“I’m a big picture thinker and an observer and I feel empathetic towards people that are different from me and try to learn from them. So when you look at some of my photos, it’s often my search for subtle clues that reveal more about life. Little things set off my mind.”
James Maher (born in 1982) is a fine art and portrait photographer currently based in New York City (USA).
He studied photography at International Center of Photography (ICP), School of Visual Arts, and assisted for commercial photographers for a couple of years.
James Maher is a fine art and portrait photographer and a writer based in New York City.
He is the son of two crazy psychiatrists and his inspiration stems from unique people, daily life, diversity, and psychology, as well as from the fabric of the City of New York itself.
He makes a living primarily from print and stock sales, portraiture, and from his writing.
Interview with James Maher
James, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
Photography is wonderful because it forces you to get out of the house at particularly the times when most people want to stay indoors. There have been a few times that I’ve photographed at night in the pouring rain and thunder, when the streets were completely empty and ominous.
Those are the moments when you feel like the city is yours. Another moment was photographing in a huge snowstorm in the middle of Central Park at midnight and sledding down the huge steps of Bethesda Terrace with an inflatable mattress that we found from earlier sledders.
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I was a math and comp sci major in college when I got into photography. A year and a half before I graduated I realized that it was a field that I didn’t want to work in and I had to find something I was passionate about. At the time I was also very into Photoshop after a short stint of making fake IDs for my friends. So I purchased a digital camera and took some photography classes during the summer.
I was really searching for anything that would interest me and so I thought that photography might be something I could do professionally.
So when I graduated in 2005, I enrolled in continuing education at the ICP and SVA for a couple of years and got an internship assisting for a commercial photographer and began a freelancing career after that.
I did many types of photography to make a living. Street photography was only a part of what I did, but it was the most interesting. I had always loved people watching and daydreaming while walking around and so of course it made sense that taking photographs outside would be the first thing that I would do when I was learning.
I didn’t know about the term street photography when I first did it. It’s just what you do when you first purchase a camera. You take it outside. And then I kind of ran with that.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to transmit with your pictures?
“There’s the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a word can also be worth a thousand pictures.”
Photography is a form of self-expression. It shows how you see the world. You have control over the ideas, feelings, and moments that you portray in your work. I have always loved writing and literature, and for me there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference between writing and photography. Both, when used right, are ways of expressing the same ideas. There’s the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a word can also be worth a thousand pictures.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Definitely Lee Friedlander and Cindy Sherman. While Cindy Sherman was shooting posed self-portraits, it made me understand the idea that as a photographer you’re really shooting yourself and your own perceptions. It was because of this idea that I got into Friedlander. I love the energy, controlled chaos, and neuroticism in his work.
Most of his photos feel like self-portraits to me, even if they’re ‘just’ of empty street corners or trees.
“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.”
What’s your favorite photography quote?
It’s not actually a photography quote, but a quote about cities by Jane Jacobs:
“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
My photographic voice is an extension of my personality. I’m a big picture thinker and an observer and I feel empathetic towards people that are different from me and try to learn from them. So when you look at some of my photos, it’s often my search for subtle clues that reveal more about life. Little things set off my mind.
I don’t necessarily have a creative process. I just love what I do and I keep working day in and day out. I don’t ever feel like I’m in a rut. Sometimes I don’t feel like going out the door, but I’m good at making myself do it.
I do spend a lot of time editing though. And I love to read all different types of things. Reading and editing play probably the biggest roles in my creative process.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
You have to work hard and diligently for a long time. You have to have a unique voice and point of view and you have to develop it over time and learn how to portray it in your work. If you want to make interesting photography then you have to be an interesting person, and that involves learning, reading, conversing, and being open to new ideas.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
“Some of my main interests are diversity and difference, self-perception, confidence and self-consciousness.”
Some people prefer to work in black and white and some in color, but I use both. Sometimes I frame haphazardly and sometimes deliberately. Often I use a 28mm prime lens, but sometimes I’ll use a zoom with a longer lens.
I think conceptually first and then I try to make the photo as beautiful as possible afterwards. I use my instincts a lot in framing, but I spend a lot of time perfecting my photos when I’m editing and coming back to them over time. I’m also very proud of my printing.
Conceptually, I have a lot of interests. I love seeing how the city itself can affect people and the type of people that are drawn towards living here. Some of my main interests are diversity and difference, self-perception, confidence and self-consciousness, the consumer culture and advertising, hints at what the future will bring, and changes in neighborhoods over time.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
They need to be interesting, empathetic, they need to have a point of view, a good design sense, and they need to have good hand-eye coordination.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
It needs to be able to provoke an idea or an emotion from the viewer. Beauty, light, design, and the technical qualities of the photo all count, but I think a compelling conceptual aspect of a photo is what takes a photo to the level of great. But that’s only my personal opinion.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Reading, observing, thinking, conversing, philosophizing, daydreaming. It’s everyday stuff and a continual learning process. Very slight things can cause the biggest inspirations.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
Technically, it’s getting the shots to be sharp and reacting fast enough. But conceptually it’s much tougher. It’s easy to capture an interesting person or scene, but it’s hard to capture an idea.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
I use the Canon 5D Mark II and the 28mm, 1.8 lens is my primary street photography lens, although I use the 24-70mm a lot as well. I use a Mac Pro with an NEC MultiSync monitor, the Epson 3880 for printing, and my favorite paper is Epson Exhibition Fiber. My camera bag is the Ona Union Street. It took me a long time to find a bag as good as the Ona.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I recommend “The Online Photographer”.
What photography book would you recommend?
I really enjoy photography books of New York, because it helps put my work in the perspective of people who’ve done it before me in the same environment.
Some of my favorites, NY or otherwise are all of Bruce Davidson’s photography books that I’ve seen, especially “Subway”, Matt Weber’s “The Urban Prisoner”, Joel Meyerowitz’s “55”, Lee Friedlander’s “MOMA” book, “The Americans” by Robert Frank, and William Eggleston’s “William Eggleston’s Guide”.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) street photographer?
First of all figure out why you want to do it and what draws you to it and focus on that. Photograph things that you know well and do it diligently and consistently for a long period of time. Just spend a lot of time doing it. Take a camera everywhere. Learn to make extremely good prints. Go to galleries and look at the prints of others to compare your work with. And most of all, have fun with it.