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Ryan McGinley

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New York winter self-portrait
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Like many photographers who struggle to find subject matter worthy of photographing, Sandy Kim turns her camera on a subject with which she is intimately familiar – her friends, her love and her life.

“I use what I have, and since my life is readily available that’s what I shoot,” she says.

Kim, now 26, came into the public eye a few years ago when Girls, a San Francisco band she had befriended and was photographing religiously, started to make it big. Suddenly her photos were in The New York Times and Fader. Her unique style garnered praise from both audiences and other shooters and she was name-checked in an interview with art photographer Ryan McGinley.

Her photos continue to appear in Fader – the mag calls her their “BFF” – and her latest project ties together the last two years of her life through sexual degrees of separation.

“I started making this map of sexual relationships between me and my friends,” says Kim. “Once I started mapping it out on paper, I was surprised to see how big and complicated it became. We live for sex, and because of sex we’re alive. The photos represent the different intersections on the map. There are portraits, feelings, and special occasions, kind of like different stations on a subway map.”

Sex Degrees of Separation Rail Map. Image: Sandy Kim

Kim is not the first photographer to turn the camera back on herself, and its rare to have conversations about her work without hearing references to Nan Goldin and McGinley, among others. Yet her work is more carefree and loving than Goldin and less contrived than McGinley.

Her photographs allow viewers to be voyeurs in lives they may or may not ever lead themselves. The images deflate the youthful fantasy that people never have to grow up and that summers are forever endless. Viewers watch her grow up, watch her fall in love and, by proxy, get to re-live their own versions of these moments. Her pictures of her relationship with her boyfriend, Colby, are intimate and genuine in a way few photographers accomplish, if for no other reason than they are a document of tender moments, pure and simple.

“Sex has always been present in my work,” says Kim. “Especially because I started shooting more after I fell in love. I think sex is beautiful and ugly at the same time and I try and show both sides, mostly the beautiful part.”

Kim grew up in Portland. In 2004, at age 18, she moved to northern California where she found herself exposed to a world she never knew existed.

“When I lived in Portland I lived in this little bubble and didn’t really look past it,” she says. “After moving to San Francisco I was introduced to a badass music scene where artists were so talented, inspiring and beautiful, I got excited and wanted to photograph everything around me.”

She befriended artists and musicians, and was asked to tour with local bands. That’s when she hooked up with Girls.

Though she’d been taking pictures on her own, and got her BFA in Graphic Design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, Kim started to take photography more seriously through the external pressure of friends. Girls bassist JR encouraged her to shoot more, and photographer Bryan Derballa (who shoots for Wired), built her a blog to use as a platform and pushed her to use it.

Kim uses various point-and-shoot cameras purchased at thrift stores, from Yashica T4s to Olympus Stylus Epics to her favorite Contax T2.

“I didn’t consider myself as a serious photographer, or even photographer at all, so I couldn’t justify spending more than 10 bucks on a camera. I still prefer film over digital. It’s changed my process because when I edit digital photos it takes me a lot longer to edit and look through. With film you’re kind of stuck with the photos you get and have to make it work. Sometimes I get unexpected surprises that come out to be pleasant in the end or used to my advantage.”

While the camera in her hand has an impact on how the images ultimately look, her pictures are less about the tool and more about the events unfolding around her.

“I think my friends enjoy being photographed by me because I’m capturing a time of their youth and just like for me and everyone else 10 years from now things are going to be different but we’ll have photos to remind us of our wild youth,” she says.

Her work is a reminder that photography can be used not as a means to experience, but as a means to remember. Her photos are reactionary rather than anticipatory, composition and lighting not meticulously thought through or planned. Her exploration of themes in sexuality, tinged with love and naïveté, are painted with a brush of carelessness and mild sentimentality.

“I find that I’m constantly changing. Even by the day. I also feel that I’ve matured over the last year. I used to go out and get wasted every day so I would be taking photos of crazy situations my friends and I would get into because of us being drunk. But nowadays I find myself wanting to hang out with my boyfriend all the time so I end up photographing him. Also I’m madly in love, which helps. He’s a beautiful person inside and out. Sometimes I find myself just staring at him, watching him, learning him, the way he plays a guitar or the way he peels an orange in bed and eats it. And while I find myself in this trance I realize, why don’t I just take a photo and remember this moment forever.”

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Ryan McGinley is being sued by the photographer Janine “Jah Jah” Gordon, who claims that over 150 of his photographs are taken from her work. Gordon’s argument has been backed up by the former New Museum curator Dan Cameron, who wrote “my long-term expertise as a critic and curator gives me, I believe, sufficient authority to say, without hesitation, that Ms. Gordon’s work is completely original, in concept, color, composition and content, and that Ryan McGinley has derived much of his work from her creations.”

McGinley’s lawyers are dismissing the suit on the grounds that the images in question “do not look alike in the slightest,” saying that Gordon is “really complaining that the images share the same fundamental idea.”

Looking through the images in question, and through Gordon’s site, I have two thoughts. On one hand, I think some of the examples of copyright infringement she provided for the lawsuit feel like a pretty far stretch. The guy in a mosh pit (image below) seems particularly weak as what she’s saying is stolen is the body position. Does she really claim the sole rights to photographing someone with outstretched arms? On the other hand, I suspect McGinley is aware of her work and may reference it from time to time. I don’t know any photographer who works in a commercial context – myself included – who doesn’t work with references, and since a number of the images in question come from a campaign that McGinley shot for Levi’s x Opening Ceremony, it seems totally plausible that some of her images were used by McGinley as references for that.

I ran Nan Goldin’s studio for several years, and we often had to deal with case of Nan’s work being copied. There was one case while I was there of a really big commercial photographer referencing several of Nan’s photos. The other photographer settled out of court for a huge sum because I think everyone knew had it gone to court, Nan would have won. The whole thing left a weird taste in my mouth, I think because of my awareness of how commercial shoots are put together (though to be fair the images in question were fairly blatantly copied ). The whole process, starting with the ad agency and moving through to the photographers, requires images to illustrate intention for the shoot, and while those images sometimes belong to the photographer doing the job, they often come from other people’s work.

It’s not just commercial photography that works that way. Nan told me that when she started Larry Clark didn’t like her because he thought she was stealing from him, and McGinley so clearly references Nan, and his work has become a reference for so many artists younger than him. I’m not sure what the line between referencing and stealing is, but referencing is very much a part of photography. How can your eye not be influenced by what you’ve seen?

My feeling is that some – but not all – of these claims of copyright infringement are going to be decided in Gordon’s favor. I think her examples involving the monochromatic color palate (top photo) are reasonably convincing, and if Gordon can prove she did them first then she might get some money. That’s my psychic prediction, but I’m not actually sure what I think of the whole thing. I’m curious to hear what you guys think…

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