In 1999, the photographer Ryan McGinley self-published “The Kids Are Alright,” a book capturing his crew of downtown friends and lovers in varying states of nudity, ecstasy and reckless abandon. He shot prolifically, using up to 20 rolls of film a night. “At the time, it was really important to document my life because I was the only one out of my friends who was doing it,” he says now.
He sent copies of the handmade book to a few gallerists, curators and photographers he admired. Among them was Sylvia Wolf, then the head of the Department of Photography at the Whitney Museum, who helped arrange McGinley’s breakout solo exhibition there in 2003. He was 26 — one of the youngest artists ever to have a solo show at the museum.
But now, it all feels like ancient history. For “Ryan McGinley: The Kids Were Alright,” a new show that opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver this month, McGinley returned to the period between 1998 and 2003 — unearthing some 1,500 Polaroids that have never been exhibited before. In revisiting these unfiltered images of his hedonistic past (self-portraits of him having sex, or friends masturbating and doing drugs) McGinley describes a kind of emotional release. “It wasn’t painful, but in a way it was cathartic to have almost 20 years’ distance on my photos and go through my archive and see how I grew up.” He continues: “I’m very in touch with my vulnerability and I’m proud of those photos where it’s really raw. It really was my life at the time.”