22 minutes with Chris Maggio
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published January 23, 2019
Chris Maggio, a New York-based photographer, wants to make work that involves you—the viewer; work that entertains imagination and allows you to insert yourself. But what inspires him to do so? Find out in our conversation, which involves the internet's effect on creative practices, refining Chris’ creative voice, and how neither of us use TikTok.
Mo: I want to start off by asking how 2018 was compared to other years?
Chris: It was really good! It was a financially perilous year, but maybe the happiest year that I've had as a freelancer. I committed to doing freelance a few years ago, but I started out as a film editor. Photo was always a hobby that I wanted to dive into, and deciding to make that switch was something I didn't know how to do until recently. It felt like leaving college all over again, except that now I have the body of an abused, 32-year-old New York freelancer with the work experience of a 22-year-old newbie. [both laughing] Not to mention that, in freelance years, 32 feels pretty old! People don't realize it, but us freelance folks age faster than people in other occupations. It’s like dog years. But, I think 2018, thankfully, was about meeting the right people, both friends and photo editors, who were able to guide my work. It all still feels a little unstable in an exciting way but I think 2018 was that kick in the pants that I really needed.
Mo: Do you feel like people have expectations of you at this point of your career?
Chris: Yeah, definitely. Mine's a young career, but this past year was the first where I felt like I could really state: “I'm a photographer”—and it's exciting to finally say that. With my work, I think people expect there to be an element of humor and perhaps the prompt to be turned on its head a little bit. I'm still floating between getting hired to do editorial work that’s on the documentary end of things, and getting hired as a fashion photographer. I'm trying to figure out how to do both sides of that coin.
Mo: How have you started to balance the two?
Chris: 2018 was about taking as much work as I could and trying to figure that out. Now that people have seen things that I've made and there's a little more trust, I can try to choose my work a little more wisely which I'm incredibly grateful for. For me, this whole line of work is new. Photography isn't something I grew up with. I didn't have any kind of arts education—I went to public school. No one in my family is an artist. So, I'm trying to take work across the entire spectrum and find some kind of foothold. Especially with the fashion stuff—that’s still a world I can't exactly wrap my head around.
Mo: There a lot of layers to that answer I want to unpack. One of them I want to talk about is how you feel you work better with constraints. Why do you find that to be the case?
Chris: It's often a time constraint, or a constraint of the assignment. How do you make a subject that’s so broad interesting in four days? How can you make a compelling story arc that's different than the way somebody else would do it? In my personal work, I like to dance between genres a little bit—documentary, still lives, and orchestrated compositions side-by-side. I think the challenge is trying to marry your personal approach with what you're doing professionally, and it's always exciting to do the mental gymnastics to figure out what approach is appropriate for an assignment.
Mo: Do you feel like you make the right decision? [both laughing]
Chris: You tell me! I think so?
Mo: Our careers, at this point, are dependent on social media.
Chris: They are. I still don't have a straight portfolio. Unfortunately, I still walk into meetings with a gussy-upped version of my Instagram. [both laughing] Ultimately, in the modern age of editorial, I do think that Instagram is a somewhat legitimate barometer. Yes, it's easy to conflate it with that ultimate ideal of self worth—but it can also be a tool in your kit that guides your work, at least from the perspective of, "Are you communicating what you want to communicate to your audience?" The photographic world we live in is such a young medium—it's under 200 years old! We should expect the medium and the way we interact with it to still be in serious flux. Plus, it's validating to see an image being passed around online, because it often helps you realize what you're doing right and wrong as a communicator.
Mo: It lets you reclassify your work pretty quickly. When you look at the landscape of emerging artist 50 years ago, it would take a long period of time for their work to be seen by a large group of people. But now people can see our work while we're creating it, after we created, or even before.
