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Interview with Maggie Taylor

photo-eye Gallery Interview with Maggie Taylor Gallery Director Anne Kelly interviews Maggie Taylor about her process, inspiriations, and how she got started with photography.

The same story, 2015 – © Maggie Taylor

Right now, I have a wonderful view from my desk: a crow and a rabbit that appear to be in a symbiotic relationship on one side and a flying elephant on the other. These fantastic images come from the brilliant, creative mind of Maggie Taylor and are included in our current exhibition A tale begun in other days

Maggie’s images transport us from everyday life and into a world where anything is possible. Her images are playful, intelligent and sometimes a bit dark and masterfully constructed utilizing scanned imagery from her personal collection including everything from plants to antique photographs.

As a long time admirer of Maggie’s work I am thrilled to have an exhibition of her work at photo-eye. The more time that I got to spend with the prints and the more insight that I have collected has greatly expanded my appreciation and admiration for Maggie Taylor, a woman who's reimagined photography. I hope you enjoy some of our conversation.
—Anne Kelly, Gallery Director

Cloud caster, 2013 – © Maggie Talyor

Anne Kelly:     When did you start making photographs? What were your inspirations?

Maggie Taylor:     In 1976 I got a Kodak Bicentennial Pocket Instamatic. It came with some cool red white and blue stickers. I used it to photograph my hamsters, Leonard and Seymour, posing on a variety of silk scarves and books.

In 1981 at Yale I signed up for a photography class, thinking that it would be a nice break from reading a lot of books. I borrowed a camera from my father and wandered around New Haven photographing houses and yards. Once in a while, I photographed people but I was not very good at it.

This is a portrait I made of my family at that time:

The Taylors –© Maggie Taylor
The two people who convinced me to sign up for the photo class were Jeff Rosenheim and George Slade.  They also suggested I take a history of photography class, and later my teachers Ben Lifson and Todd Papageorge helped me get an internship working at Daniel Wolf Gallery in New York for a summer.  Jeff, George, and I also got permission to take a Rosalind Krauss grad student seminar. From that point on, I knew I wanted to continue as a photographer and needed to get an MFA.  So I went to the University of Florida where I met Jerry Uelsmann and Evon Streetman—I ended up not continuing with a documentary or straight vision of photography after that.

Arranging objects that I collected (some since childhood) in front of a 4x5 view camera became my preferred way of working for over 10 years.  Often I incorporated bits of text, either hand-written or torn out of books, to conjure up a story.  If I found something in the garden or on the street that was visually interesting to me, it ended up in an image.  I printed the work myself, in the color darkroom I shared with Jerry Uelsmann.  We were married for 25 years and he was a big influence on the post-visualized way I often worked as well as my disciplined studio habits.

More Than This – © Maggie Taylor
Although Jerry stayed with the darkroom and did not migrate to digital techniques, I found that the computer was a much more natural way for me to work.  I think I always wanted a desk job.

AK:     You have been making photomontages for about 20 years now; what is your process like and how has it changed over time?

MT:     Even with version 2 of Photoshop back in 1996 and 1997, I was piecing together images from different scanned elements. I did not have a decent digital camera back then, so I used the scanner to capture whatever interested me: dolls, flowers, pieces of metal, goldfish. The techniques I used were much more basic at that time and I was not as careful with shading objects or blending layers. As the software has grown and become more sophisticated, my working practices have also evolved. I still spend a long time on each image—sometimes weeks or even a month.

I start with a scan or photograph that I want to work with: maybe something I bought recently at an antique fair or shop. Then I try many different foregrounds and backgrounds with it, searching for a solution that feels interesting to me. Over the course of a week or more, I usually come to some resolution of what the image might end up being, but often I have to backtrack, reworking large portions of the image to get the look that I want.

First the fish must be caught, 2017 – © Maggie Taylor

AK:     Prior to receiving your MFA from the University of Florida you earned a degree in Philosophy from Yale. Do you think your interest in philosophy influences your art making? 

MT:     It kind of influences everything in my life in one way or another, making me ask questions or doubt something (and sit and stare into space sometimes.)  It’s a sort of meditation I suppose. It also taught me to read very carefully and critically.

AK:     You have a wonderful collection of “things” that you use to compose your images with.   Is it important for you to have the object that you scan and not simply download a high resolution file?

MT:     I use 19th-century photographs a lot in my work and it is important to me that I have the originals here in my studio. I prefer to spend time with images that have an emotional connection to me or that anchor me at some point in time in my life— perhaps something I bought on a particularly fine day at a flea market. If I take anything from the internet it is just a very small element, sometimes used as a template for the shape of an object over which I add other textures and colors.  I know people who make fabulous images with files from the internet, but it just does not have an emotional appeal for me.

In the past two years ago I got remarried and moved to a new house. This involved packing up my studio which ranged over an entire ranch house. I jettisoned a lot of debris, memorabilia, and whatnots. It felt liberating to have only digital versions of some things that I had kept around for many years in untouched boxes. The process of downsizing and sorting has brought a number of things to the foreground in my computer—resurfacing and inspiring me.

Teetotum, 2017 – © Maggie Taylor

AK:  Why did you choose to work in a square format?

MT:     Why not?  I suppose in the beginning it was a reaction to the amount of real estate left on my computer screen when all the palettes I wanted to use were visible. Now I feel so used to it that any other rectangle looks wrong for my work.

AK:     How long do you spend making each image, and how many images do you usually complete in one year?

MT:     Normally each image goes through a week or so of initial retouching and auditioning (the part where I try different things with it, in front of it or behind it.)  Often at that point, I am not happy with it and feel that I will never make anything good again in my life. If I am lucky something clicks and I choose a direction and work more earnestly on finishing the image for another week or so. At that point, I make a series of proof prints which cause me to renegotiate the image and improve its color and tonal range. After 3 or 4 more days I am usually done. If I can hardly tell from one proof print to the next what I was changing, I know I am done. When I am done, I am done. I do not go back to work on the same image again. Some years I make 10-14 images. Lately, I have been more productive because I am trying to finish my Through the Looking Glass project.

What remains?, 2016 – © Maggie Taylor

AK:     As I understand it you don’t work from a sketch book, meaning that when you start an image you don’t know exactly where it will take you, and it seems like you embrace the “happy accident” philosophy even though your process is very controlled.  Can you touch on this aspect of your process?

MT:     Anytime I have tried to start a from a sketch, the image ends up fighting back too much.  I like to leave room for little ideas that surface while I work away on retouching an image. All of my work is autobiographical to me in some way: they are images that grow out of my life at the moment. They reflect on my current state of mind as well as what I read or watch or hear. When you work on an image for weeks, it is hard to stick to an initial plan.

I like to run, and sometimes lately when running I have really clear ideas about the direction of an image. I get right back to work after my run and see what can happen. But I do not force the image to be exactly what I thought. Turning off and on layers in Photoshop can allow strange things to happen once in a while: and so many times this introduces a new direction or mood to the image.

AK:     Many of your images depict humans interacting with animals – or animals behaving like people.  What is that about for you?

MT:     Telling stories, engaging our dreaming selves, realizing that we are all animals…figuring out what we are doing on this planet.

No Ordinary Days, Maggie Taylor,  2013, 120 illustrations
A tale begun in other days is on view at photo-eye Gallery through September 9th, 2017.

For more information, and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Staff at 505.988.5152 x 202 or

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