Friday, October 19, 2012

James Maher: What Was He Thinking?

James Maher is a photographer based in New York City.

Athens Economic Protest from Hotel Grande Bretagne, Greece

This was taken on my honeymoon last year in Athens, which coincided with many of the economic protests.  As a gift, my wife’s grandmother put us up in the Hotel Grande Bretagne, the nicest hotel in Athens, and one that she had fond memories with her late husband in.

The difference between seeing the daily life on the streets of Athens and within the hotel was startling.  The streets were crowded and packed with people and cars and so many businesses were shut down, yet when you walked into the hotel, which was located on the main Syntagma Square, it felt like an empty, grand sanctuary.  There were some businessmen and tourists of course, but it was eerily empty.

On our last night before we left, there was a large student protest and transit strike.  We walked through the protest for a bit but I was on my honeymoon so I did not want to take many photos.  People were packed everywhere and it was getting dark, so we decided to go in.  This restaurant was on the main level of the hotel right by the entrance and the juxtaposition of the crowded square outside and the completely empty, opulent dining room made me feel strange.

There was a blue police light blaring through the window and framing silhouettes of the protestors.  It was a perfect juxtaposition. It felt like one of those puppet theatre boxes.  I felt nervous and safe at the same time, like I could close the curtains if I needed to.  I imagine the feeling is similar to how some of the more well off might feel during these economic protests - simultaneously safe, hidden, and protected, yet only a curtain away from trouble. I took a lot of shots to get this one because people were moving pretty quickly and I wanted to be able to make out the profile of a face.  I like how it looks like they’re whispering secretly to each other, behind the curtains.

Shades of Red

New York has this way of making people feel overly self-conscious and neurotic.  I hate it.  Between the intrusive advertising, the daily competition, and all of the alphas who live here, it gets mentally exhausting.  The competition can be particularly hard on women since they outnumber men by about 5%.  This shot hit me because it’s the antithesis of all of that self-consciousness; it’s this women with such abnormal looks who is embracing those looks in such a self celebrating way, with the color of her bold clothing and accessories, and how the swirl in the flowers in her shirt matches the swirl in her hair.  Seeing someone celebrate herself like this makes me feel a lot more confident in myself.

I think of this shot as a beautiful landscape of the self-confident, unique woman.  Technically, it was an easy shot to take, but I had to get extremely close with a 35mm lens and wait long enough to get the focus right.  She didn’t notice, but my real worry was all the other people surrounding me at the stoplight. I just acted like I knew what I was doing and moved on.
Gowanus Fire Hydrant

I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of cities and the people that live within them.  It’s one of the reasons why I do this.  My wife’s also an urban planner so we have that in the family.  When I’m out I’m often searching for simple city moments that mimic the overall simple rules and philosophies of city life.

Then, a couple of years ago, I read this fascinating NY Times article titled, “A Physicist Solves The City,” about a theoretical Physicist named Geoffrey West, who found many mathematical rules that governed the growth and nature of cities.  You’ll have to read the article for specifics, but he compares the city to a ‘sprawling organism,’ and found a set of mathematical laws that govern the nature of every city. 

I’ve had this article in the back of my mind for two years, but always thought any attempt to capture an image that referenced this idea would be futile.  But when I came across this moment in Gowanus it hit me immediately - this looked like the city below a starry sky.  There was this simple visual connection between the upward growth of these plants, fighting through concrete, and the upward organic growth of cities.  What put this image over the edge was a period of a couple of minutes where the sun peaked from behind the rear building and backlit a few of the plants, but not all of them, making this feel like when the lights first turn on in the city just after sunset.

In retrospect, after taking the time to write all of this about the image, “Gowanus Fire Hydrant” seems like the crappiest title ever.  Oh, and the building shown here is about to be turned into a 700 unit luxury apartment building.

Human Zoo, Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park

I had spent a couple of days doing interviews and portraits with the protestors for a news article on what daily life was like in the park during the protests.  Half the camp was made up of kids who just wanted to have a fun adventure and didn’t care much about the protests, while the other half were dedicated and passionate people who worked hard to keep the camp going.  But pretty much everyone told me they were sick of the coverage, the photographers and interviewers in their faces, the tourists asking them questions, and that they felt like zoo animals.  Many people used the term zoo animal to describe how they were being treated.

They thought of it as a problem, but when it came down to it that’s what their advantage was; that people were actually watching intently and paying attention to them.  I wanted to try and capture this feeling, this dynamic, and this relationship between the protestor and the onlooker, so I went back the next morning while the protestors were still sleeping and things were still quiet.  My original aim was to get the onlookers in the frame with the sleeping people, but then the early morning sun broke through and created these gorgeous long shadows from the figures of the onlookers.  I was very fortunate that this recipe was there right in front of me.  In addition to the shadowy figures being a metaphor for the shadowy figures watching behind the scenes, the sleeping bags also eerily remind me of body bags.

