OpEd: Are The Kids Still Alright?

A couple weeks ago I turned 24, and like many twenty somethings, birthdays have become a day to fear more than celebrate. Why? Well for me recent birthdays have become a perfectly unwanted opportunity for self-reflection. The added year to my collective age forces me to examine all I have accomplished and what I’ve yet to accomplish. In my case it is an anniversary to celebrate my successes and failures as a photographer.

Today there are droves of young photographers who would like nothing more than to start long art projects or commercial careers but unfortunately there are few that actually “make it” and the rest who keep their passions as a side project. Explaining yourself to be an aspiring photographer becomes a sort of rehearsed conversation piece. So you do X for living? Yes I do X, but my real love is photography. Do you read Y blog? They just did a feature on me. When success in society is measured in fame and fortune, there are plenty of photographers that could view their work and career as a failure.

So what do my peers do to comfort and motivate themselves? We look for inspiration from those who have succeeded. We look for that imaginary blue print on what we have to do to make photography our “X”. While there are hundreds of photographers that can serve as education, my generation the undeniable leader of influence has been Ryan McGinley. A quick look on flickr or tumblr and it becomes clear that whether he intended to or not, McGinley has become an idol of photographers everywhere.

©Ryan McGinley

It is easy to see why his career has spoken directly to my demographic. Instead of art school he taught himself the camera so he could begin photographing his friends. His photographs embody the spirit of being young, reckless and fearless. Instead of slaving through portfolio reviews he created a self-published book which he sent around to magazines and galleries. This approach worked and at about the age I am now, McGinley had an exhibition at the Whitney. Since then he has had rockstar gallery openings, released wildly successful photo books and has begun doing editorial work for various publications. His story is so attractive because of his nontraditional path to success and the fact that in most interviews he comes off as a normal guy. It’s not hard to imagine if he started his career last year he would have a wildly successful tumblr of his own and have his photographs featured on the dozens of emerging photography blogs(From the inbox: Ryan Mcginley?).

McGinley’s images resonated with me early on. In college, I would click through his series repeatedly via Tiny Vices and be mesmerized by his dreamy colorful photographs of models exploring the American landscape. They were romantic and both innocent and curious. This youthful exuberance speaks directly to my peers. While my friends were not getting naked and climbing trees, there are obvious parallels between his road trips and the everyday life of the early twenties. McGinley titled one of his early series “The Kids Are Alright”, and that’s exactly how it feels. We are young and we are doing just fine.

Like everything you experience when you are young–growing up is inevitable. Your first girlfriend, the first band you followed and your favorite pair of converse that has too many holes in them, there comes a point when it is time to move on. I’ve been out from college for a year and half and I’ve already begun to realize the cliché, “your college years are the best years of your life!” I remember vividly hearing that while I was in college and thinking it was only reserved for people who never pursued what they wanted in life. I still hold this optimism but when I look at McGinley’s iconic images I comically ask myself, Who here has health insurance? Does McGinley Studios provide that? Are the kids still alright?

©Ryan McGinley

I’m getting to a point where these photographs are not creeping into my daydreams anymore but are becoming something more of nostalgic memory–a remembrance of what was and not what is. The photographs become like that old pair of converse that you should really toss, but you can’t quite get yourself to part with yet.

The models in the photographs never lose their innocence. They never face a world based upon success or failure. They are stuck in a place that seems more like a fairytale. McGinley has said he wants his photographs to look like the illustrations in a children’s book. He succeeded. All of his series’ end with a sense of “happily ever after”–nowhere in his photographs do I find answers on what happens next. What do we do when the road trip is over? Maybe in his latest series “Everyone knows this is Nowhere” there is something new to relate to. He takes his models out of nature and he places them directly in front of the camera in black and white. In some of photographs the models seem to show a sense of insecurity and uneasiness, but most of the models still look to be lost in a world of no conclusions.


©Ryan McGinley

It doesn’t help that McGinley has since sold his fantastical vision. Like moving out of your childhood home McGinley has realized it’s time to find new digs and new shoes. He might as well put his vintage converse on Ebay, ready for a new generation of young and naïve to buy.

Now as McGinley moves on to film and other commercial prospects, he has left a legion of photographers lost on a ship of innocence that he once guided. Sure we have our tumblrs, flickrs and features on our favorite blogs but a popular photobook probably isn’t going to make your dreams come true anymore. I wonder how many self-published books flood the offices of magazines and galleries on a daily basis. If Little Brown Mushroom is any sort of a guide, it’s obviously many.

It was never McGinley’s job to guide anyone but himself, just as it is not a musician’s responsibility to write their next album to engage their aging fan base. The fact remains we look to other photographers for insight on how to progress through this highly transitional phase of life. If we can learn anything from McGinley’s path it is to always evolve and develop. Once the children’s book is over and everyone lives happily ever after it’s maybe time to read another book, or simply go to bed.

Thinking about the online world of emerging photographers makes me wonder how much value we put into blog features, favorites, tumblr followers and our beloved self-published zines. Are we setting ourselves up for false hope? Or are we settling in to our new definition of success. I’m not sure, but I do wonder if all of us kids will be alright.

