Photographer Ryan McGinley is known for his electric lo-fi images of ecstatic youth, often revolving around naked 20-somethings galavanting through the wilderness ― lighting sparklers, jumping into waterfalls, and just generally looking young and wild and free.
His most recent series, however, features a very different subject: “LA dad on a juice cleanse” Brad Pitt, who is 53 years old and rebuilding his life following a public, ugly divorce from Angelina Jolie.
The spread appears in GQ Style’s Summer issue, along with an interview by Michael Paterniti about Pitt’s life since his split from Jolie in September. The photographs are set in three national parks: the Floridian swamps of the Everglades, the crystalline dunes at White Sands and the crepuscular caves of Carlsbad Caverns, the latter of which are both in New Mexico.
Since the photos appeared online this morning, the internet has banded together to revel in the strange yet undeniably magnetic images, which feature one of Hollywood’s most iconic leading men rolling around like a sad baby deer in a seemingly endless carpet of sand. Many were quick to comment on the resemblance between the pics and Terrence Malick’s films ― especially “The Tree of Life.”
But there is something additionally compelling about the series, something we rarely see in the traditional “celebrity spread.”
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Overall, Pitt’s interview with Paterniti feels genuine, self-aware and open. He discusses the experience of having his family “ripped apart,” his dependence on alcohol and his shortcomings as a father. Although he rejected the term midlife crisis, Pitt is clearly going through a major life transition, one suffused with both pain and possibility.
McGinley’s photos similarly reflect the complexity of this moment. From a certain angle, the artist captures Pitt as aged, gaunt and weary, his tumbling body appearing like a folkloric hermit who, after wandering too long, has finally collapsed. From another angle, however, Pitt appears almost adolescent ― his frame lanky and awkward, his tattooed body hunting for meaning or any roadsigns he can find. The images present Pitt as changing and imperfect, aging yet with much to learn.
When it comes to celebrity photo spreads, most are sexy, glamorous and aggressively unreal ― aiming to cultivate envy and desire. Starlets dressed in fantastical gowns lounge impossibly in barnyards, bathtubs and grungy dive bars; makeup artists, hair dressers, designers, photographers and editors all conspire to turn humans into icons, stripping them of their interiority and complexity.
Such spreads also tend to feature young women photographed by men. Of course, publications like GQ tend to focus on male stars, but depict everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to Adam Driver with the male equivalent qualities of charm, ruggedness and looking cool in a blazer. McGinley and Pitt flip that script a bit.
McGinley is queer, though he has said in interviews he’s not sure how much his sexual orientation translates into his work. While speaking with queer artist Catherine Opie, McGinley said that his older brother, who died of AIDS when the artist was 17, played a larger role, instilling within McGinley a contagious zeal for life that he believes makes his photographs hum.
“I think that, in a way, my work is a response to that,” he said, “like about really embracing life and going wild and creating photographs in which there’s so much energy and so much life being lived. For me it’s an escape. Like when I’m looking through the viewfinder, I’m in another place.”
Many of McGinley’s shoots take place during road trips, for which a bunch of friends will hit the pavement along with a trampoline, smoke machine, disco ball and other visually galvanizing tools, which can turn a gorgeous sunset into a hallucinatory epiphany. He took Pitt on a similar journey, traveling to three National Parks over eight days in March.
As Pitt put it: “If we’re going to do a celebrity shoot, let’s make something, work with an artist, see what we come up with. It’s always more interesting.”
People are, in part, so obsessed with this shoot because we so rarely see celebrities ― especially middle-age male heartthrobs ― presented in this light: awkward, struggling, sad, a little goofy, trying something new and at times failing. In one photo Pitt is literally tearing up!
The images aren’t shellacked with Hollywood plastic, nor do they pulse with heartthrob machismo. They are of a different breed than the fashion magazine spreads that depict female celebrities as goddesses ― eternally unattainable and equally uncomplicated.
Rather, they couple McGinley’s artistic style with Pitt’s life experience, telling a specific story whose ending remains unresolved. Instead of following the typical formula for celebrity spreads, in which the male gaze glorifies women for being young and hot, McGinley offers an awkward and multifaceted representation of a flawed and fragile male actor, imploring viewers to feel his story through his body as well as through his words.
We often hear that feminism benefits men as well as women. McGinley’s spread, despite being a great viral internet distraction for the afternoon, visualizes this claim. When photography is freed from the grip of the male gaze, powerful men are free to express their creativity and their emotions and their insecurity and fear. They are free to frolic in onesies in damp caves and look moodily into the camera. They are free to breakdance amongst rolling waves of white sand ― and to be honest, that looks really fun.