Justin Maxon: Self-Defined

By Bruce Young

Justin MaxonIn 2011 Justin Maxon added the Cliff Edom “New America Award” to a fast growing list of accolades he started accumulating as a student at San Francisco State University. The photographs, made in Chester, Pennsylvania, a small city just south of Philadelphia along the Delaware River, were from an ongoing project exploring a community suffering from most all of what ails modern America.  

“The pictures were ‘raw,’ and ‘gritty,’ and had a real sense of urgency to them in the way they were shot and put together as a portfolio,” said James Colton, one of the judges that gave the award to Maxon. “Very intense scenes that can only come with incredible access to private moments.”

“In the progression of my work there, I began to grow frustrated that my work didn’t have the dimension I felt was necessary to unfold the overlapping issues in this community.  In an attempt to capture this complexity, I decided to experiment with multiple exposures,” says Maxon.

His images, already complex and affected by technique, added even more complication and depth, with multiple moments and images filling the frame. A photo story was no longer enough; he wanted all 1000 words in one picture.

“In experimenting with multiple exposures, I attempt to speak to the complexities that are so tightly woven into their lives,” he says.  “I wanted to create images that had layers of understanding in them, where one could see more of the true complications of life in Chester.”

The complexity of private moments is a motif Maxon came to while taking his first art photography class early in college.   

“I photographed my biological father whom I had not seen in years,” he remembers.  “My relationship with him has been filled with trauma, and photography gave me the ability to see the humanity in him outside of my own emotional reaction. I was inextricably drawn into the photographic process once I saw the inherent power it held.”   

Living in Northern California, he transferred to San Francisco State University as much for the convenience and economy as for its fine art program. After becoming disenchanted with that program “the journalism program then caught my interest,” he says.  “I began the program as a writer, and later after finding a strong community of photojournalism students, photography became a passion again.”

He began stretching out, as he saw he wanted something more than just grabbing a shot and moving on.  “The work that inspires me now isn’t strictly photographic in nature,” he said recently.  “I search out the work of photographers that transforms the photographic process, either through activism or subject participation, which increases the dialogue surrounding the issue and strengthens the impact.”

His work has become increasingly subjective and as his bio at the Razon Collective explains: “exploring more private issues; where his imagery became an abstract representation of his own life.”

Though he has begun to see some success now, “It is a constant struggle to earn enough income to support the work I want to create and sustain my simple lifestyle. Last year was the first time since I began taking pictures where I had some financial breathing room,” Maxon explains.  

Grant money has helped keep his personal projects going, but he has been forced to stretch every dime.  “The last few times in Chester, I ended up sleeping on the ground on top of an old lumpy futon mattress for six months, or renting a single room in winter with no insulation in a shabby apartment where my only comfort was a sleeping bag and a worn mattress,” he says.  

“Needless to say, I am trying to diversify my endeavors to make a living, because if I ever want to have some resemblance of comfort I must try harder. I take pretty much anything that comes my way; that's what necessary for a young photographer who doesn't come from money to make it now in this industry.”

NPPA interviewed Justin Maxon by email.

You talk some in other sources about the evolution of your work.  You seem to have moved away from standard, straight-up news photography.  When did that evolution begin?  (In other words, did you see yourself as a more conventionally styled photographer before, say, your work in Chester, and discover it wasn't satisfying, or were you always moving away from, for example, the old Life magazine/AP style of photography?)

Within the scope of my development, I witnessed my perceptions change with experience. As I became more involved in the photojournalism community and visually representing the places I explored through that specific lens, I grew weary. I realized the similarity in my work from image to image, how I was taking the same type of picture over and over. This recognition came to fruition while I was working in Chester, a complex environment with many overlapping, intersecting points of conflict and courage. I saw how my approach limited me in representing the experience. 

Photography, especially used within the traditional photojournalistic set of ideals, has inherently limited boundaries of depiction. There is only so much one can visually accomplish in that confinement. Once a mode of transmitting information has exhausted its capacity of usage, a transformation is required. I believe that photojournalism has reached this point of saturation and is becoming less relevant. An evolution has been building since the inclusion of digital photography. I saw how my environment was changing and was presenting less opportunity for prosperity. I have since tried to squeeze into the narrowing space in hopes that my work will somehow come out in the end. Perhaps altered, but still relevant.

Looking at the big picture, do you see this as a direction that news photography is or should evolve in?  Or is it a more personal journey?

The power that photojournalism once possessed in contributing to social and political change has become diluted in many ways by the proliferation of imagery. With the advent and accessibility of digital photography in everyday life, the shapes and modes of depiction become regurgitated. The more familiar we are with something the less we notice it, therefore allowing it to bypass our emotional reactive centers. Once an audience becomes habituated with the notions of photojournalism, the less influence it retains, thus fostering an attitude of anti-intervention.

The original semiotics of photojournalism, being the rules that govern the state of affairs and conventions, states that realism and truth must be at the very core a definitive principle. Photography in the strictest ethical notions will always be an interpretation of the world. One that is expressive but never absolute. The notion of capturing life in all its complexity with a still image and then asserting it as truth or reality is a failing proposition. Within the four walls of a frame, a still image could never encapsulate the dichotomy of the human experience. Photographers inevitably impose their own prejudice on their images merely by choosing where they point their camera. The inherent nature of the so-called objective photographic process is one of interpretation and ultimately a subjective one. Therefore, it is my belief that as long as a photographer’s process is transparent, there should be little rigidity in the means of categorizing photography into terms of right and wrong.

