Chris Maggio is a photographer living in New York City with 8.4 million of his closest friends. A self-proclaimed “boring guy”, Maggio wanders the streets to capture human behaviour that incites introspection. While many may dub his photographs ‘depressing’, a common thread of empathy runs throughout. His work sits at the intersection of observational and staged photography and, given the opportunity, heʼd really like to take your picture. We sat down with Chris to talk about the American dream, Trump’s role and how to save on buying lunch.
Chris, what made you want to document the American culture in the honest way you do?
Honest or subjective, it’s just the way that makes sense to me. The type of bold, compassionate imagery in America explored by Shore, Eggleston, et al. has been replaced by something much more cold and crass and homogenous. Nowadays, American culture is conceived and tested by a chosen few, and then sold to us on the mass market.
How do you think living in New York City influences your work? Do you feel like you’d be taking entirely different pictures in a different place?
I hope that my style would translate well in a few places but New York has an intrinsic bipolarity that fuels a lot of photographers. Everyone both loves and hates the city, and it’s that kind of tension that makes it such a special, volatile place. The chaos and kintetic energy that you have to wade through just to grab lunch is what makes it unique, and, as New Yorkers, we all have to rely on each other in diverse and often invisible ways.
What do you personally think about when you hear the term failure, what pops in your mind?
I think of opportunity. Failure welcomes an infinite number of ideas to fill a void. Once you’ve shrugged it off, it’s the moment when you can be the most creative.
Your work shows a lot of the ugliness in the American society. How do you relate to the culture?
I think it’s unfair to use the word “ugly”. I wouldn’t share any picture that I didn’t see myself in. I’m more after the confusion that is confronting us in the American society right now - the idea of feeling aimless in a country that is full of hundreds of millions of minds, but whose culture and politics are dictated by a select few. For me, it’s a big, twisted knot that’s hard to untie.
Weʼre merely speaking from an European perspective in regards to the term of the “Ugly American”. How has it been since the new administration for you?
Trump is America’s id incarnate. Unfortunately, his attitude has been present in our culture for quite a long time. Take “Manifest Destiny” as a glaring historical example, but his election has just lifted the veil further than before. At its core, is Trump’s narcissism any different than Logan Paul’s or any other personality the public admires and emulates? Private citizens can be as self-centered as they want, but we somehow expect our president not to be? My main concern is not only about him as a toxic, putrid individual, but also about the eroding compassion we have toward one another as a population.
Good point - let’s talk about his favourite topic, what do “real” photographs about “real life” mean in times of fake news?
You would have to ask someone else. Although a lot of my photography documents things I witness, I’m not sure what “real” photography is. There’s a strong subjectivity to my images: on occasion, if I think it will aid a theme I’m after, I’ll conjure or seek out specific imagery to bind documented images together. I don’t see it as that different from a reality TV show. That being said though, fake news creates an interesting chasm that photography can fill. In a post-truth world, whose responsibility is it to carry the torch as to what is “real”? Aside from journalism, what is that supposed to look like visually?
How does a typical day in your life look like?
I’m a pretty boring guy. If I’m not working, I’ll go into the City to walk around for a few hours and try to find imagery that jumps out at me. I eat a lot of chunky peanut butter before I leave the house because it’s cheaper than buying lunch. I always keep a banana in my backpack just in case.
What’s your favourite thing to capture?
My favourite thing to capture is the kind of human behaviour that incites introspection in myself. To me, that’s one of the most important tenets of photography. New York City is such a bizarre arena to exist in – we’re all alone here, together. It’s easy to get lost in the throngs of anonymous faces, but someone is always watching – even if it’s just the surveillance camera from a Chipotle, or a Sephora, or the NYPD. I like to photograph others as an exploration of myself, not as an indictment of a stranger’s behaviour.
How do you feel about social media? Do you adapt your work to its ever-developing dynamics?
I think many photographers would be lying if they said that they didn’t have social media in mind when making work. As upsetting as the erosion of our attention spans is, I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be working – and these platforms are a perfectly valid means of exhibition. Nowadays, ideas develop, live, and die at an accelerated rate – and in the end, I think that does more good than bad. Social media can be positive, it doesn’t always have to be narcissistic, although plenty of photographers are narcissists too.
What is your latest obsession? What do you feel excited about?
My holiday obsession was Christmas decorations in Manhattan’s parking garages. Each of these subterranean spaces has their own unique way of getting ready for the holidays, and it always ends up being an elaborate display of Christmas cheer in an otherwise austere room. I did a small photo series on it this year and I’m excited for more the next time the holidays come around.
What different reactions do you get when it comes to your pictures?
A lot of people tell me that they’re depressing, but I think that they speak to the moments in life that we often try to sweep under the rug. Real life isn’t beautifully plated food, or sun-drenched hikes in the woods, or manicured work- spaces with steaming cups of coffee and sketch pads. Real life is looking for a place to sit and eat your burrito when there’s no bench to be found, or waiting in line at Target to return the sweater your mom bought you for your birthday, or trying to hide your litter when you can’t find a trash can. Real life is boring and hilarious and speaks far more about who we are than the pruned and refined versions of our- selves we present online.
A lot of people who are not familiar with the American society will judge your pictures as exaggerated. Why is it so important for you to show what people sometimes call the “ugly truth”?
Again, I wouldn’t say my photos are always truth. There’s a strong documentary element in them, but they indulge in creative license alongside my opinions – and I would argue the same for some other types of documentary photographers, particularly street photographers, who can be very creative with their framing. Reality is never duplicated by a photo, it’s merely interpreted.
What’s your biggest personal failure?
I really admire talented folks who move forward regardless of whether a specific idea succeeds or not – they’re the best learners. I often take things a little too much to heart, and the failure to fail well can be a failure in itself.
Do you think the idea of the American Dream is failing?
I’m not sure that it has a strong definition right now. A dream is something solitary, and at the moment, we’re more in need of a consciousness that incorporates a wide range of voices. It’s like in “Nightmare on Elm Street” when the kids can pull each other into their respective dreams for the final battle against Freddy. In the current cultural climate, we all need to cooperate to overcome the big obstacles in our society, and that starts with an open mind.
Where are you on a regular Sunday afternoon?