Ryan McGinley's Yearbook at Ratio 3 in San Francisco closes October 19th. It is a vibrant collision of color and flesh. A celebration of a defiant naiveté that is best expressed on the bodies of naked youth. McGinley has proven himself a skilled extractor of beauty from burgeoning adulthood. Yearbook is cleverly composed as a floor to ceiling composite of impossibly thin bodies, in a refreshing variety of tones, rejoicing in the temporal stages of their bloom.
As McGinley's show closes, another case opens regarding the work of Terry Richardson. Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson career forever run parallel in my mind because I lived in New York during their rise in popularity. Being photographed naked (or clothed) by either was a coveted rite of passage of living in the city. It had an undeniable cool factor. McGinley was accessible, hanging at popular haunts like the Hole or Max Fish. Richardson's existence was dangerously alluring and omniscient - supported by rumors from the set and off camera.
Whenever I encounter the work of Terry Richardson, read accounts of his predatory tendencies with models, I immediately conjure the photo of Richardson with Barack Obama. As I do not dismiss the allegations against Richardson, as there are many, I love that image because it is rather telling of our time. President Obama (my father insists I refrain from calling him by his first name 'as if we were friends') is milking his cool: white button up, no tie, a winning smile and a thumbs up. He's doing that thing -the thing that makes you want to call him by his first name. Richardson, is smiling too with his signature thumbs up for good measure. Yet, he looks like a man under any other circumstances you would never want to meet. You've seen enough after school specials to know that eyewear AND that flannel (despite all efforts by American Apparel) on a man well over 40 translates into 'stranger danger'.
Getting naked in front of the camera is a way to be seen. For generations nudity has proven the rawest, and most obvious, first step of expression. We could not have reached this new precipice of empowered exploitation without generations prior, laying down an exposed foundation. It means you have nothing to hide- but maybe you have something to say. Most importantly, it means knowing that in order to be heard one has to be seen. The problem occurs when it stops at just being seen and the excitement wears off.
Herein lies the difference between McGinley and Richardson. The former purports a celebration of youth from a perspective that can only be had when one begins the exploration as a youth themselves. I would safely hedge that most of his subjects are forever grateful for McGinley capturing a moment when bodies were at their softest form of taut. Richardson's role is quite different. He seems to relish in exposing an underlying motivation of self exposure that evolves into degradation. It is a line that can only be towed maturity and crossed with the power. The nature of Richardson's photographs are sterile, often opting for a harsh strobe against a white backgrounds.
Either way, the waning of innocence is captured in a flash.
Getting naked is one way to hit the reset button. Shooting nudes can jump start a career, change public perception or declare one's freedom from the past. Perhaps, this is why the Obama-Richardson image was so powerful. It was a clear juxtaposition of two very different paths towards evolving.
To view Yearbook visit www.ratio3.org