PRINT May 2016

Ryan McGinley

Levi Strauss & Company print advertisement, 2009. Photo: Ryan McGinley.

I STARTED OUT shooting for magazines—Index and the New York Times Magazine—and Vice hired me as their photo editor when I was still in college at Parsons School of Design. Working next to artists like Tina Barney, Juergen Teller, and Wolfgang Tillmans at Index was eye-opening. That really set the stage for me to be a photographer who operated in the art world but still took on commercial and editorial projects.

In fact, some of the projects I’m proudest of are editorial and commercial assignments: my 2008 Oscars portfolio for the New York Times Magazine; contributing to the advertising history of a classic American brand like Levi’s; shooting Katy Perry’s album cover; and portraits of Beyoncé for Beat magazine. Diane Arbus has always been an idol of mine, and while she’s famous for her fine art, she started her career shooting for Glamour and Vogue and was also a very successful photojournalist. She always emphasized how her press pass afforded her access to people and places she would otherwise have been unable to photograph. I feel the same way about my commercial work and assignments—they’ve allowed me to participate in so many worlds I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to experience.

I also derive an important sense of structure from commercial shoots. Their budgets frequently allow me to experiment with new equipment and get creative within prescribed parameters, which always forces me to shift my viewpoint. My road-trip series came out of traveling for work and learning how to produce big shoots for the New York Times Magazine. I had to learn how to be responsible with my time and costs. The art world can sometimes feel very esoteric. So it’s exciting to see my work disseminated broadly at the scale of pop culture—whether it’s through the influence of my artistic vision or on a billboard for a fashion brand.

My commercial work helps fund my fine-art shoots. In terms of the art market, photography has never commanded as much money as painting or sculpture. It was considered a lesser art form in galleries until the 1970s, and it’s still considered the bastard child of painting. But hiring assistants, acquiring the proper equipment, and staging large-scale shoots—photography can easily become a very expensive profession. The budgets for my annual cross-country road trips are comparable to those of small indie films. Selling my fine-art work has always generated half the money, and my commercial work compensates for the other half. There’s a rich history of fine-art photographers doing this. Man Ray, for example, saw his fashion editorials as a way to support his more experimental work.

The imposed divisions between commercial and fine art photography persist because people always want to keep you in a box. Artists are all too frequently taught that commercial work is “dirty.” No photographers are saying that; all of that is outside commentary. Everyone who’s making a living as a fine-art photographer is also making commercial work. There are all these unfortunate stereotypes where people think that doing commercial work means you’re not willing to struggle for your art or be a starving artist.

But it’s important for me to clarify that my commercial and editorial work are not the same as my fine-art work, even though they influence each other. Richard Avedon is well known for discussing how his portraits relentlessly informed his fashion images and vice versa. One example in my own work is my project with Levi’s. The company rebranded themselves in 2008 with a campaign called “Go Forth,” all about the pioneering American spirit, and the entire campaign was based on my signature motifs and visual touchstones—my years of road-tripping across the country. They hired me to explore America and do what I do in my artwork—shooting big, open, wheat-field landscapes, fireworks, that whole Americana vibe. These assignments in commercial photography are really collaborations with a company, bringing their brand identity to the world of my photographs. We’re creating a baby together.

Ryan McGinley is an artist based in New York.