Guess in Red

This is one of those photographs that explains me a little bit.  I grew up with a very bad case of Attention Deficit Disorder, which luckily has subsided somewhat as I have gotten older.  I wasn’t one of those terror kids; I was one of those kids who sat quietly and pretended I was listening even though that was usually the furthest from what I was actually doing.  The trick was, if I was looking at you, I probably wasn’t listening.  If I was looking away, there was a good chance I was listening.

I also grew up in New York, which is one of the great meccas of external stimulation, especially on the streets, with the flashing signs, lights, advertisements, the loud sounds, and interesting people to break my attention every few minutes.  Over the years, I’ve become interested in the power that advertising has on influencing people and intruding on their lives.  It intrudes on mine.  When I passed this storefront window it made me think about all of this, especially with the powerful red, attention grabbing figures and faces.  Something about the red faces made me think about my attention issues.

I stood here for 30 minutes looking for something to complement the windows, but even I couldn’t have imagined something so exact.  Maybe even I underestimated the power of influence.  This can’t be a coincidence - can it?

The Cigarette

This is one of those photos that has helped me realize more about how I shoot from looking at it after the fact.  Technically, it was the end of a long day and beginning to get dark.  I was a block away from home and the last thing I was thinking about was taking a photo, but fortunately my camera was on my wrist, the settings were set for the dusk, pre-focused to a normal depth, and it ready to go.  It was pretty instinctual, I turned my head as I was passing and saw her face and just got close, framed quickly, and shot.

As I’ve gotten to understand myself a little better, I’ve become more interested in this photo.  When I shoot without thinking I often frame like this and I always wondered why.  But I think I figured it out.  I can get hyper focused on expressions. The photo may be crooked, but if you notice, the face is perfectly horizontal.  The photo’s actually not crooked at all.  The cigarette is almost acting as a level for the expression.

Aesthetically, this shot happened to turn out beautifully, with the flowers, the two locks, the ornate grating and post, the cigarette, and even the framed eye in the background, but what I have realized over time is that all of that stuff is just a beautiful frame for that face.  This shot is all about that face; the self-reflective face of an exhausted, depressed hairdresser in a city that is not kind to workers in this sort of low-paid position.  I see this same, imprisoned face many times each day.

Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman

This is obviously not my image – although I wish it was.  It’s a Cindy Sherman self-portrait and one of her most famous works.  Even though this is not a street photograph it’s had a lot of influence on my street work.

This is one of the first photos I can remember from when I first learned about photography.  The reasons why I was drawn to it at first were superficial: the low angle elevating the stature of the person and the tight, beautiful and proper city moment, contrasted with the glance that alludes to so much more beyond the simple frame.  I thought, why can’t I just find these moments out in the wild.

Over time though I became more interested in the self-portrait aspect, as well as the meaning of the photograph and its relationship to candid photography.  I’ve given up wondering about whether or not photographs tell the truth – we go out there trying to document life, but who knows if we’re actually capturing people accurately.  There’s what we see and believe and there’s so much more beyond each frame.  However, what we are capturing accurately is ourselves and our perceptions of these moments, which somehow seems even more telling and honest. You can learn a lot about yourself by what you capture.


This was taken in the crazy holiday crowds on 5th Avenue.  It was almost too much for photography and I was getting bumped around and I’d see things but then would get cut off by so many people who would ruin the moments.  I had to just pre-focus and hip shoot cause there was not time for anything else.  For this shot I wasn’t thinking anything, except the face just hit me - this young girl’s confident, calm, ever-so-knowing smile within this sea of chaos.  Also, it seemed so familiar but I couldn’t figure out why. Then a couple months after taking this, I realized the face held an uncanny resemblance to the Mona Lisa.

I wanted to speak about this image because I love photographing kids, but it’s much harder these days.  I don’t know if it was the internet or Law and Order, but now everyone with a camera is a pervert.  It doesn’t stop me but I’m careful.  I wonder if it’s ever possible to turn the tides back in our favor.  There’s just something so magical when you are able to capture these innate qualities in young children who haven’t yet had much life experience, but you can get a feeling for what they’re going to turn out like when they grow up, just from a simple glance into their eyes.

1 comment:

Hernan said...

I was mesmerized by the close picture of the readhead woman. And love the guess in red. You remained there for 30 minutes, man, you was thinking a lot more things surely. To check if this wasn´t a coincidence do the same as Robin Williams did in the Fisher King film: Lie naked in the park and try to break the clouds with your thoughts.