Chris: People seeing my work "before" it’s created is some Minority Report shit. [both laughing] That's the thing, though—there's obviously a bad side of that quick turnaround because, especially as someone who's trying to work consistently, you're trying to keep your work buoyant and you don’t want to cut corners. Every day you sign on to Instagram, it's like walking into the Colosseum and wondering that, if you throw your material out there, will you still be alive at the end of the day? [both laughing] Not to base it all on that, but I think it’s a mindset that everybody embraces from time to time. I think we should be open to the idea of there being different types of photographers, our understanding of the medium changing shape, and the spectrum of one’s creative lifespan broadening on both sides of the spectrum—both shorter and longer.
Mo: To me, what's most fascinating about it recently was something I was talking to Charlie Engman about in our interview. It was the idea of how we look at our peers' work on this small device. Imagine the people who are discovering Stephen Shore for the first time ever, but on an iPhone.
Chris: It's crazy, but it's almost a testament to how strong an image can be. We all have those pictures, videos, or memes that we bring up with our friends—the ones that stick with us from Instagram. Scale gets distorted and something strange happens—you remember this small image as this huge moment. Thinking about it, the picture seems so prolific, but in reality you've only seen it presented the size of a Chili's gift card! A metrocard! [Mo laughing] So it's insane that the playing field is levelled like this, that we're all being seen through the same literal dimensions—but, if anything, it's kind of a litmus test.
Mo: I know that some of us, especially for me, are growing up in its inception or even being born when Instagram was new. Sometimes I think it's a privilege to be able to adopt the internet instead of being born in it, because we get to see both sides.
Chris: How old are you?
Mo: I'm 21.
Chris: Oh wow. You're a young man! [both laughing] I feel old all of a sudden. I'm 32, but I was going to say that I feel very fortunate to be fluent in the internet throughout all of its incarnations. It's only now that I start to feel a little left behind, which I think is appropriate. Nowadays, the stuff on the internet is not always stuff I that I’m versed in—I have go out of my way to understand it. We all have our spheres on the Internet that we tend to stay within. Like, I'll check Facebook once a day but I'm not on TikTok. [both laughing] My girlfriend is a few years younger than me and she's like, "Of course you're on Facebook. You're old." But Facebook is where all my old friends are!
Mo: To comfort you, I don't use TikTok either. [both laughing]
Chris: I got AOL when I was six years old and I still feel like, despite the fact that I'm not on TikTok, I know how to use the internet very well. I know most of the high-level memes. It just feels strange to encounter photographers older than myself that aren't using the one appendage that's become a giant influence on the medium. Some people write it off, and I'm not saying everyone should have an Instagram, but I think it's important to at least dip your toe in it.
Mo: It is, because you can get to a certain parameter where your work becomes incredibly influential. I mean, think of Juergen Teller. I don't know about his take on social media, but he has an Instagram fan page with 80,000 followers. That's more than a lot of established photographers' Instagram's combined.
Chris: I think that understanding the public’s way of interacting with your art in a more vernacular sense is far more exciting and appealing than the opinion of other creatives. I feel like that's the biggest window that Instagram opens. We don't have to keep harping on Instagram, but I think the final point of it is: the fact that having that many people interacting with your work and appreciating it on a broader spectrum than you would have at an art school or amongst peers is the most validating part of it all. If you can elicit a meaningful response from someone whose visual literacy is completely different than yours, it's a lot more gratifying. You're reaching across the line. It’s exciting! You get to see their feedback! It's not just a half thought about your work muttered under someone's breath at a gallery.
Mo: I think the biggest regard in that, is that we have to limit ourselves. Is our ego clouding our judgment on what's vulnerable and what's overshared? How I function on Instagram is by having two accounts. One is personal where its only friends and I don't even talk about Emmazed, and the other is Emmazed. On both accounts, I see so much through both worlds that's shared, to the point where I wonder if I'm allowed to see this.
Chris: It's always strange. Having increased visibility on the people who you admire or are intrigued by is interesting. Sometimes you don't want to pull that curtain back though. Personally, knowing too much about the author in any medium distracts me from what they’re creating—I've inserted myself into their work, and all of a sudden I'm being taken out of it because I know too much about them. For me, it helps for there to be some ambiguity to get my thoughts in there. I think an objective read is important—at least at first glance.
