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A Conversation Between Chella Man & Ryan McGinley

Intro written by Michael Love Michael. This interview has been edited for clarity. 

Photographer and visual artist Ryan McGinley and actor and activist Chella Man have quite the history as friends, collaborators, and LGBTQ+ community advocates. 

The duo’s fruitful creative partnership extends back to Man’s education at Parsons School of Design several years ago, where Man studied integrated design. By that point, McGinley had long established himself as a creative force in the visual art world, starting as an early documentarian of downtown New York’s skateboard subculture, and later appearing in solo exhibitions worldwide and capturing naturalistic images of celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Harry Styles – all of which he’s become beloved for. Making his own major strides, Man — soon after signing with famed modeling agency IMG in 2018 as their first deaf, transmasculine, Jewish-Asian model — starred in Calvin Klein’s 2020 Pride campaign, shot by McGinley. He went on to appear in additional campaigns for brands like Gap and American Eagle, and create  solo shows such as last year’s “Pure Joy,” which used film, visual art, and performance to showcase his intersectional identities. 

But beyond pushing artistic boundaries, Man and McGinley have attended and documented a number of New York protests elevating the causes of queer liberation, Black trans lives, and fighting against homophobia in Chechnya. 

To accompany a new series of images by McGinley featuring Man as model/artist muse, the two share a candid conversation with Club Curran, covering how they learn from each other,  the importance of varied representation, and trusting one’s creative intuition.

Chella Man

This is a question that I asked you years ago, but I’m curious, I just want to revisit it. Did your work begin revolving around your personal life at first?

Ryan McGinley

Yeah. 

Chella

What boundaries did you learn to create to protect yourself? 

Ryan

Well, I mean, I feel like when I started out, it was a different era and there was no social media. Community was a lot harder to find and people were so desperate to find a community or people that were queer and were interested in the same things that I was interested in. So when I started out, I was able to find queer culture in New York City, but I wasn’t able to find people that were interested in skateboarding or graffiti, and that was really difficult. It was great to be able to go to gay bars and have that experience and find community that way, but I didn’t know other artists that had come out of skateboard culture or graffiti culture. My first really close queer friend was the graffiti writer Earsnot. He had a graffiti crew called IRAK and I knew him growing up skateboarding, but I didn’t know that he was queer. Then I met him at Astor Place, because that’s where we used to skateboard. I said, you know, “I heard that you’re gay,” and he said, “who’s asking?” And I said, “I am” and his guard came up [at first]  then we hugged and immediately we became best friends. I was able to photograph him with his partners and photograph our graffiti crew. And that’s when I started my journey as a photographer, and I feel like that’s when I started to get attention as a photographer because people had never seen those subcultures mixed before. And, you know, that was 20 years ago, so we’ve come a long way.

Chella

Totally. Were you nervous to ask him, like, “are you gay?”

Ryan

I wasn’t nervous but I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond because I think at that time in culture, people were still very closeted. I think in terms of graffiti culture, graffiti is still a complicated art form. It’s like you want everybody to know who you are, but you don’t want anybody to know who is creating it. So it has these two polar forces happening at the same time. So I think, him being a very well known graffiti writer at the time, I think mixing that with a queer identity. It was also like using that value system for queerness of just like, “do I tell this person that I’m queer or don’t I tell this person that I’m queer?”   But I think we formed an immediate bond and such a beautiful relationship was born. And we still talk every day. I got a text from him this morning. We do this thing where we send each other daily affirmations in the morning, so he’ll send the affirmation, I’ll read it, and then I’ll respond to what it is, and it’s just nice to be kind of like adults and living a very different life. I think, at that time, it was also really complicated. There was a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs. It was harder to be queer than now. I feel like it was a lot more challenging. So it’s amazing to evolve with somebody over 20 years and to have that relationship and have all that time together.

It’s cool to see you and all of your friend group and everybody evolve the culture. It really makes me so happy to see how much information that you’re putting out into the world that’s helping other people, that’s letting people know that there’s somebody else out there that sounds like them, that looks like them, that is creating a lane. When I watch you do it, you have so much ambition and it reminds me of when I was young. I mean, I still have it, but I just don’t have as much energy now.

I’m sure as somebody who’s such a public figure, that has its own double edged sword of being so public, but it’s like, what do you hold close to your heart or how online do you want to be, or how sustainable is that? 

Chella

Thank you. That was so beautiful, and I just so deeply appreciate it because everything that you said about creating your work and being a representation for other people, and I feel like all those things you said about my work is what you have done as well. It’s truly just so important to continue to highlight and speak with queer people who grew up way before me because I didn’t have to deal with the kind of things that you had to deal with, and we have new conflicts now and it’s just been so affirming and sweet to know like, I have you rooting for me, you know? Just like to have in my back pocket because I really know that you’ve navigated so much, you’ve had to deal with so much in the art world too. I remember, we were on a call I think with Mary V and we were asking you about if you regret sharing your sex photos. But it’s just always been such a pleasure to have you as a friend and a teacher and, you know, to speak as a fellow artist too.

