Ryan McGinley Gives Good Commencement

It’s June and that means the senior class at the great Parsons School of Design has graduated — yippee! Those bright-eyed art students have matriculated fully and, as their just reward, they heard an esteemed personage in the arts acknowledge their achievements with a commencement address. For our hard-working Parsons students, that personage was none other than Ryan McGinley, an alum of the art school whose ten-minute speech can be seen in full here…

Like all good commencement speakers, Ryan (who we spoke to in One Sentence or Less and whose interview with his own esteemed personage, David Armstrong, makes for excellent reading) offered words of encouragement peppered with mild gags that parents will nod along to and gentle in-jokes about the school, fostering a sense of camaraderie. There was something for everyone; these were the bons mots that stuck with us…

“By my fourth year in school, I was shooting every day and every night. I photographed every little thing — all my food, doorways covered in graffiti, and my friends and roommates. I tortured my first boyfriend, Marc, by capturing each moment of our relationship. I was obsessed with documenting my life. So that’s my advice to you: find something to be obsessed with and then obsess over it.”

“If you only like shooting cell-phone photos, then do that. If your dad works at a construction site that looks cool, use it. If your mom breeds poodles, then put them in your photographs. Use the camera to take what you know that others don’t, what you can access that others can’t, and the people or things you connect with, to construct your own world.”

“I realized I could make intimate pictures of strangers. It was a breakthrough for me. I found that most people liked being photographed. They like being paid attention to and being told to do things they normally wouldn’t do. I learned that all I needed to do was ask.”

“I once heard the legendary indie director Derek Jarman had three rules for making his art films: show up early, hold your own light, and don’t expect to get paid. That always stuck with me. Approach art like it’s your job. Show up for photography every day for eight hours. Take it as seriously as a doctor would medicine.”

Aren’t those outstanding words of wisdom? Ryan’s studio manager Kareem asked these additional questions for Hint…

Did you live in the dorms at Parsons?
My first year at school I lived in the Loeb Hall on 12th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues. My roommate was named Roy and he was a fashion student from Hawaii obsessed with Tom Ford & Gucci who was constantly fermenting kimchi in our dorm room kitchen.

Is anyone else in your family a photographer?
Growing up I caught the bug to be a photographer by watching my dad’s Super-8 films of my brother and sisters. My mom had seven kids in seven years and then had me 11 years later. My father was a real shutterbug documenting every moment of my family growing up. That’s where I got my photographic passion.

What is your advice to young photographers?
You have to live by the code of photography. Eat, sleep, breathe it. Daydream about it. Dream at night about it. Let it seep into your psyche. Have an enormous desire for imagery. Be very open to the idea of chance and surprise. Forget everything and rely on instinct when you are staring into that rectangle. Always watch, observe, looking at everything and watch the light. Marry photography.

Was it hard to write a speech?I watched a lot of commencement speeches online. You have to send a message of hope, be honest and tell a few jokes. It should also be around 10-15 minutes. Originally I was going to end my speech with this joke: Everyone knows the quickest way to make money at photography is to sell your camera. Here’s another joke I didn’t end up using: I bought a Labrador and named him Kodak so I can say I own a Kodak Lab.

Ryan McGinley currently has a show, Vertical Color of Sound, at Galerie Perrotin (Hong Kong). His next show at Team Gallery (New York), Yearbook, will open September 7, 2014. 

Leave a comment