Interview: Joseph Maida

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Interview by Lisa Gonzalez
Photography & GIF by Alex Thebez

Joseph Maida is an artist based in New York City, utilizing photography and video to explore “the domestic as they relate to both the American home and the United States’ identity from within and abroad.” Maida’s work has been exhibited at the Bronx Museum of Art, Art In General, Queens Museum of Art, Reina Sofia National Museum (Madrid), the Pro-Arte Center (St. Petersburg), the Kunsthalle Wien (Vienna), and the Nikon Salons (Tokyo and Osaka). He has also received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. He has taught at Yale University, the School of Visual Arts, Parsons the New School for Design, and SUNY Purchase. Maida has been commissioned by The New York Times Magazine, New York, W, Newsweek, and Wallpaper*.

LISA GONZALEZ: How did you get into photography?
JOSEPH MAIDA: In a way photography found me. When I was finishing up grade school, my prescribed trajectory was to go to an all boys’ Catholic high school, which I was resistant to do. Luckily, I received a scholarship to attend a private high school. I’m good at math and science, and this school had a program they were trying out that was very strong in those areas. Another advantage to this school is that it has a strong art department. In my first year as a freshman there, I took a photo class with a woman named Gabrielle Russomagno, who is a brilliant photographer and person. She took me under her wing, and I had this incredible mentorship with her from age 14 to 18. It gave me a great foundation, and I learned so much from those four years. So when I came to New York City to go to college, I already had something that was comparable to a substantial photography degree.

LG: Do you miss math and science?
JM: My brain is definitely wired that way. Photography has something – there is a technical aspect to it. The thing about math and science is that you can usually approach a mathematical problem in search of a clear solution. There’s something rewarding about that, but I also like problems that have to be considered from multiple angles. Photography is the perfect balance between something rooted in both the scientific and the optic — it has issues of numbers. The medium doesn’t come to conclusive points but it can raise really interesting questions about the world and how we perceive it. When I came to NYC for college, I majored in architecture at Columbia University, which is a liberal arts school with a core curriculum. I was studying architecture, which is very technical and mathematical, but at a place known for philosophy and thought. So I’ve always had an interest in balancing these seemingly opposing disciplines.

LG: Did you have a clear understanding of what you wanted to do with photography?
JM: Having a really good mentor is one thing, and I am fortunate that I found that person at 14. I grew up in a very traditional Catholic family with a traditional set of values right outside of the city [of Philadelphia]. In my last year of high school, all of my friends were interning at law firms or working towards careers that are more conventional than Art. But for my final year project, I produced a photographic series called On the Periphery. I would go into Center City and photograph people who were marginalized – sex workers, homeless and queer youth, and I got really interested in thinking about the “other”. It’s something I’m still exploring now. I think being raised in a traditional situation has illuminated my [photographic] subject matter for me. I’ve been ok moving through a traditional system, and finding a way to bring change from within that system. I have a traditional education but I’ve never been traditional.

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LG: What has your more recent work about?
JM: A theme that’s been there since the beginning is Identity, as something that is both constructed and performed. I believe identity is constructed through things we control and uncontrollable things we’ve been exposed to, and I’m interested in how a constructed identity is performed for others around us. [This idea] has been explored, in some way, in every project I’ve done. Most recently, I’ve been looking at American identity in Hawai’i in relationship to masculinity, ethnicity, and sexuality.

LG: And tell me about New Natives.
JM: [New Natives] allowed me to consider aspects of identity on multiple levels, photographing these aspiring male models in Hawai’i, who are American but are not the standard, white, corn-fed men who look like Abercrombie and Fitch models. But, they’re exposed to it, and it’s what they’re seeing. It’s about someone who is not white and who is from this exotic part of United States trying to navigate an American identity.

LG: Was Hawai’i important because it’s not American in the sense of football and hotdogs?
JM: It’s important because it is American but it’s not. It’s an anomaly. It’s the “other.” It’s the other America. Hawaii has a strong local community that is truly separate from the mainland. Many of the locals have Hawaiian blood, which is not a Western ethnicity. They have a background that is, in many regards, antithetical to a contemporary American sensibility. So, how do you balance an identity that’s layered in that way? How do you negotiate conflicting ideals?  And how do you perform masculinity accordingly?

LG: How did you find your subjects?
JM: They’re all found through social media, which is an important element to the project. New Natives is one of the more recent projects I’ve done with strangers. In my earlier work, I focused quite a bit on family members or close friends as my subject. I began photographing people who were immediately available to me. Then, amailstriper4u, which is a video project, marked a turning point in my process. While I was still dealing with ideas of domesticity and home, the subject of that video project is a stranger. I think making this video project allowed me to really move beyond my comfort zone. Hawai’i has been the perfect place for me to make work because in some ways it’s familiar because these men have a shared American identity, but they’re also the other. They’re not white. They’re not from the mainland. And, because of their ethnic backgrounds, they can’t look like these typical models you find in the masses.

