Perspectives Profile: An Interview with Photographer James Maher
In our quest to explore and challenge perspectives of New York, we will be talking to local creators from each of the five boroughs. The first conversation in our series is with photographer James Maher, a born and bred New Yorker who has experienced firsthand the shifting moods and shades of the New York landscape and psyche over the past thirty-plus years.
His latest project, Luxury for Lease, offers a real and raw reflection of New York’s evolution from a city that just a few decades ago was, as he puts it, “gritty but free; dirty but alive,” to a more polished but arguably less vibrant version of its former self. As a street, documentary, and portrait photographer, Maher seeks to capture not only the city’s physical transformation but the ways in which the changes have, for better or worse, shaped the city’s culture.
Where do you live in NYC?
James Maher: I grew up on the Upper West Side, then lived in the East Village where my family is from for over 10 years. This is when a large majority of my street work was done. I moved a year ago to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, when we had our first child. I'm still learning these areas and figuring out how to photograph them best.
What do you enjoy most about taking photographs of New York?
JM: I love the walk and the therapy of it. Getting lost in other people's lives helps take the pressure off from my own. I love the people of New York, the diversity, the special moments that can suddenly pop up around every corner. The camera is just an extension of my enjoyment for exploring my surroundings.
What influence does living in NYC have on your creative output?
JM: Well, of course there is the environment of being surrounded by all types of people, art, the environment, the energy, which is the obvious answer. But sometimes I think the real influence comes from the anxiety that this place brings out and nurtures. You're surrounded by a lot of people who want to be here, who come here to bust their asses to do something interesting, by immigrants who were lucky and tough enough to make it here, and their children and children's children. There is a grind that is associated with a lot of people who are here, and it's easy to get caught up in that. I've felt that anxiety for a long time and it keeps pushing me; it's a reason why I walk and shoot to escape it—and what I'm working on escaping from as much as I can as I get a bit older. I think you can see that anxiety in my current work.
In what ways does your photography challenge perspectives in the literal and/or theoretical sense?
JM: New York isn't the place it used to be, and I'm trying to show that in my work with a project that I just finished titled Luxury for Lease. New York used to be (and still is, but to a slightly lesser extent) the place where people from all types of backgrounds would come together, interact, and influence each other. Now it's where, as Penny Arcade put it, "The 10 most popular kids from every high school in the world are now living." As New York has gotten safer, as it's been branded globally to attract the wealthy, as suburbia is no longer afraid to move back, that thing that made it special is both slowly and quickly being pushed out. I'm trying to capture the feeling out there of this, and the influence that this is having on the psyche of New York.
Do you have a favorite photograph of New York, taken by you or someone else?
JM: [The photograph pictured above] is the one from my collection that comes to mind right now. It shows what it's like to be here for many. A man with his head down moving through the streets just getting through the day, past the tough lives of the men seen on the left side of the photo, with the smiling face drawn on to the top of his hat as his public showing face.
What do you do when you’re not taking photographs?
JM: Right now, I take care of my 11-month-old and try to sleep when I can. But when I have the time I love to read, particularly about history, New York, art, photography, even politics, although that is now getting exhausting. I'm a non-fiction person. Then museums and galleries. I write. I shoot hoops when I have the time.
See more of James’s work—here.