Small Worlds Possible

An Interview with Maggie Taylor

By Maggie Taylor, Paul Schranz Back to

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Maggie Taylor is a digital artist who lives amid the moss and live oaks at the edge of a small swamp on the outskirts of Gainesville, FL. She explains that most of her childhood in Cleveland, OH, was spent watching countless hours of television. She received a philosophy degree from Yale University and later an MFA in photography from the University of Florida. Luckily, advances in computer science have enabled Maggie to move beyond making strange little color still-life images with a camera and film, she says. Now her digital composites of scans, drawings and photographs are exhibited around the world.

As a longtime admirer of the work of Maggie Taylor, I’m continually fascinated by the worlds she creates inside the frames of her photographic assemblages. I recently had the opportunity to ask her about her visions that I find both magical and more than a little bit eerie.

PS: Your images are narratives for the viewer. What are the sources of the narratives−literary allusions, history, your own imagination, or all of these?

MT: A little bit of everything is blended into the narratives. Sometimes there are autobiographical elements, such as things I recall from childhood. Sometimes there are bits and pieces of stories from the news−I often have TV on in the background while I am working. There are also references to art history, literature, philosophy and the history of photography. But the most important aspect to the narratives is that they are open to the viewer’s interpretation.

PS: Is it your intent that the allusions are simultaneously historical and futuristic?

MT: Since many of the things that I use are old (the 19th-century photographs and other found objects), I like the idea of also infusing the images with something a little contemporary as a kind of counterpoint. So, yes, I would say that I like to have an amalgamation of time periods.

PS: Are they symbolic – metaphoric – personal or universal?

MT: To me they are symbolic, but in a very open-ended way that allows the creative imagination of the viewer to play a role. When I have a particular personal connection to an image, I tend not to let people know about that, as I would rather allow everyone else’s stories to filter into the work.

Maggie Taylor, photo technique, photo mag
Oh, Happy Day!

PS: To what extent are you influenced by works of other artists? (René Magritte and Jerry Uelsmann obviously come to mind.)

MT: I love looking at art, especially Surrealist painting, but I try to keep a little distance and not create images that are intentionally too close to an existing work. Since I am married to Jerry, I see his work all the time and it has the strongest in- fluence on me. There are all kinds of ways in which we interact with our images and ideas−he works in the darkroom and I am in my digital studio, but we are the first people to see and comment on each other’s work. If there is a new image that uses something I find intriguing, I might try to incorporate it into my work. For example, a few years ago he made some nice miniature ladders out of twigs and I scanned them.

PS: Is lost childhood an intentional theme, or just one I perceive as a viewer? Are there other themes you intentionally work with?

MT: It’s not a primary theme for me, but that does not mean it isn’t somehow reflected in certain images. The images of the Victorian children do have a kind of forlorn quality at times. Sometimes they also look a bit defiant to me. The length of the exposure in the photographer’s studio in most cases created the need for a rather somber and still expression on the subject’s face…they have a kind of haunting stillness to them. With the exception of my Almost Alice series of images illustrating Alice in Wonderland, I use more adults than children in my work overall.

PS: To what extent are your portraits intentionally dark, romantic or feminine, or are these misinterpretations?

MT: If the images have a feminine quality, it is just because of who I am and my outlook on the world and my life experiences. They are probably feminine in the same way that a Victorian photocollage album made by a woman in the 1880s reflects on her circumstances and outlook. They are all definitely quirky, and I like to balance a darker feeling with a touch of humor whenever possible.

Maggie taylor, photo technique, photo mag
Small Possible Worlds

PS: Can you speak to your concept development−the process you go through? I imagine once the concept is more cognitive, you have some “ritual” for selecting the parts of the assemblage. And how do you select your color palette, which I feel also suggests the surreal?

MT: In the first phase of working on a new image, I usually just begin with an old photograph or object that I have scanned and need to retouch. After a period of hours or days spent refining and retouching, I am ready to move on to trying different elements within the composition.This can be done easily by adding other objects I have scanned, as well as digital snapshots that I keep from various trips. I do not really know what the finished image is going to look like, and I like to keep an open mind. Many times things have happened by accident−turning on and off some layers or changing the blend mode of a layer might create an interesting visual cue that leads me to try something else. Once I reach a point where

I know that I want to keep certain elements in the image, it becomes a matter of editing, refining and playing with the tone and colors. The color is often the last thing that I spend time adjusting, even as I am making proofs of the image and seeing how it looks on paper. There are usually several color variations of an image before I make a final decision.

PS: Can you comment about elements that directed the creation of some of the images in this portfolio?

MT: The Pretender (On the Cover) was directly influenced by an image that my husband, Jerry Uelsmann, made after a trip to Venice. His photograph of the same canal caught my attention because I loved the way the water reflections looked, and I remembered that I had taken a photograph with my point-and-shoot camera at the same place and time. So, I tried several different people in the stage-like setting that I created, and decided that this girl was my favorite. She has a sort of defiant attitude, I think.

In Small Possible Worlds, the original daguerreotype of this girl is a very wonderful image with a small globe on the table next to her. However, when I scanned it I found that the globe was not as sharply in focus as I would have liked, so I set about building my own globe. One morning I woke up with an idea of buildings covering a globe, so I spent quite a lot of time creating it. The wind character on the upper right corner is from an antique map showing the good and bad wind directions.

After visiting Lacock Abbey in England (the home of one of the inventors of the photographic process, William Henry Fox Talbot) Jerry and I both made several images paying homage to the history of photography. Oh, Happy Day! is an image incorporating a tree that I photographed near Talbot’s home. It is also a direct reference to an earlier image of Jerry’s of a floating tree in Colorado he made in the 1960s. I am not sure if people are going into the hole or if they have just come out…

PS: Finally, do you have an elaborate storage system for the elements available for inclusion in an assemblage?

MT: Not really…I only use Photoshop and its Bridge, not Lightroom at this point. I often shoot new images for current works and keep them in folders on my desktop, but I don’t have a large series of libraries with digital image storage. The storage that I do have fairly well organized is a library of objects for scanning. They are kept in large flat drawers and plastic bins, for example shells, butterfly wings, pieces of rusted metal or fabric. Because the scanning technology is periodically upgraded, I prefer to scan the objects when I need them, not ahead of time.

Product Resources: Camera: Canon Elph SD 1400; Computer: Mac Pro; Scanner: Epson V 750; Printer: Epson 9880, 7800; Paper: Canson Infinity Rag Photographique; Other: Wacom Tablet.

Lightning Strikes Twice

About the Authors

Maggie Taylor
MTaylor
Maggie Taylor’s work is featured in: Adobe Photoshop Master Class: Maggie Taylor’s Landscape of Dreams, (Peachpit Press, Berkeley, 2005); Solutions Beginning with A, (Modernbook Editions, Palo Alto, 2007); and in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, (Modernbook Editions, Palo Alto, 2008). Her photographs are in the collections of The Art Museum, Princeton University; The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; The Cleveland Museum of Art; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; and The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.
Paul Schranz
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Paul Schranz is a photographer and a photographic educator. He holds a BFA in photography from Ohio University, Athens, OH and an MFA in photography from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL. He is Professor of Art Emeritus, Governors State University, University Park, IL, where he taught photography and digital imaging. He exhibits nationally and has received grants for documentary projects from the Illinois Arts Council. He is the former Editor of photo technique and Director of Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops. Schranz is currently a faculty member at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM, where he teaches advanced digital imaging, photographic composition, digital printing, image enhancement and manipulation.