Inside Photography: An interview with portrait photographer Rick McGinnis

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Rick McGinnis is a Canadian portrait photographer based in Toronto, Ontario. He was recently presented with a Communication Arts 2019 Award for Excellence for his portraiture. In this interview Rick talks about his career as a photographer.

What kind of niche do you specialise in?

I’m known as a portrait photographer. I suppose it was the work of the first photographers I ever really looked at — Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn, primarily — that drew me to portraiture.

Lately, though, I’ve branched out into travel and landscape photography, and I’ve always done still life work, mostly for myself. I have always imagined myself as an old man, no longer able to travel or move around the way I’d like, sitting in a tiny studio shooting flowers and vegetables and little piles of bones.

Deer in the Don Valley by Rick McGinnis

What recent examples of your work would you point people to?

After a lay-off of a few years, I started taking portraits again — the recent stuff is on my online portfolio — portraits of celebrities, people I’ve met in my travels, and an ongoing series of pictures of musicians who I’ve been a fan of for years (such as James Chance, Robert Gordon, Kinky Friedman) but who I never got a chance to photograph in my heyday doing editorial portraiture.

I’ve been showcasing my new work, hot off the press, at my blog — Rick McGinnis Photographs — one of my favorite regular features on that site are the “outtakes” from my travel assignments, which is sort of a joke since these arty, oddball landscapes, cityscapes and other shots are really the reason why I love to go to new places.

Which image or series of images are you most proud of?

I’ve been working on a series called “Right Behind You” for several years – really since a photo I took in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in the mid-80s, right at the start of my career.

I sneak around with my camera and take photos of people from behind. It’s a sort of inversion of my portrait photography — shooting people, but without their cooperation, and without showing their faces. Art galleries are a favorite place to do this work — people are relatively slow-moving there, and the backgrounds are stark and well lit. Also, there’s something I like about looking at people when they look at art.

A lobby at Cancun by Rick McGinnis

What do you enjoy most about photography?

It’s not the technical side. I’ve never been a great technical photographer; I only know as much as I need to know. Mostly it’s about images I’ve had in my head since before I even owned a camera, and getting them out. I’ve said for years that every good photographer has a few – or just even one – photo in their head, and they spend their whole career trying to take it.

Do you have a favourite destination for photography?

Honestly, I don’t care. I love taking photos literally anywhere. I like to start a day by saying “Let’s see what we see today.”

I started doing travel photography to get myself to as many new places as possible, but even when I was grounded here, so to speak, I’d do still life work at the kitchen table, or go out to parts of the city (Toronto) that I know well, like the old working class neighbourhoods I grew up in, or the abandoned industrial port lands, or the hydro electrical corridors that run through the city.

What would be a typical working day for you?

At home here, there’s no typical day. I don’t shoot as often as I’d like to.

On travel assignments, I try to wake up with the sun if I think there’s a good shot to be taken at sunrise, or to explore before the day’s itinerary begins.

At the end of the day I just charge batteries on cameras, clean lenses, basic maintenance stuff. I’ll take a bath and listen to a record to relax. (I inevitably play Nick Drake’s second record, Bryter Layter, on every trip.)

I don’t take a laptop with me any more when I travel. I’m looking for a portable hard drive so I can do backups on the road, but I tend not to look at what I’ve shot when I’m travelling.

“Chimping” — that’s check the LCD screen on the camera after each burst of shots — is not something I do when I shoot except in exceptional circumstances. I still treat my digital cameras like film cameras. I don’t even like to look at the shots from a trip for at least a week after I get back.

I like to have enough time to be surprised at what I have — to discover the photos, so to speak.

Rose by Rick McGinnis

What tips would you offer to anyone entering the industry?

Figure out what you want to do and do that. I did weddings and I’ve done headshots and I can’t say that they did much besides distract me from my focus.

If you’re still in the learning or “apprenticeship” part of your career, shoot every day, whenever and wherever you can. Do work for free just to challenge yourself.

Even when you’ve reached a sort of technical plateau, keep shooting whenever you can.

Have a lot of work to show anyone who’s interested.

Learn to edit and focus on your best shots.

Be ready to explore a different genre of photo if you’re getting good results in an unexpected area.

Don’t worry about making money from it. Which means, I guess, try to have a way of making cash that might not be photography.

Which photographers inspire you and why?

Cecil Beaton was the first photographer whose work struck me as “photography” as opposed to just photos.

Irving Penn was the first one who made me realize how photography can be art.

When I was struggling with my work and the whole idea of working again as a photographer, Vivian Maier’s work had been rediscovered and I found that inspiring.

Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn was a big early influence, and he told me about the Czech photographer Josef Sudek.

Avedon, I suppose; David Bailey, Duane Michals, William Eggleston, the jazz photographer William Claxton. There are so many great photographers.

New York-based photographer Chris Buck is an old friend and colleague – we came up together here in Toronto. Both our families worked for Kodak Canada. He’s been a big influence, personally and creatively, though I’m not sure our work looks that similar these days.

Robert Gordon by Rick McGinnis

What do you aspire to achieve as a photographer?

I want, at the end, to have a body of work that coheres, even if it crosses a lot of genres. I want someone to look at a random selection of my work and recognize a common thread.

It’s a tough industry, what do you see as it’s biggest challenges?

Figuring out just what it is.

Photography used to be divided strictly in two — amateur work (snapshots) and professional (everything else). That’s no longer the case.

Instagram, social media, cell phone cameras — they’ve all had a huge effect on the business and how we work. I don’t think the changes are really close to playing out yet, though.

What about its opportunities?

It’s so much easier and cheaper to take a photo now. The late-19th century Kodak marketing slogan that conveyed anyone could take a photo has been fully realized now.

I used to tell people learning about photography to avoid taking classes if they could, and to just buy a box of film, pre-pay for developing, and just shoot, shoot, shoot. You don’t even need to do that any more.

You can take photos all day, every day. That’s allowed people who would have spent so much more time ascending the learning curve in the days of film and darkrooms to learn much more quickly.

Lion at Luton Hoo by Rick McGinnis

How has it changed since you began?

Incredibly. I always tell the story that there were just three ways to get a photo in front of the world back then:

You could get hired by a magazine or newspaper to take a picture they’d publish.

You could show it in a gallery.

Or you could publish a book.

All three involved gatekeepers who limited the opportunities, or simple economics that did the same thing. Now you can distribute a photo to hundreds or even millions of people with the tap of a few buttons.

But we’re overwhelmed, and I can see us gravitating back to the gatekeepers again.

Have you ever missed what could have been a memorable shot?

I try not to think about the missed opportunities.

There were the portrait sessions that didn’t produce results, either because of my inexperience or the recalcitrance of the subject.

And then there are the photos you see from the window of a car or a bus when you’re travelling, coming into view and then receding down the road. Every photographer dies a little whenever that happens.

Is there a subject or destination that you are particularly keen to photograph?

When I was young, I had a list of people I wanted to photograph. I didn’t end up getting a lot of them, and now a lot of them are dead, but I did get a few.

I still have a list, which includes people from that original list (including Iggy Pop, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and John Cooper Clarke), ones I’ve added since (such as Jarvis Cocker and Jackie Stewart) or have become fascinated with recently (including Dolly Parton and David Hockney).

I’ve tried twice now to get Cooper Clarke when he’s been in town — showed up at his gigs with my portable studio, talked to the promoter about getting a shot, waited until after the show patiently for a “yes.” Both times I left disappointed. But I’ll keep trying.

As for destinations, anywhere, really. Australia and Japan have been at the top of my list for years. I love the American South and the West. I haven’t been to England enough; my family are working class, from the northwest — Birkenhead, Manchester, Glasgow. I want to go there really, really badly. I’m kind of drawn to that part of the country, almost like a magnet. I am a Canadian, there’s no denying it, but culturally I’ve always responded to Britain, even when I’d never been there yet.

Manhattan Bridge by Rick McGinnis

Do you have a website where people can find out more about you?

My online portfolio is at rickmcginnis.com. It’s pretty much the best of my work on display.

My travel photos and stories are at awaywithacamera.com.

The blog I started in 2014, at a low point in my career, to excavate old negatives from my files, is still online, someoldpicturesitook.blogspot.com. After I shut that down last year I started rickmcginnisphotographs.wordpress.com to show off new projects, now that I’m back to shooting again.

If you weren’t a photographer what would you like to be?

I wanted to be a novelist, or a graphic artist, when I was a teenager. I became a journalist in the hope that I’d write that novel. So far that hasn’t happened.

I became a photogapher, I think, because I was a lousy painter and needed to find an outlet for the images in my head.

Sometimes I wish I was a racing driver. But I still don’t have my driver’s license.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to Manned Up readers?

Travel. I didn’t really start traveling till late in life. Even if you just road trip to nearby cities or towns or camp in a forest for a night. Get out there.

It does the mind good to spend time in different places, even with some degree of discomfort. Eat the food. Drink the drink. See what you can see.

If you enjoyed this interview, check out the MannedUp interview with London-based photographer Darryl Vides-Kennedy.

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