Mo: One of the other layers I want to peel is niches and how you aspire towards one. What is that niche for you, if you know it?
Chris: I'm not sure where this train is going yet, especially in the wake of trying to work so much last year. The professional and personal aren't totally touching each other yet. But at the nucleus of everything I do, there's some sort of amateur component to it. I think that always needs to be in there, there always needs to be something awry—even in work that's more polished. If it’s sleeker, I still want the lighting ratio to be off; I want the talent to be as amateur as they can be.
Chris: People's work is strongest when it's based on something that really resonates with them; some part of their upbringing or heritage. I'm from Long Island and never had much of a cultural upbringing. My main source of culture was the mass media and my feeble attempts to replicate it by making movies it in my parents’ basement. The core of what I like to do still lies within an amateurish approach, and an embrace of certain cliches in media—be that ads or movies or anything else. I always want people to be very aware of the camera when looking at my photos—you should feel how the technology can manipulate your emotions. When shooting stuff in New York, I always like to use a telephoto lens and shoot at magic hour. There’s something about the corniness of that kind of image that’s heartwarming to me. I’d like to think that I’m someone who subscribes so hard to photographic tropes that the images somehow become unique.
Mo: Is there a place you want to explore?
Chris: Right now I want to keep refining my documentary voice. I'm obsessed with vernacular and found photography, it’s what I mainly look at for inspiration. A vernacular photo can be incredibly powerful in what it doesn’t show—it’s the power of omission. Who took this photo? Where is this? Where is that kid now?? An image can be just as strong for what it omits from a frame as what it includes. I want to make work that rests on that principle a little bit more, especially while taking pictures in New York. A lot of incredible photography rests on the laurels of showing us something amazing. But I want to do a photographic series that's just as powerful and impactful where you see almost nothing. All the drama occurs in your mind. The most powerful part of the series is between the images.
Chris: It was a short assignment and I want to revisit it, but I felt like I did some work in Disney for VICE last year that was a step in that direction. The series is all about presenting these Pro-Trump Disney souvenirs that bootleggers have made, and your mind wonders: who the fuck made this? Who's wearing this? How could they do that to Mickey?? I just want to make work that heavily involves the viewer. So many of my series' are presented as having story arcs because I like presenting clues for the audience, but I want them to be thinking independently. I don't want to be so hand-to-mouth, there needs to be plenty of room for you to insert yourself into the work and to use your imagination.
Chris Maggio for VICE
Mo: Are you cognisant of where or how to exist within fashion right now? Obviously we're all figuring it out as we go, but where do you feel like you are right now?
Chris: I think the pictures I’ve been making are a little goofy, a little awkward; they’re amateur in a way that some of the styling hasn't been presented before. We've seen this trend in fashion a lot, this sort of high/low presentation of expensive goods in a pedestrian way, and it’s had a very wide spectrum. Am I still going to get calls for this stuff a year from now? I don't know! Maybe it's meant to be terminal. But for now, I’ve had a great experience with it. Everyone I’ve worked with has been super cool.
Mo: Since fashion has a relationship with the art world, are you ever aware of that? It's kind of like peering over the hallway and looking at the door to the art world and wondering if you should open it. [both laughing]
Chris: It almost feels like a two-way-street nowadays. I don't know if it's enter one way and come out the other necessarily. I think that, especially now, it's almost reversed. People who make their own unique thing, putzing around online, are often the ones who are called in to shoot fashion. And honestly, that's cool. It seems a lot more democratic.
Mo: What did you aspire towards the most when you first started and did that ever come to fruition?
