October 12th, 2017
Chris Maggio’s Great American Facade
In a new body of work, the photographer confronts the postelection U.S. landscape with dark humor.
By Will Matsuda
Spend enough time on the internet and you will come across a Chris Maggio photograph. It will probably be uncredited, torn from its original context, and memed endlessly. He’s OK with that, and in fact, he takes pride in it. His newly released series, Bored on the 4th of July (2017), blends fact and an extrapolation of truth in the postelection landscape. This ambiguity forces the viewer to confront the absurdities of American culture—what does it say about America that, within these images, it’s hard to discern where fact ends and imagination begins?
Will Matsuda: A lot of photographers have tried to address the current political climate, but these projects often feel heavy-handed. Your new project is both fresh and cutting. Why did you make Bored on the 4th of July?
Chris Maggio: I really appreciate that! I wanted to make a series that openly admits to communication by an unreliable narrator. My intent was for documentary and opinion to sit as some kind of uneasy emulsion—often within the same image—and to have the viewer at least a little in on the joke. A lot of news about “politics” that we see online burdens us with the responsibility of sifting for what is real amongst a maelstrom of opinion, fact, and presumption. But this series is more like an honest caricature: there’s truth floating around in there, but you’re aware that some of it’s exaggerated to make a point.
Matsuda: You describe the series as “both real and imagined, about a summer where, no matter what their politics, everyone has an opinion of what it means to be an American.” Are the images grounded in a specific place? Or is the series more representative of a nameless place that liberals imagine when they think of the “other side”?
Maggio: The problems facing the country right now are pandemic; it would be unfair to root them in a specific place. Some of the pictures do point to issues that the GOP both embraces and ignores, but not without acknowledging how in this current, polarizing time, paranoia and hyperbole are nonpartisan.
Matsuda: Last week on Twitter, I saw Ezra Koenig, the front man of Vampire Weekend (who has half a million followers), share your Blue Lives Matter photo without credit or context. Your images often get turned into memes. It happens so much that it seems like you create them for this reason, or at least have accepted it as part of your practice. What do you think when you see your images used in this way?
Maggio: To be a part of the fabric of someone’s day, even if your picture is fleetingly used to describe a “mood” or TFW, is really amazing. Whether it’s genuine or ironic, the image that you’ve created becomes part of their narrative, and even if your authorship is eroded in the process, there’s still a lot of pride there. People aren’t often inclined to research where these images originated from, but that’s the price you pay to have an idea snowball toward such a broad reach. Regardless, I just hope that folks garner something from the images that’s either emotionally positive or a catalyst for constructive thought.
Matsuda: The Chris Maggio “worldview” is so distinct. Why do you think you see the world in the way you do?
Maggio: I think it stems from my pessimism about who controls our day-to-day lives. I’m really scared that, as a population, we’re losing our autonomy to huge entities whose profits are contingent on our obedience to them. I’ve been in conversations with people where we’ll talk about iPhone updates for fifteen minutes—it’s chilling. The amount of control that companies can have on us is increasing exponentially. I’m not saying that the smartphone is the main culprit, but when you can watch the Candy Crush game show at your house, followed by Beat Shazam, and then go to the movies with your sweetie to watch The Emoji Movie—all while ignoring her by being on your phone—it’s hard not to lead with that example. That’s why I like going to county fairs, landmarks, tourist traps, and the like (which are the basis for some of my other photo series). Seeing people do their own thing, misbehaving and running amok in spaces where there’s a prescribed manner in which they’re supposed to conduct themselves—it gives me this weird little hope that there are parts of all us that won’t fall in line. I know I sound like a guy wearing a tinfoil hat—but I just like seeing people make their own fun.
Matsuda: I see words like “late capitalism” and “Internet culture” used to describe your work. Do you think that is correct?
Maggio: Ha! I wouldn’t disagree—the aesthetic of a lot of my work is geared toward the Internet because it’s where the majority of it is consumed. My pictures are often visually loud, center-framed, and have an easy, literal first read. However, if folks linger on them for a minute, I’d hope that the message of some of my stuff burrows a little deeper—there’s often something of that “late capitalism” idea in there. We’re living in a blatantly dysfunctional society; however, if you were to look at most of our billboards, TV shows, and music, you wouldn’t sense anything wrong at all—there’s a very thin facade. I like dwelling in that zone—imagery that often appears cheerful, but has a kind of doomed, sinister patina on it.
Matsuda: The people in your photographs are caught in awkward, funny moments, and I assume they are unaware you are taking their picture. How do you navigate the ethics of that?
Maggio: Street photography has a long, established history of capturing folks unaware—from Cartier-Bresson to Worldstar Hip Hop to your friend’s Instagram feed. By no means am I saying that that’s the ideal relationship between subject and photographer, but I still see it as an important relationship that can be explored as a form of introspection. I really do try to capture stuff that I see myself in, or at least the embodiment of an emotion or idea I’m wrestling with. To me, it’s not about “Ha! That person looks funny.” I think that any good photograph needs to speak a little more broadly.
Plus, we live in a time where privacy no longer exists! There’s no point in my day where I assume that my behavior isn’t being recorded and used without my knowledge and consent—and I would argue that, from the NSA to targeted advertising, this newly accepted (and formerly unfathomable) invasion of our privacy is far more malicious.
It’s shocking to see yourself in an image that you didn’t know was captured. But for me, human nature itself is what’s being documented—it’s never about the indictment of a specific person. Most of the photographs I make are autobiographical—they just feature someone else’s face.
Will Matsuda is the social media associate at Aperture Foundation.