It’s rare that I have the opportunity to interview someone over a number of sessions. Usually my subjects are at the end of a telephone line or talking to me via Skype, so I count myself as fortunate to have been able to talk to American photographer Maggie Diaz over several face-to-face meetings because she’s one hell of a gal.
At the spritely age of 87, Maggie can still conjure the quick wit and wicked sense of humour of younger days. She may have put her camera down a decade ago and since then lost her left eye, but she misses little fixing you with her direct gaze. She doesn’t suffer fools lightly and watch out if you even think about treating her like an old lady. Even now she has an eye for the opposite sex, “I like men, I have a bit of a weakness,” she admits with a throaty chuckle.
Born in Kansas City in 1925, Maggie’s life, pre-photography, was colourful to say the least. In her late teens she travelled around the deep south of America as a performer with Harry Blackstone’s Magic Show, assisting the magician in all manner of tricks. When she got tired of being on the road she tried her hand as an illustrator before landing a job with an advertising photographer in Chicago who taught her how to process film. She quickly became proficient in the darkroom, a skill that in later years would see the likes of Wolfgang Sievers ask her to process his prints.
Of Sievers’s suggestion she says, “I knew Germans, from my neighborhood in New York (where she spent her childhood). They were great people, but oh boy, they were so particular about the way things had to be done. I didn’t want to be Sievers’s print assistant – I didn’t want to be anyone’s assistant – but I really admired his work, loved his photographs. He was a perfectionist”,
On The Streets
In the mid-1950s Maggie picked up a camera and took to the streets of Chicago, taking photographs of “…anything that was different… things that you don’t see in the newspaper. I always had my camera with me and I used to give the kids in my neighborhood milk and cookies in exchange for taking their photos. After a while they got used to me and would follow me calling, ‘Hey lady, you wanna take my photo?’ Being out on the street taking photos made me feel connected”.
One of her favourite memories of Chicago is taking photographs at the Tavern Club which was an upper class establishment on Michigan Avenue where artists and intellectuals rubbed shoulders with the city’s elite.
“I had such a good time photographing the club’s musicians in particular, like the Ramsey Lewis Trio. You know, they were so pleased with the photos and I was amazed as I never expected it.” The Tavern Club provided a rich source of characters, both performers and patrons, who feature prominently in her work from that period.
In 1961 Maggie travelled on the maiden voyage of the Canberra, arriving in Melbourne in the middle of winter. Her passage – a one-way ticket from her ex-husband, an Australian graphic designer she’d met in Chicago – was largely uneventful.
“Although I did all my money in Hawaii”, she confesses, leaving her with the paltry sum of five American dollars. My ex said I’d love Australia, but I didn’t think much of it when I arrived. In fact, I said to myself, ‘Jesus, what have I done?’ But 50 years later I’m still selling pictures, so what are you gonna do?”
The New York drawl hasn’t faded. “Melbourne has its own colour”, she agrees, but she wishes she had gone back to the USA at least once. “In some ways I feel like I’ve been stranded all my life,” she shrugs, resigned to the fact that returning home is no longer an option.
In Melbourne in the 1960s there were few professional photographers and Maggie’s previous experience earned her a variety of assignments for a host of clients as she turned her hand to everything from fashion and advertising to social documentary.
Radio 3AW became a major account and she shot outdoor broadcasts and portraits of the station’s DJs as well as visiting celebrities. She also shot for The Brotherhood of St Laurence, producing a series of photographs for its year book. This was a project not that dissimilar to the one she shot for the Chicago Housing Authority, documenting the families living in public housing around the Lower North Centre.
“I was good at talking to people, making them feel comfortable. I have a strong feeling for human beings, and for those on the outer,” she says of the poignant images she captured.
Favouring natural light, Maggie created a signature ‘look’ that is evident throughout her work which comprises a large number of portraits.
“Once you start to move light around…” she shakes her head. “A person’s got many faces… and flaws. I always attempted to capture that wonderful thing that makes one person different from another and using natural light helped me stay true to what I was seeing in that person.”
Walking into Melbourne’s photography scene armed with her portfolio, a decade of experience and an “attitude” didn’t endear her to her peers, the majority of which were men.