Stephen Mayes' partner Damon surveys Manhattan from the roof of their building, July 2010.
Pagetti senior races Stanmeyer junior at VII members' meeting, November 2010.
Medical selfie, January 2010.
VII members' meeting Massachusetts September 2011:
Joachim Ladefoged, Ron Haviv, Marcus Bleasdale, Ed Kashi.
A surreal moment at World Press Photo competition as
Mary Anne Golon leads the jury through the final rounds of judging in 2009.
A fish does not know water is wet. And so it is that at a certain point, we fail to consider the implications of the medium itself. We are surrounded by it so completely we take it as a given. Nothing to see here folks. It’s just photography.
I’d fallen into it, by way of a rabbit hole. And then it was so completely the norm that I didn’t realize how odd it was until a few weeks ago when someone outside the industry asked, “Do you take photographs?” to which I replied, “No. I make photography books, I write about photography.”
It struck me as odd how rarefied this sounds to the ear of someone who would not give a second thought to the construction of the photograph itself. Too obvious. Too ubiquitous. Like words themselves, we no longer consider their effect because their effect is too ingrained into the structure of the mind itself.
It was only recently that I began to reflect, that is to say, had the luxury of time and space to consider the implications, the causes and effects, the structure of the photograph and the world in which we live that I began to realize how many people around us are deeply involved in the medium. They travel different paths and along the way, they bring together a distinct style and approach to their journey.
Ever since he first saw a piece of paper slip into the developer tank in a darkroom and watched as a little world emerged upon a surface of silver gelatin, Stephen Mayes has been an aficionado of the photograph, loving it in all forms, genres, and mediums. He has worked as a business manager and creative director across all areas of photography: fashion, art, commercial and photojournalism, with postings in Europe, USA and Japan. Currently the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, Mayes has a distinctive blend of knowledge, experience, and insights that can only come from a career that has taken the scenic route.
Mayes observes: “Photography brings together all these different worlds: chemistry, business, technology, culture. There was always something new at every turn of the corner. I could never get bored. I could have an hour-long conversation with Jeff Koons about the color red. (Laughs). The telephone is not the ideal way to talk about images.”
Mayes remembers how it all began, that day back in the U.K. when he was just a young lad out of University. “I had decided that editors were sympathetic to young talent so I showed up in the office of the editor of the Oxford Star and he refused to see me. I sat in the lobby for two and a half days. I thought, ‘I’ve seen it in the movies; this is how it’s done.’ The editor eventually came out and he gave me an opportunity to shoot for the newspaper. I did this for a few years. I had a fast car and a telephoto lens. Working for the British press, I’d hide in hedges for a photograph of Princess Diana.
“Eventually I had to stop. I had to get out. I was assigned by the Mirror Group to find a clergyman in his home, living with his mistress. It was standard tabloid stuff. We knocked on the door of the vicarage (his wife had given us the address.). The clergyman opened the door and confirmed the story. He disclosed to us that the other woman was twenty years older than he was with an advanced case of muscular dystrophy and that he was caring for her. I thought the had story died. The journalist and I went to the pub. He filed his story about the vicar who could not stop the rumor, and printed the whole pack of lies for six inches of column space in a sleazy paper. I saw the guy’s life trashed, using my photograph to boot.
“I left the tabloids to become an editor at Rex Features, then the director of Network Photographers, a real photojournalism agency. I had finally found ethical fulfillment. One of the owners, Mike Goldwater, had pulled photographs from a story on Ethiopia when he saw a copy of the journalist’s text. He thought the words were a complete distortion of the story, and withdrew the rights while the magazine was on press!
“On the other side, we had a story on Margaret Thatcher. It was in the 90s, when she was at the peak of her career. It was a “24 hours behind the scenes” piece and the world went crazy for them. There was a lot of money on the table and we were struggling. To me, the story was propaganda. I called the owners to discuss it. One of the owners said, “What is propaganda today, tomorrow is evidence. I say we go!’ And that was that.
“I left Network Photographers to work at Tony Stone, a big stock agency with no relationship to photojournalism. I was offered the job of Group Creative Director Worldwide. It was a big deal, but I agonized. What did I care about stock photography? It was weird. So I did it. Photojournalism tells important stories but it most agencies lack business acumen. I decided to spend a year or two learning about the business.
“Tony Stone was Getty’s first acquisition. I was brought on to continue Mr. Stone’s role. It was an absolutely fabulous experience. Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty are inspiring. I came in as an ingénue and they taught me. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn with the best. I developed a huge respect for stock photography as a genre. It succinctly represents the concept of who we are in terms of ideas of gender, race, class, and age. It reflects and shapes the process of photography and culture.
“After Tony Stone, I went to work at Photonica, a Japanese stock agency that was an amazing brand. It is the only stock agency whose name became an adjective, and it was a phenomenon in the stock world. Photonica was adventurous and conceptual, and we produced stock with a truly distinctive style.
“After Photonica I went to Eyestorm for a year and a half, where I worked with an amazing roster of artists included Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Ed Ruscha. It was an attempt to democratize art by making editions of 100, of 500, with affordable prints. You could buy a Damien Hurst print for $1000. It was an incredible idea, but it went bankrupt.
“I went to Art + Commerce where I managed the archives of Steven Meisel, Steven Klein, and David La Chappelle. We represented the archives of Nan Goldin, Guy Bourdin, and Robert Mapplethorpe. When we first got the Bourdin archive it sat in a cardboard box in a Manhattan mini-storage. It was a snowstorm of imagery, and a very inspiring project. Art + Commerce had the ambition to bring art into the commercial world, and they did it with bells on. They are highly ethical, with a clear vision and a deep respect for the work. I stayed there for five years before going to Image Source for one year, then on to VII Photo.
“Being at VII was exciting. I was back in photojournalism again after a long absence. I spent five years with VII, and it was an amazing time. The photographers were wrestling with deep ethical issues during this time of change. They were so willing to engage in the conversation around change. They embraced it, openly and enthusiastically. They all wanted to know, ‘Where can we take this?’
“The punchline to all of this is that with each turn in my career, no one knew me from Adam. I had to start all over again. I had to prove myself. It was really challenging. The pay off is, I am used to change. If you have confidence in what you do and are good at it, you will make it work. Anything is possible. It’s all about imagination and what we can invent.”
Mayes reflects on where he stands today: “The biggest challenge now is one of discipline. Every day I can do something fun as opposed to useful. (Laughs). Being in that freefall transition is the most creative moment. It’s when anything is possible. It’s scary as hell, not knowing what this will lead to. I embrace it.”
As we all should, when traveling the scenic route. Stop and smell the roses, take it all in. And perhaps after we inhale and exhale the moment, we will take a photograph, all the better to remember what has come and gone. Like the Steve Miller Band sang, “Time keeps on slipping, slipping, into the future…”
Relaxing after a hard day's work with Art And Commerce, August 2004.
A common office scene at Art And Commerce, October 2006.
World Press Photo competition jury 2007:
Michelle McNally, Jena Francois Leroy, Diego Goldberg.