Chris: When I first started, I wanted to present very pedestrian things in a way that was funny and brash, but at the same time weirdly nuanced. When I first moved to New York [in 2012], I lived in a loft and I had a running food blog with my roommates of point and shoot images of these heinous creations we made for dinner. From that, I ended up getting a food column on VICE which ended up being my side gig for a year-and-a-half. The whole time, I was still using this digital camera my dad bought when I was fourteen—that's just what I knew. I had never owned a camera where you could change the lens, or trigger a flash off the body.
Chris: I think I’ve carried that amateur approach with me as my style has changed. My images are still very blunt, but a lot more “photographic”. I still embrace the idea that an image can be so dumb and straightforward, that it actually makes you think. In my more recent work, “Lunch” and “Heat” and “Disney” are very blunt ideas thematically—but when you're looking at the images, there's maybe something more visceral and subtle about them. It makes you think about how all 8.6 million people in New York have things in common that magically make the City function. Or the idea that universal ideas mean something different to everyone.
Mo: I think nuance is very powerful. I respond to that a lot in photography because how hard it is to execute silently. It's kind of how comedy is harder than drama.
Chris: I don't know if I would put my work in the Comedy section of Blockbuster, but humor is definitely the entry point in my work. Humor is hard because when it’s working, it should elicit a verbal response. If people don’t think something is funny, you’ll know right away—you can’t force it. I like the pictures that I take to have that blunt, initial impact—but I hope people stick around long enough to find them insightful too.
Mo: It's hard to browse your site without laughing. So what humours you, if anything, in your work?
Chris: It might be a nervous laughter—I think it's based on our attempts to get by in spite of the terrifying climate that we live in right now. The foibles of life in this weird dystopia we’re all slogging through. We’ve relinquished a lot of our autonomy and privacy to people we'll never meet; Trump’s in the White House, and apathy somehow seems to rule the day. Things are bleak, but laughter really is the best medicine—and it’ll help us move past this.
Chris: That, and the idea of seeing glimpses of people’s unique, individual expression in the wake of culture in America becoming so homogenized. Trying to derive your own meaning from one mammoth culture is why I'm so attracted to landmarks and iconography in my photos. It’s the idea of a monument being conceived in one distinct way, but meaning something different to everybody. Everyone’s iPhone picture of the Statue of Liberty looks identical from a distance, but no two are exactly the same.
Mo: The most important aspect of it is being aware, which I think you are.
Chris: I think it's important to be aware, but sometimes it's important to relinquish control a little bit. I'm a tourist just like anyone else. I don't come into these situations like, "Oh these people don't get it but I do." I have my camera to help interpret what I see after the fact just like someone with their phone. I'm just trying to look at it through a different lens. If I'm taking pictures at Disney, I'm still just a dude visiting Disney. In fact, I'm probably somebody else's punchline in a photo at Disney. I'm this 32-year-old moron who’s there by himself wearing a Mickey t-shirt. [both laughing] I'm a freak! There's probably a photo of me looking like a gangly doofus on some kid’s iPhone.
Mo: Speaking about meaning, where do you find that in your work, life, or both?
Chris: It goes back to what I was just saying. It's this spectrum of experience one can derive from a unifying moment, whether that’s a monument, a destination, an abstract idea like “New York City” or a moment in history. I think that's why the whole Trump thing is so—unfortunately—fascinating. It’s the idea that everything we hear about him day to day is this fucking awful linear force that's cutting through the nation and culture, but there's a million stories surrounding his fuck-ups everyday.
Chris: Even as we consume the mono-culture of the country that's being force fed to us every day, there are still plenty of those moments that we somehow feel like individuals. That's why I take the photos that I do. I want to find those faces in the City that articulate something specific in the midst of the stream of people walking downtown. I want to zero in on something, without using words, where you're able to infer something about yourself in the face of someone else.
Mo: Disregarding photography, what influences you?
Chris: It's such a hard moment to be answering that because this year I've felt so consumed by it—to a harmful degree. Not to get overly dramatic, but there comes this point where you ask yourself if you're going to do try doing this full time or not. Right now, I would say photography feels very tied to who I am, and I’m badly in need of another hobby.
