Growing up in Long Island, photographer Chris Maggio's experience of New York City was limited to Midtown Manhattan, a tourist destination embodied by the outsider clichés one might expect. It was filled with crowds, sweat, billboards, Broadway shows, double-decker busses and more crowds. In the summer especially, the urban landscape largely untouched by actual New York City residents (except those who work in the neighborhood) resounded as a chaotic smattering of red-faced human sardines.
Settling in Brooklyn in recent years, Maggio channeled these visions into an uncomfortable, yet humorous series appropriately titled Hot As Hell in Midtown, making photographs "celebrating the end of a scorching summer in NYC" last year. Children paint their foreheads with melting ice cream cones, the sun beams down in apocalyptic crimson hues, people resemble the walking dead, their expressions falling somewhere between a vapid gaze and knowing smirk. I spoke with the Maggio to learn more about this work, and his larger commercial and personal practice.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: Your work is crazy and all over the place in the best possible ways. Where are you coming from, and what are you currently looking at (photo or otherwise)?
Chris Maggio: Ha! You're certainly the first person to frame that as a compliment. I love collecting older vernacular photos- but I'm equally drawn to the daily flood of benign images on social media: pictures of meals, workout routines, tutorials, inside jokes- your imagination really runs wild when you attempt to infer things about both the subjects and authors of all this material. Why did they take this picture? How do these people know one another? Was this a happy accident or completely composed? My favorite photos are the ones that ask more questions than provide answers.
Feinstein: I'm a huge fan of vernacular/snapshot photography as well -- my first associations jump to old snapshots, but with your work, I see contemporary parallels to memes as vernacular, maybe a commentary on, or nod to social media and "millennial" snapshot photography, which isn't often labelled "vernacular" in the same way. Would you agree?
Maggio: I'd like to think that it’s somewhere in the middle, but the lack of nuance in a lot of the things I make is definitely aligned with the way memes function. I like how economical the humor of a meme can be- it’s like a joke combined with a good advertisement. A meme conveys the same message to the broadest audience possible, and the less information required to arrive at the intended punchline, the better. Photos should mean different things to different people- but it’s occasionally really fun to strongly guide a viewer's train of thought.
The Internet is still the main venue in which people see what I make, and expecting the exhibition of your work online to be a one-way street is somewhat foolish. Regardless of your opinion of them, there are people who make their living appropriating imagery- and to a certain extent, its become something that everyone expects to happen to certain types of material. I've seen some things that I've made repurposed on Reddit and elsewhere, and I find it super flattering- even if my authorship is eroded in the process.
Feinstein: Would you mind sharing a few of your recent "acquisitions"? Maybe some that relate most closely to your own pictures?
Maggio: I'm actually working on a project right now that's attempting to mix some "found" stuff and some original material..so I think I'm going to hold these close to the vest for now!
Feinstein: Haha, ok. Fair enough! How did "hot as hell in midtown" come about?
Maggio: Midtown Manhattan has always fascinated me - I grew up on Long Island and Midtown was pretty much what I associated as “New York City.” Occasionally, my family would make the schlep over in our minivan, and my parents would usher my siblings and I, a brood of blonde boys with matching mushroom-cuts, to Planet Hollywood and a discount matinee of some Andrew Lloyd Webber show.
What’s ironic is that, although Midtown is somewhat of a caricature of NYC, it feels like one of the few neighborhoods in the City whose appearance and reputation, although somewhat absurd, has remained stagnant over the past few years. The exponential, colonialist change of the City surrounds it, but Times Square is still full of bewildered tourists, from both local and abroad, gawking at the sea of billboards. There are still haggard, middle-aged businessmen with dyed maroon hair pouring out of Penn Station and into the nondescript skyscrapers surrounding it. It’s a nexus where everyone is always moving, and you’re part of this throbbing, anonymous crowd. It belongs to everyone and no one at the same time- there isn’t another place in NYC like it.
I’d really like to make a bunch of work there, but the hottest day of the year just seemed like a good place to start. The mutual suffering of both locals and tourists alike- it brings out a lot of good emotion. Its just very loud visually.
Feinstein: I see you as being among a new-ish crop of photographers that combines spectacle, low-fidelity, humor, and strange commercial elements as well.
Maggio: I think that all comes from mainstream Internet culture- the idea that a meme is engaging not only because of its content, but a fascination with its author(s)- and the less polished the work, the more intriguing it often is. Who made this image? Where did it come from? How did we all communally tap into this one cultural moment at the same time, only to collectively laugh at something completely different next week? One minute it’s the blue/gold dress, the next it’s Caveman Spongebob. The content is always different, but the most successful ones always involve some sort of haggard image that’s been passed around, repackaged, and extrapolated- often resulting in some sort of low-fidelity, grungy disambiguation.
I’m not saying that all of this photography resembles a meme aesthetic per se- I just think that the type of sudden, spectacular impact this imagery has is something that’s encroached into the minds of photographers. It results in a kind of shallow gratification- but everything is okay in moderation.
Feinstein: Can you talk a bit about your process? So much of your work is super candid, but also has this level of staged, orchestrated-ness to it.
Maggio: I always prefer to keep the line between fact and fiction as muddy as I can. My intent is for everything to be as true to life as possible, but photography is a medium that interprets reality, it doesn't replicate it- so why not play with that limitation? In certain arenas, people don’t scrutinize “truth” as much as they used to- we have this strange consensus where we’ve given ourselves the license to fudge facts here and there- and there are plenty of everyday transgressions against what is “real” that we’ve ceased to question. Our personas online can be pruned and refined to perfection- yet we still assert those as true representations of ourselves. The term “reality” has come to describe television programming where actual events are under the guidance and manipulation of a production crew- but we still don’t call them fiction. Photography should have the same license to engage in a similar type of ambiguity.
Feinstein: Speaking of "truthfulness," and the muddiness of fact and fiction, do you see your work paralleling our most recent culture of doubt, "alternative facts" etc?
Maggio: Frustration over the malleability of "truth" has been festering for some time- this election cycle has merely illuminated it. I certainly don't intend to speak to anything partisan, but I do like the idea of contributing something that can illustrate the "shades" of truth in a funny way. I just wish that it didn't take a monster like Trump to be the catalyst for all this.
Feinstein: You make a lot of commercial photography as well. Does that influence your personal work, or does your personal work influence your commercial work? A little bit of both?
Maggio: It’s definitely symbiotic- I'd just like to align the two practices as closely as I'm able. It is difficult to go into a job and work in a different "professional" style, and it’s often hard to do personal work after working so intensely on a shoot. I'll employ some commercial elements in my personal stuff, like the ways in which I retouch things, and I'll try to inject my humor into commercial work whenever I can.
Feinstein: You mentioned this potentially evolving into a larger series about midtown. Do you think you'll revisit this coming summer?
Maggio: I'll definitely be back out in Midtown to grab some shots of folks melting in the summer heat- but overall, I'm mainly interested in documenting the space in a broader sense as a crossroads that people consistently pass through yet, on the whole, are unable to stop, sit, and inhabit.
That being said, I've been working a job in Times Square lately and shooting on my lunch break. I'm putting together a little series documenting how us working stiffs in Midtown spend that precious hour of freedom- be it grabbing a bite, having a smoke, feeding the meter, or just taking a stroll around the block to blow off a little steam.
BIO: Chris Maggio is a photographer living in New York City with 8.4 million of his closest friends. He'd really like to take your picture.