25 minutes with Damien Maloney
& Mo Mfinanga
- Published November 14, 2017
- Portrait by Molly Matalon
Damien Maloney, a San Francisco-based photographer, photographs the nuances behind the people, places, and things he surrounds himself with. Recently, Damien’s been attentive towards how little details can speak to something larger and how he can harmonically visualise that. Is this attentiveness kindled from his image making process? Or is it fuelled by his relationship with an image? The best way to find out is to read our interview below where we briefly explore this idea along with his recent collaborative book, Olive Juice.
Mo: I'd love to start by talking about London. You just got back from there a week ago, right?
Damien: Yeah, I went with Molly Matalon and our friend Corey Olsen! The reason to go out was because Molly and I went out to promote our book because Margo—who runs VUU and published our book—was going to a book festival called Offprint, suggested that we go out there, and it was fun. We did a book signing on Saturday and hung out with a bunch of people who were in town for that and for Photo London. But then we ended up booking a bunch of meetings and doing all them together, which I think was pretty novel for everyone. We all three went to meetings with magazines and agencies, which was cool. We didn't have a lot of free time, but it was better than waking up wondering what we're going to do in later in the day.
Mo: How was the experience doing meetings together?
Damien: We had three meetings a day for five days so we kind of did a lot during our trip. Everyone we met with was very patient and curious. It was a stark contrast to any of the meetings I've done in the states. We had a lot of work to look show between the three of us because of portfolio books and projects books, yet everyone seemed genuinely curious and down to earth.
Mo: In the little experience of meetings I've had in New York, it can feel dry and monotonous because everything is so saturated. Not to say that London isn't saturated, but I’d assume the novelty of being an American came into play during your meetings.
Damien: I think they were saying that it's kind of rare for people from the states to come through, which I found so surprising. Our reasoning was that it would be weird to email the same people about our work. It's like, we're staying at the same AirBnb, why not meet with all of us at the same time? It's saving everyone's time.
Mo: It's great that editors and agents were copacetic to that.
Damien: The thing people said commonly was that it was so cool that we weren't so viciously competitive with each other and not afraid of losing out work to each other. And it's like of course, we're all excited about what each other is doing.
Mo: Everyone wants to help each other out but at the end of the day, everyone wants work. And when you get to a certain parameter of commissioned work, things can become a little elitist because you've worked so hard to carve that spot and you want to keep it.
Damien: We're always talking about that, but I think it's such a better look when someone is pure and excited. It's cool to promote yourself but you don't want to be [bragging] like, "I did this for ‘blank’. Thanks for flying me out to China!" [both laughing] I don't know.
Mo: Yeah, it's definitely a thing. I remember talking to Caroline [Tompkins] about the fact that there's a photo community but there's not a photo union, if that makes sense. There's a small amount of people you'll find that's willing to help that person who picked up a camera, whether it was 10 years ago or yesterday. For instance, Jake Stangel’s Tumblr had so many photographer tips for anyone to read. You don't see that a lot anymore.
Damien: We had one guy in one of our London meetings, and I think he was sort of familiar with our work, and he was like, "Oh, so are you guys like a collective?" And we thought that was kind of amusing at first, but then we started to answer it honestly, and no, we would never say that, but I guess in a sense we're excited and supportive of each other's work. When Caroline, Molly, or someone else puts something out, I'm really excited about it. And if someone calls us for a shoot and someone can't do it, we try to get someone else in there that we're excited about. There's no structural foundation to us, and we wouldn't call it a collective, but I guess you can say that. And when we meet with people, they're like, "Oh you're in this group."
Mo: It's good to have those—for lack of a better term—groups, but I think it's also better to make sure they're accessible to people.
Damien: Yeah, totally. I feel like it’s inclusive in that way. You can jump in; there's room for everyone if you're doing something that makes sense and is adding to the conversation.
Mo: When you guys were in London promoting Olive Juice, was there anything challenging about sharing it with people in London?