Ryan

I think, as artists, using your body and your sexuality, that’s just been part of art forever. You could go to any museum and look at paintings that are hundreds or thousands of years old and it’s always been part of the process. So, I think using my relationships or myself, like self portraits, I’m really proud of them, you know? Even in my most rebellious phases, I just think that was me at that time and I can look to other artists that have really inspired me and they’ve also taken risks within their art.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of inner child work, which it sort of seems like everybody’s kind of on that journey nowadays. It’s helpful to have that younger version of yourself and to protect that person. When you’re a young child, when you’re a teenager, when you’re, you know, for me when I was in my early 20s, it was really hard for me to  navigate that time and I had a lot of speed bumps. I was suicidal and I was drinking too much and doing too many drugs and all these things, and I can look back now and write letters to myself and look at those photos.You know, when I first met you and when you were a young art student and I just think they’re so cool. And like the photos that you’ve shared with me, you know, over the years, and you’re like “what do you think about this?” and there’s like, blood on you, or just something’s happening and I’m like, I think that they’re amazing, you know? I think it’s also cool that you’re so comfortable with celebrating all aspects of you, like pre-transition, through the transition, post transition. Can you talk about that? 

Chella

Totally, thank you. I mean, I feel really connected to all facets of how I’ve looked. I’ve never identified as a trans man. I think that’s something that’s been mistaken about me because I pass. I truly feel connected to all aspects and want to celebrate how things change and there are moments even where I feel way more feminine and it’s just tougher to show it, you know, now that I look the way that I do. I’m really glad that you had a chance to watch the film because I was curious, you know, I think something we understand within our relationship so deeply is queerness. But disability is different, and I remember you taking photos of me wearing my cochlear implant and stuff like way back. And that film revolves all around the cochlear implant. I was curious if you felt like you understood the message? I’m curious with all hearing people, but as a hearing person who knows me, I was interested to know how you digested that?

Ryan

You and I have had so many conversations over the years and like, I’ve actually witnessed you take your cochlear implant off and I’m just like, ‘oh, like he’s checking out, he’s just going to observe it, without sound.’ I think that it’s such an interesting topic. Unless you know somebody, those are really challenging questions to ask somebody, like, even about a cochlear implant, right? It’s like, do I ask this person what that is? Or like, I’m so curious to know, was there a surgery for it? How does it work? I also think those are the exact same questions that you might be curious about somebody who’s trans or who had top surgery or something like that. I think also as an artist, I’m a very curious person but I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable or overstep my boundaries. How do you feel about people asking you questions? Does it have to be somebody you know, or can it be somebody that you’ve just met or even like a stranger, you know, relating to those two topics?

Chella

I think, just like anything intimate about yourself, it’s so circumstantial. It really depends on, like, is this person going to be in my life for a while? Who deserves my energy essentially, so if they’re going to be in my life for a while or I feel like it’s important for their own growth, 

sometimes I’ll share. If it’s just like a random, fleeting encounter, someone that I’ll never see, sometimes I’m open to being an educator. That involves me putting in the emotional labor, which I’m more aware of than ever. Now it’s just like, like if you were curious about something, I would be more than willing to answer because you’re someone that I consider a close friend and someone I will know in my life, and I don’t mind then, in that case, answering the question.

Ryan

I would ask you more about your cochlear implant than transitioning because I feel like I obviously have so many friends that have gone through that process that I’m so informed, but I think I don’t have that many friends that are deaf or that have a cochlear implant. I think I know three people with a cochlear implant. 

When I watch the art that you’ve created, there are two films that I hold so close to my heart, that I love. It’s the first film that you ever made with your mom, where she is on the camera and she is talking about supporting you and she goes through your life, and you being like three years old and identifying as a boy. It’s just so moving to me. And then the film with your grandfather where I didn’t realize that your grandfather also is deaf and has a cochlear implant, and he didn’t have the privilege to learn sign language when he grew up. So it’s you showing him notes and asking him questions through note taking. And those films just touched my heart.I love that you’re constantly thinking of ways to be intergenerational. I’m older than you so I’m looking at it from a different place. I think that’s why those two films speak to me on such a deep level, to watch you talk with somebody who is, you know, 30 years older than you and then somebody who’s like 50 years older than you and navigate it. One of the privileges or just the great things about being an older artist is realizing I’m going to learn more from you than you’re going to learn from me. It’s such a beautiful place     to be just to be. I want to evolve as a human being, I want to evolve as an artist, I want to evolve as a queer person, and this person, who’s my friend, Chella, has sort of more information, and me being the elder, I actually have have less information and I need to relearn. Watching all of the things that you’re creating and the way that you’re speaking to the world, it’s like my Chella masterclass. 