LG: Back to amailstriper4u. Why did you decide to start using video?
JM: Video, in many ways, was a natural progression. There is an obvious image relationship to photography. I was talking before about my continual exploration of identity as it’s constructed and performed. Video has the added element of time that allows me to explore the actual performance of identity. Inevitably, amailstriper4u is a performance that’s happening over time.

LG: Did you give any direction for the video?
JM: All of the footage is actually appropriated. There was a bit of direction and, of course, there’s editing involved in producing the final work. The way in which that footage was acquired is that this guy was advertising these erotic videos. You would pay a fee and he would, in turn, produce a video for you. You had to tell him what you wanted as a fantasy. So I turned the tables and I asked him to give me what he wanted. I was curious about what he would provide without too much direction from me. That’s how I work as a photographer, too. I like to give people the opportunity to present themselves in whatever way they want to be seen.

LG: Well that touches upon the performance aspect. How they wanted to be seen and understood and identified as.
JM: I think that’s something that is developing as we become a culture that has more of our roots in the internet. People developing online personas. I think one’s identity is more constructed than ever. Image is much more considered and not just by photographers. Everyone thinks about one’s actual self versus one’s image.

LG: Do you think that’s a problem that we’ve become so much more aware?
JM: I guess it depends. I prefer not to say but rather respond to and react to these cultural shifts in my art. I think if you look closely at my photographs and videos, some biases are revealed.

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LG: Who is Isaac?
JM: Isaac is the subject of my project, Isaac, and my partner of 10 years. So many of the photographers whom I was told to look at when I was a student were white, straight men, and when their work is directly personal, their subject is a female muse. Isaac is about a male muse — a man looking at a man as his subject. If you look at the work of Lee Friedlander, he photographs his wife, Maria. If you look at Harry Callahan, he photographs his wife, Eleanor. How we understand photographic perspective in the 20th century is typically from a heterosexual, white male point of view. So Isaac is my reaction to this singular perspective, which seems to still dominate how we see and understand gender, sexuality, and desire.

LG: Was that the same approach when you photographed Ben?
JM: Yes. But with Ben, the project deals more explicitly with how one’s identity is formed at the moment of sexual awakening — and what that looks like and how it’s performed in the sense of self-discovery. The series also investigates narcissism and vanity.

LG: Is that what the mirror is for?
JM: Yes, the mirror is part of that. I think one’s performance of identity starts with a performance for oneself. It’s Ben creating a persona, trying it out and figuring it out.

LG: It’s a moment of self-realization. Going from an unidentifiable subject and transforming into a tangible and understandable person.
JM: Exactly. Ben and I met when we were both at school at Columbia. He’s really a genius. He inherently understood the way in which identity is a performance. The project is looking at someone who is, at that moment, finding himself while also acutely aware of himself as perceived by others.

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LG: Could you tell me about the time you spent in Japan and the work you made there? When was your first experience?
JM: I first went to Japan  as a tourist in 2005, and my trip was a standard itinerary that many Westerners follow. Tokyo to see contemporary Japan, then Kyoto to see traditional Japan. My first impression was how seemingly familiar it is. There are so many references and symbols that made sense to a Western eye but then there is also a cultural backdrop that is so distinct compared to anything that I knew. My last day in Kyoto I came across these miniature figurines that are modeled after American consumer goods and I was experiencing nostalgia. I was thinking about my own identity and how I could be experiencing nostalgia in a place that was so foreign. It became an exploration of not just my own personal identity but my cultural identity as well. How does Japan exist as a contemporary society that has a distinct history from the West but has also embraced it?

LG: Why did you end up making the images?
JM: I bought the miniatures, returned to New York, and started photographing them in the studio. So many of the artists I’ve been influenced by are photographers who make work about American Identity- Robert Adams, Robert Frank, and artists like them who look at America. Perhaps the way to understand American identity today is to go outside of literal America to see how its identity is perceived and transformed in a non-western setting.

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LG: Is travel important to you? Have you come across this perception of America in other countries?
JM: Travel is very important to me. I think it’s also where my sensitivity comes from as a photographer in terms of thinking about the Other.  So much of my work in Hawai’i is about being sensitive to this otherness and to shared otherness. I think part of my sensitivity also stems from actively putting myself in positions of being the Other. In 2007, I received funding from the National Endowment of the Arts to go to Japan for a year, and it was informative because, for that year in Tokyo, I was really the Other. I looked different. It’s not something that I could just sometimes turn off. I had to go out and work every day.

LG: It keeps you sensitive.
JM: Yes – to think about our own position as well as the positions of those around us. You may have an understanding of something, but it’s entirely subjective. To someone else it may be entirely different.

LG: What problems do you run into as a photographer?
JM: I think my work takes a critical stance and to be critical you need to be very well informed. Whenever I begin a new project I inform myself. When I went to Japan I learned Japanese, which took a lot of time and energy.  Similarly, it wasn’t until my third trip to Hawai’i that I began making pictures that became suitable for my actual project there. You have to stick through it, do the research, and make a commitment. And you also have have a strong belief in a project and yourself, even when the results aren’t immediately visible.

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