The King of Awkward Digital Photographs

Chris Maggio's discerning eye (and sense of humor) shows us a world many photographers would rather not.

Image
Chris Maggio

Sometimes, it seems like technology has turned us all into "expert" photographers. Most smartphones come equipped with pretty good cameras, and Instagram lets us edit with the swipe of a finger.

In that context, Chris Maggio's images seem out of place. Maggio is a professional photographer, but his shots remind me of the pictures my parents took with their very first digital camera in the early aughts. In a way, they're remarkably forgettable. And that's what makes them fascinating.

"A lot of people call some of the images I take 'consumer,'" he explains. "Why does that term have to possess such a bad connotation? I really love amateur photography, particularly in the rapid-sharing age of Flickr, and it's been a huge influence on me."

Maggio's pictures are more about telling stories and capturing strange moments than dramatic angles and colorful filters. In that way, he challenges us to think about what makes a good digital picture. One of his most popular projects, "Male Chef," consists of meals that appear to be completely inedible and unappealing. Others tell the story of people having fun in Tokyo, land use in America, or bizarre Craigslist postings.

We caught up with the New York-based photographer over email to chat about his approach and what he looks for when he's exploring the built environment:

How long have you been a photographer?

I've only been taking pictures for a few years now, maybe four. For the most part, I've worked as a film editor.

What camera(s) do you use and what's your editing process?

I use an array of different things, but my favorites have always been point and shoots. Honestly, when push comes to shove, I'm really more of a tourist than anything else. I enjoy traveling, visiting landmarks, exploring what makes certain locations and images iconic. I never had that nostalgic camera that everyone gets "passed down to them from their grandpa." Although, for some time now, I've kept my family's first digital camera in my pocket wherever I go as a secondary camera. My dad bought it with points from his credit card when I was 12. I like the idea of working with cameras that everyone has access to and creating my own brand of "tourist photography."

As for editing, I still think like a film editor. I often think of a vague story that an image or a collection of images can tell. Sometimes that comes before arranging them thematically.

How has your approach to photography changed since you started?

I think my view of what a "legitimate photo" is has expanded. We live in a world where everyone is technically a documentary photographer, and I think that the vast expanse of perspectives by which events, people, and objects are documented has become one of the most fascinating things about the medium.

Everyone has different lenses they see through, and I don't think that any one is more important than the other. When something happens in the world and it's documented from a wide array of different eyes and angles, it reminds me of when a crowd visits a famous landmark. Your picture of the White House on your DSLR is different than the picture that a teenager will take on her iPhone, but it's still the same object- the same event with two different protagonists crafting the images. Sometimes the one taken on the iPhone will be more unique and interesting because its more personal. I try to keep that spectrum in mind when taking a photo.

What do you look for when you photograph?

I look for an image that has a narrative to it, something that encourages the viewer to think about what the situation was before and after the picture was taken or what kind of action lies outside the frame. I love how a photograph can be just as ambiguous as it can be informative, capturing only one frame of a situation- one context. The excitement often lies outside of the boundaries of the image that you've captured, and a picture is often just as interesting for what it doesn't show.

What makes for an especially good Chris Maggio photograph? Is there a series of photos or one in particular you're pleased with?

I really enjoy shooting around landmarks and cultural meccas. I like shooting spaces that are reserved for "having fun." I had a lot of fun photographing the crowd gathering to see the Mona Lisa—I want to see all the other pictures people took at the Louvre that day.

I can see this style of photography being off-putting to some. What kind of criticism have you received?

A lot of people call some of the images I take "consumer." Why does that term have to possess such a bad connotation? I really love amateur photography, particularly in the rapid-sharing age of Flickr, and it's been a huge influence on me.

"Male Chef" appears as a strong criticism of the food porn movement but you could argue that people often Instagram buildings with similar intentions. Are some of your photographs a response to architecture porn?

Not at all—a lot of people interpret "Male Chef" as a swipe at food porn, which was only the lesser half of my intention. User-submitted internet photography is one of my biggest influences. It's the way that the majority of people in this world visually communicate with one another and I think that it is understated as a medium.  

You'll find some of the most amazing images if you just browse Craigslist or Yelp for a day—there's so much genuine expression and bizarre creativity. I've been playing around with my fondness for this type of photography in another ongoing series called "All Items for Sale." It's a half tribute/half extrapolation of tropes in Craigslist photography. Like "Male Chef," I want the series to arouse questions about the people who are creating this type of imagery: "Who are these people? Why did they choose that image to share with the world?"

Your work feels inherently playful, but there seems to be something serious being expressed throughout "Wide, Open." What was different about that project for you?

It's a tiny series now, but I hope it'll grow. Really big spaces embody a certain feeling about the USA to me; you don't see as many of them when you travel abroad. We live in a really huge nation, and people interpret that size differently- some as "power", others as "waste" or "mass-production." It's just a theme that I'm interested in and am still exploring.

Has photography changed the way you view people or places?

Definitely. Like so many others, trying to fit images into a frame helps me explore my ideas and emotions about the world. The biggest gratification is someone saying that a photo made them view something that was familiar, differently. I love being able to talk to them about that.

All images courtesy Chris Maggio

About the Author