Photographer Chris Maggio is smart — the kind of person who can talk seamlessly about film, photography, politics, and capitalism without ever seeming to grasp for an idea. This may be why he captures photos in a way that makes even the most banal things — office lunches, parking garages — seem interesting and new. After going to school to be a filmmaker, Maggio found himself gravitating more toward his on-again, off-again hobby of taking pictures. He works as a professional photographer, and lives in New York City “with 8.4 million of his closest friends.”
Every holiday, I find myself looking to his Instagram for the funny, poignant, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek images that define an alternate take of the holiday. His work offers a real view of the hubbub at hand — the attempt at a questionable recipe on Thanksgiving, or the hope that the drug store’s brand of Valentine’s Day candy is better than it was last year.
We spoke to him about his work, the freneticism of the holidays, and when he stopped believing in Santa Claus.
It seems like you have a pretty dark view of, well, America and humanity in general. Do you want to confirm or deny that?
Chris Maggio: [laughs] I mean, I think there might be some darkness in there. If anything, I think it's more nihilist. But I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy. There's definitely a feeling of being alienated, being alone together, especially in such a massively dense place like New York.
That’s a tough one to start out on. I really want to talk to you about your work on Christmas. They’re not really like anything else. How did you set out to photograph it?
New York has the reputation of being such a romantic place to experience the holidays, but objectively it’s such a bizarre tradition.
I grew up in a household where my mom is Jewish and my dad is Catholic. I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist — you know, the ultimate left-leaning, absurdly liberal religion. So I feel that looking at all the optics of the holiday season objectively is somewhat easy for me. Christmas in particular, it’s just so garish and funny and overwrought. It doesn’t look like any other time of the year, and the tropes are just so loud and extreme. It’s just a really fun palette to play with. The rush up to this big celebratory moment is just so hilariously frenzied and congested, but the madness is its own kind of tradition, and I have my own romantic memories of that.
When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?
It was either 3rd or 4th grade. I remember seeing my mom balancing her checkbook at the kitchen table and going through all these receipts from the holiday season. And I remember seeing a receipt that was for something that was distinctly a gift from Santa, like, the gift. The one we opened last. I looked at that receipt, and then our eyes met. And she just said to me, “Don’t tell your brothers.” The most indirect but direct way to say that “this isn’t real, but we’re going to preserve the tradition.”
Whose work did you look to the most? Who was doing the most important work for you at that time?
A big influence early on was looking at photography that now has the moniker of being called “cursed photography”: abandoned Flickr accounts and Photobucket accounts full of loose ends of people’s memories. There was a really prolific Tumblr called “internet history” that was curating exhibits of these found, vernacular photos of the digital age. Dis Magazine was the next step from that, and I’m still a huge fan of David and Solomon, two of the founders who have since become Torso Solutions. I’m obsessed with the idea of taking everyday, pedestrian concepts and extrapolating them to the degree that they almost become foreign and alien. Brad Troemel and the Jogging were big influences early on too.
I didn’t have any education in photography at all, but as I’ve learned more and more I’m fixated on artists who illuminate the absurdity of the domestic life I was raised in. I’ve always loved the work of Eva O’Leary, Chris Verene, Thomas Mailaender, and Erik Kessels, to name a few.
Portland-based photographer Will Matsuda put it really well when he said in an interview that the Chris Maggio "worldview" is so distinct. I feel like the current pandemic couldn't have made it any more...surreal. In a way, it's like the issues that the Onion had with the Trump presidency; how do you spoof something that seems to be constantly spoofing itself? What has it been like photographing in the surreality of the last year?
It's been a really difficult challenge. It’s sort of stymied me a little bit. I think that photographers have a lot of fun needling the absurdity out of everyday life, trying to see something that others overlook, but the pandemic has laid everything bare. I think it’s a golden age for photojournalism, and there’s been so much incredible work on that front this year. For photographers like myself who are a little bit more conceptual, it seems like a time to take a backseat and think about our practice. Everything is so literal right now; it doesn’t feel like there’s a second layer to uncover visually.
I’ve been shooting a little bit but struggling to make something that speaks to something beyond the pandemic. The images that I take right now, I don’t know if I want all of them to have masks in them or plastic-wrapped cashiers or weird shanties outside of restaurants. I think time will tell what to make of all this — hindsight is 2020.
Folks seeing your Christmas images for the first time will get that this isn't an endorsement of the holiday. I'm not trying to goad you into acting the Grinch, but what do you want people to consider when they look at these holiday photos?
It should encourage people to think about the mechanisms and stories surrounding the holiday. The “Santas on Vacation” story for the Times is a really good example. Labor for the holidays is a year-round job, and the type of people who end up working in the [holiday] industry are fascinating. For Santas, specifically, it’s a time for senior citizens to shine. As you get older, your place in the workforce starts to erode, but … as a Santa, especially as a real, bearded Santa, which is like the top-tier position in the world of Santas, being a senior citizen is an advantage. It’s a job that you grow into as you age. That’s something that I had never thought about before, just the fact that the talent and the type of person that it takes to put the holiday together is so specific, and it’s only for that one month out of the year. I don’t want people to think of the photos as ugly or condemning; it’s about getting people to think objectively about the traditions surrounding the holidays.
There’s a lot of shadow planning, or things that happen before the day, like the parking garage decorations that nobody notices but still take work.
To me, that’s the most endearing part. I love the fact that the staff at the garages, they all get together to decide who’s going to decorate and what’s going to be the aesthetic of it. Some of them go all out. There’s one garage on the Upper East Side that does a whole miniature village in it. It’s a type of creativity that you don’t see at any other time of the year. Like the houses in Staten Island or Dyker Heights that are famous for doing these insane light displays — for the mom or dad or whoever is decorating the house, that might be their only creative outlet for the year. It’s a kind of folk art, a creative voice that they may not even think about; it’s just an impulse.
You are still enamored with the things you photograph? You’re not disillusioned?
I’m not disillusioned. I take photographs of things that I love — things that help put me in touch with or challenge who I am as a person. Real life to me is the moments in between the big moments, the losses and the triumphs. I think, if anything, the whole COVID debacle has made us more aware of that in a way. What I’m going to remember the most about all of this is just the slog of everyday life and the ways in which that’s important. Running the errands, cooking, all the stuff in between. I want people to think about the simple routines and ridiculous habits in our lives and how those define us. It’s the whole arc of our lives, and it’s OK to laugh at that sometimes.
Are you planning on trying to get out and photograph this year?
I’ve done quite a bit of photographing the holidays in the past, so I don’t know if I’ll go out and do a full piece this year. I’ll definitely be shooting a little bit. I’m more interested in what comes next. There’s no stopping holiday tradition. Yes, we’ll see plenty of funny images of Santa behind plexiglass this year, but I’m curious how our traditions will be reformed in the wake of seeing how fragile they really are.
How are you spending the day this Christmas?
Just spending the day at my apartment and catching up with my folks remotely. My parents both work in public schools on Long Island, so we're trying to figure out a way to do something safely in person at some point, but it's proving to be tricky. I've seen people covering themselves with plastic painters tarps to hug one another, but that seems a little extreme to me. Maybe we'll bundle up and eat a meal on the porch. •