Maggie Steber: Seeing Past the Veil, Part 1

Maggie Steber is an acclaimed documentary photographer who has been honored with numerous awards for her humanistic stories of people and cultures in crisis in 63 countries. Among many other subjects, she has produced a significant body of work on Haiti, including a book with Aperture entitled “DANCING ON FIRE: Photographs from Haiti.” Steber was Director of Photography at The Miami Herald for four years, has served as a judge on many grant and award panels and has been exhibited internationally in solo and group shows. An esteemed master teacher, she has taught internationally including three years at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Master Classes in Amsterdam, three years with the Foundry Photojournalism Workshops, at LOOK3 Photo Festival, Bursa Photo Festival in Turkey and at various workshops throughout the United States. Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress and held in many other private and public collections. Her world-class clients include National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker.

Here is the first part of the amazing story of her ongoing journey and her series entitled “Rite of Passage,” which is a heartfelt documentary on her mother’s memory loss that is currently on view as part of the “Presence and Absence” exhibition at the Leica Gallery New York.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Social documentary is a repeated theme in the greater percentage of my work, but I’ve also shot fashion. I’m currently working on a personal project I call the Dark Side that’s more conceptual. I’m rather ornery about how I describe my photography because I don’t like to be pinned down.

Q: Was there an experience or moment when you decided to pursue photography?

A: While in university, I became interested in photography when my roommate came home with prints from school assignments and described the magic that occurred in the darkroom. I switched my major from French to photography in the journalism department. I also had the great opportunity to study in the art department with Russell Lee of Farm Security Administration fame and with Garry Winogrand who taught me more than anyone about how to look at photographs.

When I applied for my first job at a small Texas daily paper, the managing editor told me the position would go to a male applicant. I talked him into giving me 24 hours to prove myself. I went out, found a story, photographed it, interviewed people, wrote the story, printed the pictures and returned to his office 24 hours later with a story of importance in the small town, ready for publication. He hired me on the spot. I never say die!

Q: Are there certain photographers or photography styles that inspire you?

A: Studying the history of photography, probably the single most important course I ever took, introduced me to all kinds of photographers and their work. I would say that the variety, invention and styles had a huge impact on me. I liked not doing one thing but trying many things and trying to even cross and mix styles.

Q: Who first introduced you to Leica cameras?

A: I became interested in Leica because of René Perez who introduced me to the cameras at the beginning of our relationship. The Leica M cameras are small, quiet and subtle and I loved carrying mine with me everywhere. I have continued throughout my career to use Leica alone as my 35 mm system and also continued to regard these little cameras as my partners in crime. I know these cameras have made me a better photographer.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use now?

A: Leicas, both digital and film, both SLRs and rangefinders. For digital applications, I have two M8 bodies and an R9 with the (discontinued) digital back. I have used Leicas since almost the very beginning largely because of how the lenses render color and because I think they are the very best for my needs. I recently had the opportunity to use the M9, and the S2 with the 35 mm and 120 mm and found them to be exceptional, especially the S2. I’m not one to wax on about equipment but that S2 is gorgeous!

Q: Does photography have a special meaning to you?

A: The meaning extends beyond the photograph, which is evidence of an experience, whether it’s mine or someone else’s or both of ours. But it’s the experience that is the most important thing, and photography is the vehicle for my having these experiences. I feel as though I am on a constant adventure, constantly challenged to explore, discover, uncover, share, be fresh, and to remain vulnerable since this is what I seek from my subjects. After so many years, I am still astounded by photography and what it reveals to us about every single thing that exists. And though it has changed the business in some difficult ways for all of us, I love the current democracy of everyone being a photographer. Our language began with visuals and it is even more important these days. That everyone can take photographs and post them for the world to see is absolutely profound. I am excited and inspired by this; at the same time I am, like most professionals, grappling with the impact it has on my business.

Q: Can you tell us about your current combined exhibit “Presence and Absence” with René Perez at the Leica Gallery New York? Why or how did you two decide to present your works together?

