City. Chino, CA
Interview conducted by Jack Savage with the photographer Tony Maher - Featured Artist - The Influx Gallery, Notting Hill, London
Welcome Tony to The Influx Gallery family. Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are from?
Thanks for adding me to the family! I am very excited an honoured to be here. I am originally from the city of San Bernardino, in Southern California, USA, and I still live and work in Southern California. I have a Master’s in Fine Arts in Studio Arts and have done almost every job a photographer can do. My hometown and landscape surroundings are still a major influence in my artwork. My day job is as a professor of photography at Cypress College, where I am also the department chair. I also am an athlete on the professional race team of Hardkour Performance. The two professions collide, as you can see with the work exhibited here.
Were your family supportive of you deciding to become a photographic artist?
I have an amazing family. From an early age my mom was very supportive in directing all her children to do what we wanted with our lives. Growing up lower middle class and first generation American, my mom wanted us to “get a good job,” but when I declared myself as an art major in college my mom was extremely supportive once she saw how dedicated and passionate I was. My brother and sister were also supportive from day one. My brother has assisted me on many projects, and all my immediate family still exhibit my work in their houses. That to me is the biggest compliment and sign of continued support.
Was there anything specific that you can remember that made you want to become an artist?
I grew up drawing a lot. I loved comic books and the idea of being able to create scenes from inside my mind. My original influences and inspiration all from comic books, and wanting to be Spider-Man. Once I got to university and declared myself an art major, my intent was actually to be a tattoo artist. That all changed when I took my first photography class though. Although, I still held on to the aspirations to be Spider-Man.
Did your schooling or work affect your creative development in any way?
Absolutely. Education is the key to everything. I know these days everything is available for free on the internet, but there is a huge disconnect if you only work alone without any feedback or accountability. I had the best professors in undergrad and grad. If it wasn’t for their direction and no-bullshit kind of approach to teaching, I wouldn’t be where I am now. The caliber of teaching I was lucky enough to receive pushed me out of my comfort zones and made me a much more well-rounded artist. It is exactly why I am proficient in so many different styles and techniques. So many times I heard, “This is good, but you can do better.” I think too many people find one style, get comfortable with it, and then shy away from anything new that challenges them. I carry this tradition of challenging students just as my professors did in my classrooms. In turn though, my students do challenge me to continue to grow and find new ways in which to educate. I love it. I have the best students also.
When did you first discover art and photography?
The first time I can remember thinking about photography as art, and something that I was interested in was way back when I was about ten-years old. It was vacation trip to the San Diego Zoo, and my mom handed me the camera with instructions to take photos. I remember feeling a sense of responsibility and excitement. I got so wrapped up in taking photos that I almost lost our backpack for the day that was filled with our daily snacks and drinks and my mom’s wallet. Luckily, we found it. But it was one image by Walker Evans in my photo 101 class that actually made me change my major from drawing and painting to photography. “Shoeshine Sign in a Southern Town, 1936” is the image that inspired me to make the switch. I fell in love with the idea of concept and representation in an image and how it can say more than what is seen.
Can you tell us a little about your favourite exposure style?
I don’t know if I have a favourite exposure style, because I like so many photographic styles, but I am an analogue kind of guy. Don’t get me wrong, I do digital as well and love how many possibilities we have with it, but analogue feels more real to me. The hands-on tactile aspect of the process is all part of the experience. If I had to pick one format though, it would be 120mm. Medium format is my current choice for going out to photograph with.
How do you light the picture?
The images seen here in this collection are all lite with ambient light. Nothing fancy. Either the sun or what ever light is available in doors. In previous projects like “HiStory Photos” or “Disposable,” I used studio strobes to light the scene. HiStory Photos is a collection of images that recreate scenes from my past in dioramas that I built. Disposable is a multi-panel photo project documenting discarded objects in the Southern California landscape. For both these projects I would set up commercial quality strobes to light the scene.
Could you give us a little teaser as to the processes -that helps you to create such fabulous photographs?
Sure, being a professor of photography, I absolutely do not mind sharing the process. The images here from the project “We Are Hardkour” are all created from multiple alternative processes and have quite a long path of creation before final print. Most of the images start out as a digital capture. Either from a proper DSLR, or even my iPhone. Yes, iPhone. I then bring them into Lightroom to edit, shoot to photoshop to invert and flip orientation. Send back to Lightroom to make any other adjustments. Typically making the image which is now a negative and in black and white just a little darker, by about one stop. I then print out the image on Overhead Projection Paper, or OHP. This digital negative is then contact printed onto a substrate that has been sensitized with either cyanotype, salt paper process, or van dyke. Then developed in water, and fixed if necessary. Sometimes there will be an added step of toning using something like tea, coffee, or another exposure using turmeric.
Your work revolves around the powerful concepts of memory and history? Where do you get your inspiration and influences from?
A lot of inspiration comes from childhood experiences, music, stories from my grandfather, and of course comic books. Photography has this amazing ability to capture all of these, but in a single frame. I am still in awe over how an image can conjure up all kinds of memories and full stories yet is just a single moment. For me no other art form can do what photography does. I am still influenced by some of the original photographers that got me into the medium like Walker Evans, Anthony Hernandez and Helen Levitt. Today though, there are so many amazing artists doing great things with the medium. Some personal favourites are Felix Quintana, Courtney Coles, and David Hilliard.
Do you have any tips for any inspiring digital artist/photographer who is using software, or picking up a camera for the first time?
The first thing I always tell people is the camera is just a tool. It doesn’t matter what camera you have, the one you own or have is the best one for the moment. You know, figure it out. Again, in this digital age people get too caught up in megapixels or brand or instafamous. Just get out and make work. Look at work. Get feedback. Take feedback like a real artist. Try new things. If it doesn’t work out, try it again. One of my biggest gripes with new photographers is when they say they are afraid they will ruin it. Ruin what? If you don’t make anything there is nothing to ruin. Plus, if it doesn’t come out, do it again. This is how we actually learn. Other advice is take a class, and take an analogue class. Learn how light really works and do the work. Processing film makes you way more accountable than importing to Lightroom. On that, don’t use presets. Make your own work and create your own style. Again, do the freaking work