Photographer Chris Maggio on the complexities of humour

What at first seems like satire in Chris Maggio’s photography is actually a warm look at his American homeland. CR talks to him about the witty photographers that have influenced him and the hidden complexities of humour

It’s hard to look at Chris Maggio’s work without a smile creeping across your face. Humour is generously slathered across his photography, whether in how he singles out and awkwardly positions characters, or the way he overloads his images with all the hallmarks of capitalist society.

Maggio’s work is unusual in how it feels at once spontaneous and perfectly planned. Often, the framing is so on point that it seems like the timing is too good to be off the cuff. So which is it? “I really like to shoot as much as I can and ask questions later,” he tells CR, adding that he prefers to remain instinctive when he’s first out and about shooting so as to avoid overthinking. “If I start to see a thread forming out of that, I’ll often go back out and try to connect the dots a bit.”

At surface level, his work seems to poke fun at brash Americana and consumerist culture in all its garishness. However, his photography is in fact an intimate examination of modern life as it is – just with a knowing grin and the intensity dialled up.

“It’s how I was raised, so there’s definitely more love and curiosity in there than condemnation,” he tells CR. “I’m determined to find out what life means when it’s fed only a diet of mass media. Growing up two hours outside of New York City, I wasn’t raised with that strong of a cultural identity. As a kid, it was all about TV, and the mall, and walking to the Taco Bell that was next to my school every day.”

“In a world where power is controlled by so few people, I just want to prove to myself that there’s something rich and important in living a very pedestrian life. It encroaches on a somewhat nihilist attitude, but I genuinely want there to be an emotional silver lining,” he adds.

He’s long been involved with capturing the world around him, with his career in photography preceded by a period studying film. “I went to film school, but realised afterward that the field wasn’t really for me. Having to keep an idea buoyant and exciting through preproduction, production and post…. It’s such a herculean effort, and I have huge respect to those who can maintain their vision throughout that whole process.”

“Photography was always on the back burner and felt so much more immediate, independent and exciting to me,” he continues. “It felt like a way to audition and run with ideas quickly, without sacrificing their integrity. Once I realised it was OK to walk away from what I invested in at college, I felt far more at home… And of course there’s a tonne of crossover to boot.”

Since moving into photography, he’s journeyed with New Age spiritual tourists and snapped the world’s biggest tennis stars, but his most memorable encounter was on a shoot in North Pole, Alaska. “I was there right before the winter solstice and there was only about two hours of daylight each day. I tend to rely on natural light quite a bit, so it was a huge learning experience logistically,” he says.

Maggio’s unflinching nerve behind the lens has also seen him gain commissions with more unexpected clients – including a surprising string of projects for revered fashion magazines like CR Fashion Book and American Vogue. Is it because he brings a sense of humour that typically seems absent from these circles? “I hope so! I think it also might be a weird clumsiness, or a bit of a DIY, rough-around-the-edges vibe too. Ultimately, I really like embracing the amateur, clichéd side of things and it’s exciting when there’s a client who’s down to try it too. They’re down to laugh at themselves a bit, and I hope it makes some of it more accessible to an audience who wouldn’t usually engage with that material.”

Humour, for him, offers far more complexities than first meets the eye, acting as a gateway into something deeper. “It’s the entry point into everything I do – I love how complicated humour can be. When encountering an image, it can be immediately funny – but thinking about why it’s funny to you personally can lead to some serious introspection.”

A fine example of this is his recent Size Matters series, which sees him offer his playful take on Wall Street, “where the landscape often seems to shift alongside one’s net worth and the proportions of their ego,” he says. “It’s a region of the city that’s full of contradictions: New York’s oldest constructions sit alongside sparkling new developments while fiercely competitive money men elbow through crowds of meandering tourists. Its labyrinthine streets flood with humanity during the work day, but are vacant by night, bracing themselves for the start of another morning in Manhattan.”

Just as most comedians pledge their respect to the veterans in the comedy world, Maggio too has a clutch of witty photographers that he feels he’s influenced by. “Like a lot of folks who rely on humour in their work, I’m a huge fan of Lars Tunbjörk and Martin Parr,” he says. “Erik Kessels and his agency KesselsKramer are a huge influence – especially in their In Almost Every Picture and Useful Photography series (their compilations of vernacular photography). The studio work of Philip Kwame Apagya blows me away – and Stacy Kranitz and Eva O’Leary are some of my favourite folks working at the moment. They both have such a special way of making documentary work that is intensely personal, profound, surreal – and sometimes hilarious.”

Part of Maggio’s comedic toolbelt is depth of field (or lack thereof), awkwardly squeezing people and objects into an image in unexpected ways. However, a shallow depth of field also helps to “make the viewer aware of how a photograph isn’t reality – it’s merely an interpretation of it,” he explains. “The beauty of photography comes from its technological limitations: shallow depth of field, the compression of a portrait lens, motion blur – all of these things are born out of a camera’s inability to perfectly replicate what we see while simultaneously creating something wonderfully new.”

At its heart, Maggio’s work mirrors the fuzzy reinterpretations of even the most familiar of scenes. “Our memories are so subjective – sometimes our recollection of something is spot on, and other times there’s a bit of reframing or exaggeration in there,” he reflects. “Ideally, I’d like my work to feel very visceral – like you’re trying to remember a trip that you took and are attempting to piece together your journey the best you can. Sometimes forgetting and changing the details can be romantic – like the ‘big’ fish your uncle caught at the lake.”