A: The show is up until June 1, 2013 at the Leica Gallery New York. I believe this was the idea of René in tandem with Jay and Rose Deutsch who run the gallery. I think the mix of work, my very personal project that is focused, shown alongside René’s 40 years of artistic work that has gone through many variations and periods, is a great mix — there’s something for everyone. For us personally, it represents a milestone, something very personal, a chance to stand together and look back over a very long and engaged friendship and how we both benefited from our relationship personally and professionally.

Q: Your part of the exhibit is entitled “Rite of Passage” and is a very personal work, correct? If someone hadn’t heard of this exhibit, how would you describe it?

A: “Rite of Passage” is a long-term project done over an eight or nine-year period as my mother set sail on the melancholic voyage of memory loss. This is not a new idea and many people have done photo projects on dementia, memory loss and their own families. So why go to see what could be a very sad story? Because it is also my story, a story of what I found as my mother Madje lost the very core of her being, and the great surprise ending that can be found in what might otherwise be an exhausting, heartbreaking journey. It is about having a last chance to love, a last chance to see who someone really is, not just through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. It’s very intimate and I made a little book with the same title using the most iconographic images. The Leica Gallery is selling signed and numbered limited edition books of the work or it can be ordered off the Blurb book website or directly from myself. It’s a limited edition of only 100 books to preserve the intimate nature of the work.

Q: What made you want to share this work with the world?

A: I never started out with the intention of sharing this work. I shot the photos to help get myself through this very sad turn in my mother’s life. As the only parent of an only child, my mother’s care fell into my lap, as I knew it would since I was a little girl. I used photography for several reasons; to get me through it but more important, to make new memories, even if it was of something sad, for the time when my mother was gone. In creating it I discovered two important things: that we can and should be warriors for our loved ones as they lose their memories, and that we should be their shipmates on this voyage, but also that there are various ways to do that without debilitating your finances and your life.

An even more important reason, as I expressed earlier, was that for the first time in my life, a rather contentious relationship as often occurs between strong-willed mothers and daughters, could be set aside or even forgotten. I became liberated from the memory of that. Curtains were pulled back, and I saw who Madje was, the real Madje, not as my mother, but as herself. I fell so very much in love with who she was, even as I lamented that I had not seen this before. At least it was not too late. We can participate in positive ways with our parents’ fading and discover this rather surprising aspect of the people who we were raised by, lived with, but perhaps never really saw or knew. I thought that was a powerful thing and decided it was important to use the work to encourage that participation in others.

Q: What does the title of the whole exhibition “Presence and Absence” mean to you?

A: The title really fits in with my segment “Rite of Passage.” My mother was present physically at the same time she was absent mentally. I was present in her life at the same time I was absent by being miles away. And I suppose we could even apply this to the very long relationship that René and I have shared — that we’ve been in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes present, sometimes absent, but somehow always surviving the challenges of remaining close friends and important artistic influences on each other.

Q: Is there anything specific you hope this exhibition achieves or showcases?

A: For me, the fact that we have this joint exhibition is already a very big deal; it is something I never imagined would or could happen. But I am particularly excited and happy that René has exhibited his wide array of talents that I always felt went largely unnoticed. I would like people to see who he is as an artist because he is very inventive and very talented.

Q: Is there anything you want the audience to take away once they see “Presence and Absence?”

A: In general, I would hope it would remind the viewers that photography is without prejudice, that it remains a vital, surprising and exciting medium no matter what one photographs or how we use it. It can liberate us and it can save us and that makes it powerful. As photographers we are simply the conduits, those who hold the camera. It is the people and places and things and experiences that are shown that are the true heroes in any photograph. Photography is heroic and accomplishes far more than we give it credit for.

Thank you for your time, Maggie!

- Leica Internet Team

 To watch a video about “Rite of Passage,” click here. Maggie’s work on Haiti can be found on The Audacity of Beauty website.