Damien: I think, if anything, in the context of having a meeting at a magazine that should take an hour, it's sort of a lot of pictures to jump into. We don't expect someone to sit there and flip through every page. The pictures are pretty simple and straightforward but they speak to larger ideas and I don't think that's immediately apparent when you sit down with it. And I don't expect anyone in a meeting to sit down and spend time with it. But I think that with most people, if they're into it then they're into it.
Damien: I feel like the magazine community in London is more integrated with the fine art community. When I talked about that book or show it to people in New York they wouldn't know what it is.
Mo: It seems like the independent magazine in Europe is strong and growing. It's great for writers, publishers, photographers, and everyone else.
Damien: I think that the challenge with things like that is how to fund them. I think a lot of the time they're not making money and probably losing money. It's really great content, and I think a magazine shouldn't need to make money but instead be funded through some other venture. I think the magazines that are the creative projects of ad agencies is a good model for it, but I don't know much to know if it makes sense financially. It's just sad to see a good magazine die because they're not profitable.
Mo: It's awesome to see a growing magazine with an eclectic variety of talent, like True Photo Journal for example. But for indie magazines in the states, the funding is far and few between.
Damien: I feel like there is more money in magazines here, but maybe it doesn't allow a lot of creative risks that indie magazines take.
Mo: I agree. But going back to Olive Juice, what came first: the idea of working together or what you were going to shoot together?
Damien: We saw each other's work through Tumblr and exchanged messages. I knew that Molly was in New York and I was planning a trip out there, so we thought it would be really cool to shoot something together and maybe do a mini road trip. We ended up going on a trip up to Niagara and sort of developed the concept for the book from then. We worked on the book for a while and made a ton of edits. There's a lot of pictures in my head filed as a part of that project that ended up getting cut.
Mo: How long did it take to start the project, curate photos, find a publisher, and then share it?
Damien: The whole thing was probably two-and-a-half years of making pictures at a pace and maybe a whole 'nother of editing and exploring options of how to put it out. We were really excited and lucky to have Margo. We showed a draft copy of it to her and she was like, "Oh yeah, I really want to do this." It was really cool because we were doing to spend a ton of money doing it ourselves. The edit that we ended up with is pretty different from the one we first sent her; she helped polish it and design it a lot.
Mo: How did you guys find her?
Damien: Molly did a portrait book with her a few years ago that had a bunch of studio portraits. We had spent a long time of editing the book and sending it to a small group of people. It was just really cool to have a project that had been going on for years that, outside of 10 people, no one had seen before.
Select images from Olive Juice
Mo: Did you guys feel like once the project was released that you wish you could see it through new eyes?
Damien: I don't know. I've actually never had that thought. I think time and enough edits have passed that I feel decently objective about it. But I don't like to look at pictures I just took [instantly]; I like to wait at least a few days if it's an assignment. If it's personal work, then I just file it away until it comes into my head and I want to look at it again. I think it gets better from there.
Mo: Why are you attracted to that idea?
Damien: I feel like if I take a 100 pictures and I make an edit of them the day after I take them, and then I make another of edit five months later, they're going to be very different. Obviously I try to take certain types of pictures but I think I'm way more interested in how they're edited. I'm more interested in how the picture is presented than how it's taken. I think you sort of have a clear idea of what you're wanted to communicate with it the longer you spend. Sometimes you can go, "Wow, this is a really cool picture that I've never thought of that no one's seen before," and then five months later, you're like, "Yeah, this is so obvious and stupid." [both laughing] It's like, “Yeah, you could’ve dialed this back a lot.”
Mo: Yes! And sometimes you realize through the course of taking several photos that there's something specific you're attracted to, so maybe it's worth exploring. It seems like that's something you're aware of, because it becomes your works fingerprint.
Damien: While we were in London, I did an interview with one of the writers at It's Nice That, and the interviewee happened to ask us what we studied in college. So she asked to interview us for a project for creative graduates that may be pursued one course of study and changed courses and how it relates. So I've been thinking about that a lot. I studied linguistics in college and I really love taking language as a science and I've been trying to figure out how to bring that into some photo work, which is fun. I'm looking for little details that speak to some larger thing.
Mo: What have you done this year that you've been excited about?
Damien: I'm totally blanking out right now! [laughing] Last year was really crazy, and this year has been really nice in a very different way. I've definitely been working less, which is not necessarily bad.