I think I feel lucky to be in that position because I also know a lot of people that are sort of my age, a lot of people stop evolving and they don’t want to and they think, like, after gay marriage or something like that that was enough or, like, the AIDS crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I lost a brother to AIDS when I was 17 years old, and it had a huge impact on my life. It was a huge turn for me in my life to see that happen, especially when I realized I was queer at that moment. Like it was really like a time bomb that was going off in my head and I had to do a lot of healing around that, and I still do. But it’s also so nice to still be able to show up for the fight and be like, I still have the zest and the energy to do that.

Chella

That’s beautiful and it’s such an honor to be able to talk to you this way. I would disagree though, I feel like I learn so much from you also.  I remember the day that we met, I did not know what to expect. All I knew is that I would eventually end up naked. But meeting you, there was such a specific energy that I think translates in your work and why it’s so captivating. It was this openness and this radiating curiosity. It’s like confidence yet softness at the same time, and instantly made me feel comfortable. The way that you were just so in your body I think allows you to be around others and other people’s bodies as well and translates through your work. Instantly, Mary V and I were just like oh yeah, wait, and we just stripped, like it’s fine.

It was so beautiful because I felt like the way you were looking at my body was in such a non-sexualized way. It was just, you were so curious about the shapes and the energy and the details. One question I actually had for you was, when you’re a photographer, I feel like there’s this spiritual intuition about like, second to second, moment to moment, when to click the shutter. How do you know? 

Ryan

Well, I think that photographing you when you first came in, you were a couple. I think photographing a couple, it’s creating a framework. I think framework is an important word for an artist. Just to create, you know, like this comfortable, safe space and to also have some parameters, like, where I was photographing you on the paper, that was your space. I always work with a choreographer, so that’s really helpful, right? The choreographer was there to help guide you through all your poses and just elevate them, but you didn’t need much help. You know, I feel like just the energy that the two of you brought in at that moment in time, like your love was just so strong and you had just started dating and you were just discovering each other.

As a photographer, it’s just intuitive. And I just know when an authentic moment is happening, and I want the photos to feel authentic. I want someone to look at them and to feel like there wasn’t much direction happening. Even if I was directing you or the choreographer was directing you, I want to find a moment where it doesn’t feel like anybody’s in the room except you and your partner at the time. 

Those photos really came out well, and also to create imagery that people might not have seen. I don’t think up until that point I had photographed anybody nude who had a cochlear implant and I feel like when I exhibited those in the installation in a museum like that, people were excited to see that. I think that it’s amazing to have representation. I feel like a lot of my friends that have disabilities and feel like a lot of people treat them with kid gloves, and that they’re not allowed to have sex or, you know, be nude or do these things, which is obviously completely wrong. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Chella

Totally. I mean, that’s part of why I think in my film all about being a cyborg and identifying deaf and exploring my deaf identity, I wanted to include a sex scene that I feel like not only accurately represented myself as a trans masculine person, but as a deaf person. Like, something bad happens when you wear a cochlear implant, like that shit flies off the wall, especially if you’re going hard. Like, I just wanted to show that authentically. And also as a transmasc person, in porn and in sex work industries we’re often represented as at the bottom. That just is not my experience, always. So I also just wanted to showcase that authentically, just provide authentic representation, you know. It was cool to be able to step into that with you at such an early age. It was truly such an honor because you’re an incredible, revolutionary visionary, and also just like a great, good person, with a good heart, and that’s what made me feel so comfortable. 

Ryan

I have one more question for you before you go: How did you feel? We’ve done like two or three photo shoots in the studio. So can you talk about your experience coming in the first time and then your experience through your transition? And, you know, how do you feel about photographs of yourself from the first time that we photographed, like, being out in the world? Is that something that you celebrate or is that something that you will be like let’s keep those at that time?

Chella

I definitely celebrate it because it’s a part of my life that I feel very connected to. I think every person just has layers of themselves and that’s just a very specific and tender layer. And those photos. You know, the ones that I’ve seen, and that I can remember from the first time is like, there’s a black and white photo of me standing, kind of looking off a little bit, and there’s just this like tender, gentle curiosity that I think I will always have within me but you really captured it in my eyes in that moment. And that’s such an intimate special photo for me, I celebrate that. Absolutely.

Ryan

Ryan: And then what about your more recent shoots that we’ve done, like, you know, like post transitions and stuff like that?

Chella

I just feel it’s so satisfying to work with you because you’ve seen me in so many ways and you don’t just see me in a physical way. So it’s just like I really do treasure the images that we create together. 

Ryan

Have fun hanging out with your friends and text me when you get back to New York and we’ll meet up and have a dinner or coffee or something like that.

Chella

Absolutely. And be gentle with you. I know you’re like doing a lot of inner child work and it’s so tedious, so be gentle with your heart.. 

Ryan

I will.

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