Maggie Shannon: Portraiture

April 19 2015

Good portraiture is hard. To dig beneath the surface and expose vulnerable, multifaceted individuals whilst also maintaining a personal style is a delicate line to walk. Most famed portraitists—from Liebovitz to Richardson—are singularly about style and recreate subjects in their own images. Every so often, though, a rare eye emerges with real knack for portraiture. Maggie Shannon’s work is human, incisive, candid. And even very early in her career, she definitely has style.

Maggie is an SVA-trained photographer who divides her time between Brooklyn and Martha’s Vineyard. She does focused documentary work punctuated with her excellent portraiture in series like Noise Girls, about women in music, and Swamp Yankee, a look at a shark hunting tournament in Rhode Island (It’s Nice That wrote about it recently). She’s worked with Vice and Pitchfork among others, and last year she was named to Magnum’s prestigious 30 Under 30 list.

We talked with Maggie this week about portraiture, tuna melts and really wanting a Hasselblad.

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Hometown: Vineyard Haven, MA 

Current Residence: Brooklyn, NY

Primary Mode of transportation: Walking!

What’s your favorite sandwich?

Tuna Melts. One of my favorite restaurants is this diner in Chelsea that’s kinda tucked away. Best tuna melts and the pie is pretty good too!

What’s your Sunday ritual?

I usually go out and grab the sunday New York Times (mostly for the magazine) and have coffee at a place near my apartment in Crown Heights. Sometimes I work on little projects or retouching work. Sunday is usually my catch up day but now that the weather is nicer in New York I’m hoping for beach trips!

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You’re an SVA alumna and were named one of Magnum’s 30 Under 30. What led you to photography in the first place? 

I came to photography in a pretty roundabout way. I started taking pictures with a polaroid camera in high school. I remember buying bulk polaroid film at Costco, those were the days! I took a photo 1 class my senior year too but it was mostly digital and I didn’t have much interest in that. Though I do remember my first photo shoot with my best friend. We went down to the harbor on Martha’s Vineyard and she let me put seaweed in her hair! When I got to college I was focusing in Art History. I got pretty sick of writing visual analyses so I took black and white photo class and got hooked. My professor Justin Kimball was a huge influence on my work. He let me into a color photography class and that changed everything! 

How did you arrive at documentary subject matter, as opposed to, say, fashion or architectural photography?

I’ve always been interested in telling stories and learning how things work. I think that’s why I focus more on documentary photography: If there’s something I’m curious about I try and do a project on it! I love the process of researching and learning more about an area that I know nothing about. I recently did a project on fishing in Brooklyn and went out a couple times with the Brooklyn Fishing Club. Meeting the members and hearing their stories was such a fantastic experience. I guess meeting new people and hearing about what they do is what interests me the most about documentary! I love working in the studio too, but being outside and taking pictures will never get old for me. 

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Let’s talk specifically about your portraiture. It’s generally graphic and flooded with light, but there’s nothing at all Juergen Teller about it. How would you describe your style? 

I feel like my style recently is an attempt to replicate my work shot on film. I remember talking with a friend and she was surprised that I hadn’t been shooting on film lately. I was so proud that I was able to trick someone! But yeah, I’m a huge fan of color and bright, soft light. I want my portraits to look as natural as possible and not retouched.

How do you light your subjects out in the field? 

I’m a big fan of a using a flash outside. I love the texture and quality of light that comes with it. The flash can add a strangeness to a photo that I’ve been really into lately. So I usually light my subjects with a speed light in addition to whatever natural light is happening. 

What are the most used cameras in your kit? 

My most used camera right now is my Canon 5D Mark 2. Though I’ve been eyeing my Hassleblad lately as well! I just found a stock pile of 120 film at my parents fridge and I can’t wait to use it for something special. 

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You could take anyone’s portrait, at any time in their life. Who would it be? 

It was a really tricky decision between Kate Bush and Paul McCartney but I think Paul wins. I would love to take his photo right after the release of Ram! Though some hero-worship might be involved. 

Who would you consider an influence upon your style? 

My friends at SVA have been a huge influence on my style. Also I’ve been really digging the work of Mark Peckmezian and Eva O’Leary lately. Their portrait work is fantastic!

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What’s your connection to Martha’s Vineyard? 

My parents moved my family from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard when I was little so I grew up there but I was never an “islander” just a “wash-a-shore” (people are very protective of their heritage there)! It’s such a beautiful place with so much strange history including the filming of Jaws and the Kennedy presence. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to grow up there though as a teenager it seemed like the worst place in the world. We use to call it the Rock. 

What are you work on at the moment? 

I’ve been working on a couple little things. I’ve been in the research stage for this one project focusing on the Chappaquiddick Incident (involving Ted Kennedy’s car accident) for the past 2 years and I need to start shooting it! I’ll also be heading to Newport, Rhode Island again in a few months for the Monster Shark Tournament. I’m trying to get on a boat with one of the teams this year and I’m really looking forward to that!