Mo: Is it me or does the beginning of January always seem like a slow period for work?
Damien: Yeah, it sort of seems like that, and it's kind of nice, because usually December for me is where I think it's going to be slow to the point where I'm like, "Oh, prepare to not spend all my money for four months so I can survive." But then I have jobs up until December 23th and I'm like damn.
Damien: The LA Art Book Fair was really fun this year, though, because we had Caroline, Tim Schutsky, and a good friend, Tim O'Connell, who all flew in from New York during the end of February. So we all drove down to LA together, rented a big house, and we were just hanging out. But I don't know. Things have been slow in a good way. I've been trying to go to the beach a lot and cook more stuff while hanging out with my cat in between jobs.
Mo: Do you feel like it's slow in the sense that the universe is forcing you to be in tune with everything else that isn't related to your career?
Damien: I don't know if it's forcing me, but that's something I want to be doing anyways. When things come up I take a break from that and put that on hold. I just moved into a place by myself, and I've never lived alone before; it feels very meditative. It's kind of a lot for space for just myself. Its this cabin that's kind of in the woods.
Mo: How far is it from the city?
Damien: It's in North Berkeley. It's not too far but it feels remote because it's on this big lot with trees. You can't hear traffic which makes you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere but I'm actually 30 minutes from San Francisco. There's deer that live in the backyard and my cat's having the best time of his live.
Mo: You should start an Instagram series with your cat hanging with deers. [Damien laughing] Is it even possible to get deers to stay in place?
Damien: The ones here are pretty used to people but they're still skittish. But I can do a National Geographic photographers thing where I setup a trap with strobes and pull the string and get a sheet of 4x5 exposed or something. [Mo laughing]
Mo: Just put that on Twitter. By the way, and I won't link it, but you're Twitter gives me life.
Damien: [Laughing] Oh my god.
Mo: I'm always wondering what Damien has said today.
Damien: It's so funny because I came late to Twitter. It's totally the worst stuff in my head. I'm like, I wonder if anyone reads this? When magazine people follow me I'm like I don't think you want to follow me.
Mo: Twitter is a problematic place.
Damien: It's sort of the Wild West which is cool.
Mo: Twitter's not a place where you go, "I'm going to be kind to myself." [Damien laughing] Whenever I see your tweets, I'm like, "Damn, I should be less PG-13." [Damien laughing]
Mo: Since we're talking about social media, how do you work around the disposability that it nurtures?
Damien: I don't know. It's obviously not meant to be permanent; it's sort of just fun. I don't take it too seriously. You can notice that the origin of someone running around the park with their 5D is them using a view camera and spending all this time on chemicals. You'd know that a photograph is a physical object is made with chemistry, so to blast it off digitally is really cool and exciting. I think there's a place for everything.
Mo: For sure. I think it's very interesting to see how the disposability of content kind of forces us to be in tune with tangible objects. You can see that with the rise of independent magazines. There are arguably more independent magazines now than during the time where you’d have Tumblr or Flickr at their peak. Some people will argue that there are more people shooting film now than before, but I feel like people are just more aware of those who shoot film because it's not normal to do so anymore.
Damien: It's so hard to claim when there was not even an option 15 years ago or something. [laughing] But yeah, when there was no option, of course everyone was shooting film and not making a big point of it.
Mo: I think the reason why people make a big point of it is because film isn't a default medium anymore.
Damien: I think a few years ago I thought that taking pictures for magazines was the coolest thing ever and I still think it's really cool, but I don't think it's the end goal. I think you have to make pictures for no one other than yourself and try to hang them on the wall or put them in books. I feel like, in a way, pictures that go in magazines are maybe more temporary to me than social media, even. I can be like, "Oh yeah, that one time I met Justin from Justin's Peanut Butter and I took a selfie with him, and then I posted it on Instagram a year ago. Let me pull it up." And then you'll find it. But then I'd take some picture for some magazine and they'll print 30,000 of them and then the next month there's another one. Unless it was a remarkable magazine, I don't really keep them. It's hard to reference them.