On the Other Side of Liberty
Scenes from Jersey City, NJ — where New York City looms in the distance and the only view of Lady Liberty is her backside.
Mo: Do you sometimes try to figure out who you are as a person without photography? [both laughing]
Chris: Right now I don’t know if there is that other side to me! I feel really committed to using photo as an instrument to figure out who I am. Maybe that’s a little bleak.
Mo: At least you're cognisant of how you feel right now.
Chris: The past year has been me trying to find my voice and to justify why I should even be doing this to begin with. I feel very personally enveloped in it right now and I find a little relief in knowing that I can somewhat say that people understand where I’m coming from creatively. I don't have to fight for that every single day. That feels like a payoff.
Mo: Do you think there is a common misconception in your work? If so, how do you respond to that?
Chris: I don't know if there's a misconception.
Mo: Within the realm of viewers and clients, I meant to add.
Chris: Oh, okay. I think it's multifaceted. I wouldn't call it a misconception but I think if you photograph people without their permission, some of your audience will always get a little prickly. They’ll ask: “How can you do that?”
Chris: But then they’ll go on the subway platform and film somebody doing something ridiculous, upload it, and somehow won't equate the two. And I understand that to a degree. If you're presenting a portrait of someone that's part of a series, I think it's easy for people to think that you're making an example out of someone—but that's not how I conceive my work. I want people to see themselves in the pictures I take, and even if it is another person’s face, I want it to articulate something autobiographical too. I want it to be about all of us. I don't want to be a photographer that's pointing the finger forward at someone. I really want to be pointing back at myself or at a universal theme.
Chris: On the job side, it's just speed. I always wish I had more time with an assignment I’m into—there are just so many places it can go. Doing jobs where it's this blitz to shoot and edit in a week, I'll sometimes look back a month and wish it could have gone deeper. That being said, though, a deadline definitely helps make decisions.
Mo: Would you say that's one of the most important processes of your work—the editing process?
Chris: Definitely. There are so many people who are far better photographers than I am—I don't know that photographically I'm always hitting the nail in the head. But! I’d like to think that my editing is halfway-decent. I come from a film editing background, and I feel like I carry that with me. I had to give up on film because I was never good at being the person who made that full arc from the beginning of a piece all the way to the resolution. But I always loved the first act of a movie where you have no idea what the fuck is going on. There's always this moment in the first 20 minutes where you don't know what the character is about or where the story is going- and your mind is reeling. I'm always most invested in that feeling when viewing photography—as concrete answers and resolution start to come, my interest wanes. Photo can be so wonderfully open-ended. I feel like the arc of a photo story can be like the first act of a movie where I'm giving you all this information but you really have to invest yourself into it to garner something. You need to fill in the gaps.
Mo: What do you find the purpose of your work to be?
Chris: Wow! I think the purpose of my work, at least at the moment, is for people to feel like we can still have ownership of our lives in the midst of a terrible, homogeneous, mass-mediated culture. I want there to be levity in that—and an ability to laugh at ourselves. It’s an obvious touchstone, but I feel like now more than ever, we're living in A Brave New World. It's a book about placating the population by creating this sort of false hierarchy and making it so that everyone is all too content to stay where they are in society. They’re steered into these fixed avenues of existence.
Chris: I want my work to illustrate the humanity—and hilarity—in the banal, everyday grind. As soul crushing as it can be to live in New York City sometimes, there’s a lot of absurdity to be found here—it’s worth it. And if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
Where can we follow you?
- Website and Instagram
Last thing you googled?
- JIM CARREY NET WORTH
What's your unwritten rule?
No headphones in public. You might miss something.
What's the most recent thing you regret buying?
- Uneaten head of red cabbage rotting in fridge. Thought it would be some kind of healthy dinner.
What's your personal brand™?
Free T-shirts and $30 shoes.
What will your tombstone say?
I love you.
What question do you hate getting?