Coley Brown, a former model of McGinley has interestingly enough created his own photography project entitled “Growing Up” where himself and a fellow photographer post photographs dealing with the everyday nuances of becoming older. Other models for McGinley have gone on to create bands, pursue additional modeling gigs and do what they can to keep moving forward. I wonder how they see themselves in the photographs, or do they see themselves at all? Are these images becoming a nostalgic memory to them as they deal with life out of the woods? Maybe they never saw themselves in the photographs at all. They only see actors in a perfectly illustrated fairytale where the kids are alright and no one ever has to grow out of their shoes.

Written by James Turnley

  • r_s_g

    What does “wreckless” mean? 

  • http://www.mikepeters.com Mike Peters

    The word success is an albatross around each of our necks, if we allow our definition of it to be dictated by the lives of others. Where you start in life, and what you do with what you were bestowed, genetically, socially and financially by your parents will be a far better basis from which to start your calculations on how successful you are, and none of those things are within your control. Based on Mr. McGinley’s meteoric rise, and his ability to fund his initial trips, I imagine he did not grow up on a working class neighborhood with parents to match.

    That he is smart, savvy and well able to corral a group of very attractive peers with time on their hands and orchestrate a series of interesting photo shoots is a credit to his ambition, artistic vision and work ethic. He made it happen, and he deserves all of the respect he is given.

    Some of us though start out from a different place, with different parents and different psychological baggage. Some just have more to get past before we can get on with our lives. And that’s ok. Perhaps just being able to make a few good images a year are enough at the tender age of 24. After all, most people are far from who they will become at 40 or 50, and are even farther from knowing who they are at this moment. How can one expect to be making significant work at such an early age without having figured much out. Some actually do make work that will stand the test of a lifetime in their 20′s, but very few indeed.

    I’m in my early 50′s and I was speaking with a friend the same age. We’re both photographers and have managed to be able to make our careers as photographers, never having to take other types of work along the way. We’ve raised families, bought homes, cars, have had a bit of fun along the way, make friends, and generally have had pretty good lives doing what we set out to do. Not without a few titanic struggles here and there, but still, we’re here, working, still doing what we love to do. We never gave up or gave in to pressure to be more financially successful. We stuck with it despite the odds and the forlorn looks of our spouses when we struggled.

    And still, after 30 years of putting one foot in front of the other, we are not secure or without worry. However, we realized that each of us who manage to survive another year are roaring successes in our own right. Certainly, when compared to some of our friends who started with a big pot of money behind them, we suffer in comparison. But we started elsewhere, and to be here is rich indeed.

    Own your life, where you came from, who you are and where you’re at. Look at the journey you have taken so far, the odds you have beaten the the obstacles you’ve hurdled and base your assessment on that alone. Then, if you’re still not satisfied, go out and work harder at knowing yourself and overcoming all of your own baggage that stops you. Never give up, have the patience and fortitude to give yourself 20 or 30 years of working your ass off. Then decide if your successful, or not.

  • Dan

    oh yeah, definitely, i didn’t mean to be, like, taking you to task.

  • James

    @mcvmcv thanks for pointing that out. I’m fully aware “Growing Up” is a collaboration between Coley and Patrick. I should have stated that in the piece.

  • Wesley

    Yeah, I didn’t start shooting really until 26…I thought the same thing. How lucky to be 24!

  • Dan

    i mean this in a neutral tone, but it’s interesting that coley’s partner in growing up goes unnamed – it’s patrick tsai, who was (i would venture) the king of flickr circa 2007. he represents another path, one that has its own pitfalls…

  • http://twitter.com/OcularOctopus OcularOctopus

    “The added year to my collective age forces me to examine all I have accomplished and what I’ve yet to accomplish. In my case it is an anniversary to celebrate my successes and failures as a photographer.”

    You’re twenty-four. TWENTY-FOUR. Get a grip. Wringing your hands over McGinley the lottery winner will get you exactly nothing. It’s a trap. Don’t fall in. Be happy you discovered photography early in life and have a long runway to work, work, work and learn to be great with a camera.

  • http://twitter.com/christianstorm chris†ian s†orm

    Man O man, you hit the nail on the head. As a young photographer, the desire and passion you feel for the medium correlates directly to the intense fear you have that you will never make a living doing it. A majority of it is chance and circumstance, and no amount of blogs posts about you can change that. I have a unique viewpoint, in that I was Ryan’s first assistant on his 2008 roadtrip and several projects beyond that. He is an amazing person and the hardest working guy I have ever met. He lives and breathes photography, but he did come up in a time slightly before ours, a time when photography wasn’t so ubiquitous and readily available. With the onslaught of photography on the internet (a vast majority of which totallys rip him off), everyone with a T4 (another thing Ryan popularized, I’m guilty of it too, the thing takes amazing photos) or even an iphone is now a photographer, which is great, but the pool of photographers just became ocean-sized and the chances of being one of the lucky few who get’s to get paid for it becomes much slimmer. For a medium who’s followers are so passionate, it becomes a scary proposition. Everyone’s in competition with everyone, whether they like it or not. I love my photo friends, but I want those jobs over them. Blog posts don’t pay my phone bill and Flickr favorites don’t pay off my student loans or buy me a beer. Hard work and a shit load of luck do and always did, but now, much more luck is needed (and equally more hard work of course).

  • Wesley

    I’ve long talked about how curators have been reluctant to go out on a limb and vouch for a young, unknown photographer since McGinley at the Whitney in 2003. Szarkowski an others used to do it all the time and we have a huge crop of canonized photogs thanks to them but recently, the museums seem to prefer to poach off the galleries, rather than going out on a limb themselves.