Damien: We met with this fashion magazine called Under The Influence in London, and every copy that I have of it is very precious because there's so many gems in there. I'm not saying that magazine work is uninspiring, but sometimes even when you're excited for something to come out, then it comes out, they're off to the next one.
Mo: And it depends on the on subject. Even if you're shooting Guy Fieri for Tumblr it only extends that relevancy for a while. [both laughing] It is interesting, though. I never thought about how magazines are more temporary than the world that they live in.
Damien: I think a few years ago I used to think that the coolest thing was having your picture printed in a magazine, and I still think it's really cool and important, but I think it vanishes quicker than social media almost because it's not easier to recall.
Mo: Maybe this is a naive thought, but I feel like—subconscious or not—there's a hierarchy towards certain work that a working photographer makes or who they make certain work for. Like, from shooting for a start up to an editorial client, and then to commercial work. And from that sphere of commercial clientele, you'll have fashion, still life, technology, the art world, etcetera. Do you ever think about the hierarchy of clients you're working for or want to work for, and how that benefits your career or network?
Damien: Yeah, I think there's definitely some tiers of work to get hired for that no one is considering me for and I'd like to be in on that one day, but how to get there is unclear. [I think] it's dependent on who's giving you work and who you're accepting for, and how people see you fitting into whatever world. I do a lot work for business magazines in the Bay Area, so it's always fun when people try to hire you to make a picture that you made for a fun or a project, and then translate it into a portrait of a guy that isn't your friend, but they want it to feel like that picture. I think that's a fun challenge. But also, I've heard of people who are too prideful and are like, "I made this personal work and someone cheapened it by hiring me to do it again for a magazine." And I'm like, are you serious? That's cool. [laughing] Why would that make you annoyed?
Mo: I'm curious about the shoot you did with Poppy. How'd that go?
Damien: I've done a few things for WIRED recently that have been really fun and rewarding, but shooting her was really cool. I think WIRED was more excited about covering content like that, that touches on technology but isn't a geeky thing. I recently photographed Steve Lacy who's in the band The Internet. He's just this young LA musician who's really cool, but I photographed him, too, for [WIRED] because he records in a proper recording studio but composes on his iPhone. I grew up reading WIRED so it's cool to work with them so much now. But, technology used to be such a niche thing for geeks and computer nerds and now it's mainstream, so it's smart of them to sort of approach things that people who aren't so into technology would respond to.
"I think it's important to know what you're doing which is the magic and mystery of photography and making images in general, because it's a very coded language."
– Damien Maloney
Mo: It's interesting because you get to see this shift in the past 10 years where people who used to be so gung-ho about technology aren't singled out. Now, technology is a big part of culture. In the past, we could remove ourselves from technology. If you didn't have a computer, that was fine. But now it's a necessity.
Damien: My parents were interested in technology early on so we had AOL and Netscape in the house back before there was a lot going on in the internet, so I had a hands-on with computers at an early age. In high school I went overboard on tech and was into LAN gaming and building computers with friends which I can't do anymore—it just wastes too much time. [laughing]
Mo: It's really cool to see publications push that intersection of tech and culture forward and people like you document it.
Damien: Definitely! Since I moved here, Silicon Valley has changed or is struggling with its self identity.
Damien: Have you heard of Torbjørn Rødland?
Mo: I haven't. Who is he?
Damien: I've pretty much devoured every interview he's written and he has these 20 sentences on photography. I don't know what he wrote them for initially, but they're so good. I just found them in a book that I used to have taped next to my desk.
Mo: I'm googling him now and I've definitely seen some of his work before. Speaking of Torbjørn, who are a few people you've always been drawn towards aesthetically, narratively, or anything in terms of influence?
Damien: I think when I was in school and sort of until a few years ago, I was really excited about photography but kind of ignorant to the history of things because I didn't study it properly. Honestly, I feel like for a number of years I was really into certain people on Tumblr [chucking] and then I started reading more about photo history, buying books, and reading more critiques—and some of it was good. I think that's sort of the danger, too—the internet. You find something that you really like and you try to figure out if its good or a remix of something else that someone did 20 years that was maybe a lot better [laughing] which is fine! But I think that if you're looking for visual inspiration, for me, it feels appropriate to go to the source. Like, who started table still life full of plates in a very a commercial way? Or finding about Paul Outerbridge who was one of the early color guys in the 30s and 40s who made these amazing commercial images that would look appropriate on Tumblr today.
