.
Your latest series has this fun and fairly intimate interplay between the subject and the animal they’re photographed with. Why the horse for this film?
I kind of needed a reason to get her out of the car in order to come around to the storyline where the car takes on a life of its own. I don’t know if you know that book “Christine” that Stephen King wrote in the '80s, but it’s about this killer car that has its own personality. I’ve always loved that idea so I wanted to bring that out here as well, though maybe not the killer part exactly. The horse was really a question of asking, what else would you stop and get out of the car for if you’re racing through the desert but a lone white horse on a hillside? She gets out and then I wanted to punk her a little bit, have the car start and stop over and over again. I wanted the whole thing to be cheeky and lighthearted in a way.
From the art side of things, what are you working on now?
I don’t know. I’m kind of tapped out at the moment. I just did these two huge shows: the animal show and then these huge grids of people watching music. I had been working on that second project for like four years, doing these close-ups on people’s faces at festivals all over the world. Some grids have 50 works within them. That was at Team in New York and then I showed other new pieces in Japan two months ago.
That new work brings the majority of the photos back out of the studio for the first time in a while, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I also just make a book with Purple that comes out in the next issue taking a behind-the-scenes look at my shoots from the past 10 years. It’s really fun to look back at all the series we’re talking about, to remember shooting the animal series down in someone’s basement who owns a zoo, sitting around on generators or trampolines. I own this tour bus that’s basically tricked out, so some of it has us hanging out in there as well.
I’m always traveling around the U.S. But recently, I was down in the South for a month in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Right now it’s really about getting out there and shooting just for the sake of making art without taking a real focus on any one thing.
To see Ryan McGinley's "Mind of its Own," click on the video below: