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Ideas so big they beg for a more granular investigation: Chris Maggio’s personal practice

With series including Born on the 4th July, Hot as Hell in Midtown and The New Age of the New Age, Chris Maggio’s photography is an extensive exploration of America. Chris’ personal practice zooms in on many of the quirks of a country which, this year, is as central to the world’s gaze as ever. 

Chris uses photography to explore the photographic practice itself. “My photos are, at least partially, about photography,” he explains. “I always want the viewer to be aware of how subjective photographers are, and how they shape the perception of an idea. Photography is a process that interprets reality – it shouldn’t be mistaken for a facsimile of it.” And an important part of Chris’ approach is to be unconventional with camera techniques themselves, too. “I like using extreme angles and focal lengths. I like subjects that are always looking at the lens, overly-aware of the camera like in an awkward family photo.” Chris’ alternative entry-point to photography has shaped the tension in his work’s brash tone of voice. “I really like to embrace ineptitude. I was never formally trained in photography, and the wonky and pedestrian ways in which I learned to take photos is something I hold close to my heart,” he says. “Ultimately, I really just want to be a tourist with an interesting point of view.” 

With subjects not always as they seem, a holistic view of photography and a crooked approach to picture making, Chris Maggio talks Peep through a slapdash, Star-Spangled version of America that’s perfectly imperfect. Chris told us more about his personal practice, American boldness and… the Statue of Liberty’s backside.

P: How does your client work differ from your personal projects? 

CM: Doing client work is often a challenge to maintain your identity while accomplishing what’s asked of you. Sometimes, a client will want something that they think is the crux of your work, but was really just an experiment you weren’t super invested in. However, I’ve also worked with art directors and editors who have pushed me in absolutely amazing directions. They’re often the ones who can help you understand your unrestrained personal work and move it forward.

P: How do you like to spend your quiet time?

CM: There’s not much quiet time! I’m obsessed with work to an absolute fault.  When I’m not doing an assignment, I’m always trying to throw some kindling under a personal project. I try to be a voracious reader – I’ve been super into the work of Jimmy Breslin recently. I wish I could have lived in his New York. Other than that, I need to join a gym. My girlfriend tells me I look like the kid from Gummo.

P: You’re based in New York and much of your work focusses on different aspects of America. What fascinates you about American culture?

CM: We’re a country that continuously tries to save face. Even at our most self-deprecating, we Americans are always trying to preserve some kind of image of strength. It’s that weird bravado – some people embrace it ironically, but it’s still there. I have it, my neighbor has it, so do my friends, family, and everyone I know. At times it reads as blind optimism, other times arrogance. But when it’s used positively alongside a sense of humor and a little self-awareness, that attitude can do amazing things. Of course, it’s just as often misguided.

P: Do you find anything particularly interesting about America right now?

CM: Our ability to be crass and profane as a means of encouraging compassion and caring. With the political situation coming to a boil on both sides of the aisle – the kid gloves are off. We’re really at peak profanity in the culture right now, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s a part of me that embraces how politeness and decorum have begun to erode at such a rapid clip, however I wish the catalyst wasn’t a monster like Trump. We’re all a bit more brash now, and, strangely, it feels a lot more human than mincing words.

P: So your photos comment on America’s current political and social climate.

CM: I hope so? I’m definitely a product of my environment, so there’s probably a few things they say that I’m not aware of. 

P: Do you always carry a camera?

CM: Yep! Or at least I try to. Sometimes I forget it at home. I always try to pack a camera, a book, and maybe a banana so I don’t have to spend money on lunch. When I forget the banana, I go to Pret and have an egg salad sandwich.

P: When you remember it, what’s a day out and about with a camera like?

CM: I depends where I’m at with work. If I’m just going out to brainstorm or doodle a little, I try not to put pressure on myself. When walking around and thinking up ideas, I think it’s important to be a human first and a photographer second. I’m at my most introspective when I’m out trying to find images unrestricted by a project or deadline. If I’m in the midst of any kind of project, I’ll usually go out with a mission. I need to find that one photo that fits squarely into a space thematically – something that expresses fear, or elation, or confusion, or anything else. Hopefully I’ll get some fun tangental stuff too as a bonus. Whatever I do though, I really do try and treat it like a real day of work and push to be out for a full shift. It’s routine that keeps me from going insane as a freelancer.

P: What about before you start a project – how do you like to explore and research ahead of making the body of work?

CM: I think about something I’m having a difficult time understanding (or something I’m weirdly excited about), and just go spend some time with it to see if it feels like a series. I’m still obsessed with Jersey City, New Jersey’s relationship with the Statue of Liberty. They’re far closer to Her than any land mass in New York City, however all they see is her backside! It’s as if she’s giving them the cold shoulder. I’m from Long Island, so being physically close to Manhattan yet dissociated from it culturally is a big theme for me.

P: America is a fascinating place in many respects, so how do you choose what to make series about?

CM: Finding interesting nuance in big cultural pillars that everyone else assumes are vapid is something I really gravitate toward. I’m obsessed with tourist traps, Midtown Manhattan, Vegas, Disney, the Wild West, souvenirs, Elvis…ideas that are so big, played out, and obvious that they beg for a more granular investigation of themselves. I had a really happy upbringing, but my family didn’t possess much in the way of tradition or culture. We we’re just into following what we saw on TV and family vacations. I want to show that these mammoth pieces of culture that we’ve all experienced can actually mean something very personal- or at least try to derive something profound about them for myself.

P: Your projects often sit somewhere between staged pictures and documentary pictures. When building a project, what comes first? 

CM: It oscillates from project to project. I think of everything that I do as coming from a first-person perspective. First and foremost, it’s about me exploring and observing something. But experience is subjective, and even when you’re dealing with a highly-trafficked subject, theme, landmark, etc., no two people are going to take the same exact photo. Your picture of the Eiffel Tower will always be different than mine. That being said, I sometimes like to explore that subjectivity by making a still life or directing a subject amongst the things I see organically. Mixing the two methods together (and the viewer being aware that there’s an author behind these photos) is important. Ideally, this creates a kind of miasma that’s a little murky as you sort through everything – but regardless, I still think of it all as part of a real personal story, concern, or observation that I’m trying to articulate. Overall though, a narrative arc, however vague, is a priority for me. Whatever approach enables me to form that is the way to go. There’s no formula on my end.

P: Your photos are comical. Is this a reflection on the people you capture? 

CM: They should be! I think it’s often the most appropriate way to capture a subject. It helps to be able to laugh at yourself, and I wouldn’t take a photo that I didn’t somehow see myself in. But! Just because a photo is funny doesn’t mean that it isn’t about something serious.

Issue 3 2020

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Peep is an award-winning magazine celebrating creative side projects. Creative side projects are a chance to explore personal interests which, with limitless possibilities away from the constraints of work, help creatives flourish into the makers they want to become.

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