Mo: Have you heard of the author Austin Kleon?
Damien: Uh, no.
Mo: He has a book called Steal Like an Artist which introduced me to what you were talking. One of his points was about how you should steal from people who are dead instead of alive.
Damien: Like, in order to get away with it?
Mo: Not really, but it's like looking at Harley Weir's work for inspiration instead of looking at the person who preceded behind her decades ago.
Damien: Right, because then you'd be called a one-off instead of someone who's reinventing something.
Mo: Do you feel like the idea of drawing influence from the people who created the first visual approaches to photography is still instilled to new photographers?
Damien: I think it's important to know what you're doing which is the magic and mystery of photography and making images in general, because it's a very coded language. If you spend a lot of time with it you can speak it fluently, and then everybody else responds to things but maybe they're not sure why. So to identity why something references this person and that person is really cool. And I think back to the book I did with Molly, Olive Juice, that's sort of the major components of our book; Molly went to SVA and had a pretty well-rounded photography education and then I came at photography sort of as an amateur who started working for commercial and editorial people assisting. And I came at it with a business perspective where Molly came at it with a photo-academic background. So I think the images in the book are me emulating how Molly might approach a picture and vice versa.
Damien: The book is sort of about photography in the most simple sense—just being curious about stuff. But I think that's another element of the book: Who's behind the camera? A man or a woman? Is this is a self portrait, or did Damien take this picture of Molly? Some of the pictures we took on our own and they ended up making sense in the book because of a thought we held. I think all that ambiguity comes to something that feels really nice.
Damien: A funny antidote to that is Margo, who published it, was really excited about the part where the pictures wouldn't identify who took the photo. It would be funny because Margo wouldn't want us to tell her who took what.
Mo: Emily Keegin from FADER wrote an excerpt for the book, yes?
Damien: Yeah, we put it in the back so it's after all the images. We just wanted the book to be less traditional and less stuffy. So it's a Slack conversation that Molly and I had with Emily, which I think addresses the themes in the work in an accessible, casual way—you don't have to write everything in third person. Emily's amazing, and I think we just realized this recently, but I think Emily gave both Molly and I our first paid assignments for a magazine, which is cool. And I think we both engaged with Emily on Tumblr and she emailed us.
Damien: Sorry if I'm going into too much of this, but the story was that Emily was a judge for The Magenta Foundation's "Flash Forward" competition and we applied to that with Olive Juice, which we didn't get. But she emailed us afterward and was excited and asked us to keep her in the loop. She told her that everything she voted for didn't win, which either means she's totally crazy or everyone else is really crazy. [laughing]
Mo: A question that I don't want to forget to ask you is what is something that recently scared you? It doesn't have to be within the context of being a working photographer.
Damien: Hmm, that's a heavy one. I feel like I'm pretty comfortable with taking risks and I don't really stress about looming decisions or anything like that, because I like to make decisions swiftly. But then once I make those decisions I wonder if it was the right thing to do. I think one of the more stressful things in my life recently was moving into this place by myself. It felt good initially, but then I was wondering if I'm going to go crazy. [laughing] My rent's doubling so am I going to drown myself paying for all this space that's unnecessary? But ultimately I was like, "No, I want to have all this space to work on stuff and have a proper studio." But then of course, you don't snap your fingers [to feel that way]. Ultimately, I feel like whenever I'm questioning something, something else happens that reminds me it's alright.
Thanks for reading
Where can we follow you?
- Website, Instagram, and Tumblr
Last thing you googled?
- 376mi to km
Favorite food(s) and drink(s)?
Lately I really like sencha green tea and salads with mustard greens.
What are your most used apps?
Instagram and News.
What's your unwritten rule?
Make quick gut decisions.
What's your ideal hotel window view?
East for the sunrise.
What question(s) are you tired of being asked?
Film or digital?
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