I believe that for photojournalism to still be relevant, the medium must expand its borders of representation. We are already seeing examples of this shift within the zeitgeist of journalistic photography. Photographers are taking more risks. You see screen prints made from images shot on infrared film, gathered images broken down into binary code, collaged images, film intentionally damaged by light, and multiple exposures. 

Innovation occurs in a vehicle of expression when other mediums are combined together to create amorphous shapes of the original design. Much of this experimentation is borrowed from traditional artistic methods, but brings a fresh perspective into the arena of conventional journalistic storytelling practice. However, these deviations have not fully infiltrated the institution of photojournalism. At best, this work finds itself on an established media outlet’s blog, but rarely does it find itself in the pages of a print publication. Which again, speaks to the doctrine that runs the spread of information. To assume an audience requires a uniformed simplistic version of reality is in no way a prosperous means to the expansion of human understanding.  

Maybe all of this reasoning and theorizing is irrelevant and photojournalism will keep its original state intact. Possibly by overextending the medium the accessibility factor becomes non-existent and my work will no longer serve the niche of driving political and social understanding. Regardless, the shifting landscape of media has created a unique space of discovery. We have the freedom to create the background of our own careers, not defined by industry standard.

Let me ask this as an opportunity for you to articulate your philosophy and thoughts behind your current work: What does it bring to the table?

I’ve never been good at defining where the boundaries of my life meet, which has translated into my photographic process. My approach is fluid. I am most comfortable in a state of change. I think the modes I will photographically and artistically engage will constantly shift. As much as I have embraced the chaos of change, I have begun to coalesce a thematic undertone that will thread my work together. I’m intrigued by the exploration and influence of memory and personal experience on understanding and perception. I wish to deconstruct the landscape of trauma. How does one’s trauma develop in comparison to others? What are the common trigger points? How does it string together in our bodies from one event to the other? What are pathways we follow out?

Drawing on my own experience with trauma, I recognize the value in not separating oneself from the photographic process.  I’ve embraced subjectivity in my work, incorporating the inherent vulnerabilities that nature brings. My objective is to create an atmosphere where empathetic understanding can be shared by the audience by highlighting the overlapping collective experience in individual perception. As I expand my efforts to understand trauma, my work will go beyond the confinements of documentary photography, layering other artistic mediums in order to better grasp the complexities of life.

In regards to your recent TIME Lightbox assignment on the Santorum campaign: How did you get that assignment?  How did you approach it, as a photographer?  Were you given any instructions?  (There is some text explaining your discontent with covering the events and interest in the people, but little on your photographic choices.)  Did you come to have a point of view, an intent, as you did that?  What were you trying to say?

I worked with TIME before on other assignments and in early 2011 they presented me with the opportunity to cover Rick Santorum’s campaign for the Republican nomination. I love the challenge of covering politics considering the confinements a photographer must operate within. TIME was interested in expanding how they covered the elections and commissioned a variety of photographers who might take a different approach. The editor I worked with, Paul Moakley, brilliant I might add, told me I had the freedom to bring whatever voice I wanted to the coverage. He obviously wanted me to play safe as well, so I did both and they published both. Santorum didn’t win the bid so my images never ran in the magazine, but they were published on TIME's website.

It's a challenging duty to navigate around the artifice of a political campaign. There is a thin veil strung ever so gently over the stage of events, leaving one feeling a certain lack of clarity as to whom the characters really are. One of the ways to approach the stage, rather than representing it as it's strictly visible to the eye, is to take a step back and document it with the veil included, by showing how the space is seen from the outside in. With the Santorum coverage I tried to show the facade I witnessed, by creating imagery that was nebulous and left a slight impression of skepticism.   

Technically: In one interview you said you use a Leica and two Holgas.  Is your work entirely film-based?  As film becomes more and more difficult to get and get processed, are you eventually going to have to go digital?  How do you think that will affect your work?

My personal work is entirely film based. I feel strongly that using film allows me the creative freedom to push my craft into spaces unavailable with digital photography. Film has a high sense of investment, meaning that a photographer holds ownership of the photographic process. I hope that over time film does not become obsolete and disappear entirely. If that were the case I would be quite devastated and would have to rethink my own motivations. 

Secondarily, as you make your multiple-exposures, well, how do you do it (technically, that is)?  Is this an in-camera technique, a darkroom (chemical) process, done in Photoshop?  Do you try to maintain control as it happens, or let the photos and process take over?

The multiple exposes I create are all in camera. Many of the images represent a sequence in time, where certain frames are days, weeks or months apart from each other. I keep a detailed diagram of where certain parts of the film have been exposed, or where certain figures or scenes rest on the undeveloped roll. Then when I find a moment that relates, either contextually or graphically, to the scene already exposed, I roll the film back through the camera to the point where the multiple images meet. Some of my rolls I leave to chance. I love the serendipitous characteristic of film, and will purposely leave rolls of film unmarked so that later I can expose over them with out any preconception. Though, I probably have only made a few images that I like with this blind approach. It keeps me excited to take pictures.

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