Damien Maloney had no intention of becoming a photographer. After graduating from Arizona State, he had planned to go to law school. He wore a suit and tie five days a week. He was on a sure path to settling into that life. Then, Damien Maloney photography happened. While working as a photo editor at his college newspaper, he got hooked taking portraits.
So instead of entering law school, he moved to San Francisco and began assisting other photographers, while working on his studio work. And he hasn’t looked back since. Maloney has been featured by Wired, Businessweek, The Wall Street Journal, Billboard, San Francisco Magazine, and Slate, among others.
We spoke over email about Damien Maloney photography, his friends, and his great eye for color.
Your eye for color is unbelievable. How did Damien Maloney photography start? How would you describe your work?
First off, thanks! I grew up in Phoenix, AZ and was in my second year at Arizona State and applied to work at the college newspaper as a photographer on a whim. My “portfolio” was like six photos I’d taken of my girlfriend at the time. It was really bad. They hired me, though, and I went on to be the photo editor for a whole year after. I had no foundation in photography, or anything visual, and essentially just eagerly shot all these assignments, everything from football to portraits of professors to camping with the ROTC kids on the Mexican border. I took a lot of bad photos but I learned a lot. I spent a lot of time on APAD (A Photo A Day), a photojournalism-critique Google email list. I didn’t have anyone I looked up to who was making good work in Arizona, so I found my people on the internet. I then moved to San Francisco and started assisting commercial and editorial photographers and started shooting in the studio a lot and shifted my interests from photojournalism to making portraits and still lives.
Have you ever been unsure of your talents? Have you ever felt like giving up?
To be honest, I’m usually unsure of my talents, but I got into picture taking as something fun that was just for me, like as a hobby, and I just kept getting caught up in it and coming back to it and refining what I was doing and educating myself, so there was never a pressure to make anything of it. When I finished college I had no intention of making a career of it — my plan was to go to law school. I interned at the Arizona capitol just before I graduated when the controversial immigration legislation was being pushed through. I wore a suit and tie five days a week, and I would beg the analyst I worked under to let me run outside and get some photos of the protests to sell to the local paper.
What was your first — very first — childhood memory? Do you think this visual memory and its emotional pull might have influenced your work?
I’m not sure of what memory I had first, but I remember a lot about moving to Arizona. My family moved to Phoenix from Texas when I was 3 years old, and I have a lot of memories from that house. I impulsively threw a handful of rocks at our neighbor’s car as he drove down the street, I tried to ride the pool vacuum and almost drowned. My mom left me in the kitchen with a tarantula until my dad came home from work.
Has photography affected your day-to-day life? For example, has it forced you into routines you didn’t have before? Like cleaning a lens before bed? Or editing a self-portrait every Tuesday, etc.?
Definitely. Nothing as specific as your examples, but I think working with film, especially with 4×5 has made me simultaneously paranoid and meticulous, which has extended to most areas of my life, which I do enjoy and find very helpful. If I’m editing or scanning a lot or I’m at my desk for a while, I absolutely take a break at some point to exercise, only to let my mind disengage. It’s always been hard for me to justify pulling over the car or asking someone to stop so that I can take a picture of something, so I’ve instead been stopping to regard anything that makes me look twice. That way there is no pressure to actually make a picture of it but it allows me to just stop and consider it. There’s also something really nice about making a point to simply look at something, a purely aesthetic pleasure. It’s a very freeing idea for me.
How do you know Nathanael Turner? I found your work, as well as Amy Lombard’s and Emily Berl’s, on his website. I can’t lie — I would love it if you all were best of friends, talking photography and art and love around a formica table whenever you all had the time. Please tell me that everybody knows everybody and you all have started another Les XX. Do you have a friend or mentor who has inspired you as nobody else could? Whom do you go to for advice or helpful criticism?
I know Nathanael foremost from the internet but directly via our mutual friend and outstanding person and photographer, Graham Walzer. I helped him on a shoot he had in San Francisco, and we just hung out for a couple days in LA. He’s one of those people who is obviously approaching things in a really different way, and I’m really excited to see all the new work he’s been making. I’ve never met Amy, and I just recently met Emily briefly, but we are internet friends, and I like their work!
Molly Matalon has quickly become my closest friend, mentor, collaborator, and biggest inspiration. She’s an encyclopedia for photography and has helped me to contextualize my work and approach it more intellectually.
Amy Harrity and I worked at this depressing event photography studio like three years ago. I’m very proud of her. We’ve been conspiring on how to get paid to make pictures for a while now.
This one is really great. Could you explain how you made it from start to finish? I love the lighting and the pose.
Some friends were having a photo meet-up thing at their art warehouse, living space in Oakland, where there were a bunch of people that like taking pictures and people that like being in pictures and some snacks and stuff. People were setting up lights and such in different rooms and making pictures. I didn’t have anything specific I wanted to do, so I just hung out with everyone and took some photos of whatever was already set up. Stealing other people’s photos essentially. So I just put some blue on my camera flash and the rest of it was already there.
This photo was the first one I saw from you. It’s great. Again, your colors. What inspired this photo?
Just one day remembering bubble gum tape and thinking — what’s that about? — and wanting to put it into a tape dispenser. I had these colored surfaces and was shooting objects on them. I remember buying the 2-packs of the gum and 2-packs of the tape at Walgreen’s and the cashier asking me if it was a joke. I guess it’s about nostalgia. I was at a flea market recently and saw an old beat-up Sega Genesis on this table in the sun surrounded by other junk. I got excited for a second because I had a Genesis as a kid, and then had this fantasy about going to a flea market and seeing something familiar, then slowly realizing that all of the items on some old folding card-table next to some guy’s shitty car are your possessions from childhood. I like to think this idea is the unconscious allure of something like a flea market.
I should have been asking photographers these questions from the beginning, but it’s good time to start: Could you describe beauty to us? What does beauty feel like to you? How do you react to it? I’m allergic to it, for example. My nose gets runny. My eyes get red. I start crying like a drunk fool.
Hmmmm. I think I tend to see beauty as an ingredient that relies on some other elements. Of course, I’ll take a picture of a beautiful sunset or someone beautiful and sometimes it works, but I don’t think its strong enough on it’s own most of the time. I’ve only begun to have emotional reactions to stimulus, like tearing up at movies. I think this is the result of allowing myself to be more vulnerable and expanding my capacity for empathy. I’ve called it becoming more human, but it hasn’t happened yet when I’m out in the world, that will be a beautiful day.
Can you point me to a photograph that you find beautiful, whether you’ve shot it or not, that you think most other people wouldn’t?