Maggie West

by Bonnie Foster

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"I feel like inspiration can come from anywhere."
Los Angeles-based photographer Maggie West doesn’t shy away from intimacy; she gets right up close with a macro lens.  In an evocative world of dramatic lighting and detail, Ms. West explores bodily fluids, kissing, sexuality and gender identity.  Her most recent book, Kiss, lends a rare look into that sensual moment with a surreal moodiness that is almost as transcendent as a real live smooch.

 Flaunt caught up with West to talk about inspiration, lighting techniques, her relationship with former porn star/novelist Christopher Zeischegg (aka Danny Wylde), and what drives her otherworldly aesthetic. 

 Tell us about your process as an artist, where does your inspiration and drive come from?  

I feel like inspiration can come from anywhere. The smallest moment can set a chain of thoughts in motion that can affect your work for years to come.  

For me, I think my drive comes from being passionate about the artform. I genuinely love taking photos.  Experimenting with different lighting techniques and subjects is endlessly fascinating to me.  

What is the idea behind your book, Kiss?  

With Kiss, I wanted to combine combined elaborate, contrived lighting with spontaneous, genuine human emotions. Because kissing is such a physical act,  whatever feelings of nervousness and/or self-consciousness the models had going into the shoot faded away after a few minutes and I was able to capture some really beautiful, intimate moments.

How do you go about choosing your subjects?

For Kiss, I was lucky enough to have 20 friends that were willing to make out with someone in front of me. Each person brought a significant other or friend to set to make out with. It was really interesting examining the dynamic between each pair of people.  Some couples were in a long term relationship, others were longtime friends and some people were virtual strangers. I shot Fluid with my boyfriend, former porn star/novelist Christopher Zeischegg (aka Danny Wylde). Chris is one of the most complex, fascinating individuals I have ever met.  Both his book and his essays about his experience in the porn industry are extremely insightful and emotionally resonant.  He is endlessly creative and completely unafraid of pushing traditional artistic boundaries. I am extremely lucky to have him in my life.

What made you create a series based upon bodily fluids?

The fluids depicted in the series (blood, saliva and semen) are an essential part of both our biological makeup and the procreation process. They simultaneously have the power to transmit deadly diseases and create new life. With Fluid, I wanted to examine the inherent beauty of each substance. To photograph the series, Chris and I took turns producing a sample of each fluid on a glass plate.  Each sample was illuminated from by a series of colored lights and shot with a macro lens.

 What do you hope to communicate in your work?

 While the thesis for each project is different, I hope that each series gives the viewer some sort of new perspective or insight on the subject matter.

How has your work evolved over time?

I have always been drawn to surreal imagery.  In college, I worked as a photographer but had no interest in pursuing it as a career.  I was much more interested in painting and illustration and viewed photography as more of a form of documentation. Discovering the work of photographers like David LaChapelle, Tim Walker and Nick Knight gave me a whole new perspective on photography.  I began to view a photo as something that could be fabricated into a surreal fantasy much in the same way as an illustration. Today, I am still very much drawn to surrealism.  I use intricate lighting and vibrant colors to give everything kind of a sensual, dreamlike aesthetic. However, I am now interested in combining this aesthetic with elements of documentation (physical responses to kissing, bodily fluids under a macro lens) to produce work that is simultaneously artistically contrived and emotionally genuine.

 You have a very specific aesthetic in terms of lighting.  How did you arrive at this look?

 Trial and error (laughs). In all honesty, I think my interest in colored lighting began after I discovered Giallo films like Dario Agento’s Suspiria and Inferno.  The use of color into the films gave everything a surreal, otherworldy look that I found fascinating. After that, I just began experimenting with various lighting techniques until I found something that worked for each project.  The equipment and methods I use varies a lot from shoot to shoot.  Kiss was shot using traditional strobes whereas Fluid was lit by some LEDs and a fiber optic lamp I bought in Chinatown.  

 Would you describe yourself as a political artist?  

I would not necessarily describe myself as a political artist. However, a lot of my recent work has to do with both gender and sexuality.  Kiss depicted gay and lesbian couples kissing alongside heterosexual ones.  My next book, 23, is a collection of nude portraits of both cisgender and transgender men and women of varying sexual orientations. I do not think the inclusion of the LGBTQ community is, in itself, a political statement.  I think if you are doing a project about intimacy, love or sexuality, it would be ridiculous to exclude anyone based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

What do you think of the current political climate in London?

 No comment.

 What are you working on at the moment?

I have a book coming out this fall called 23.  The book features transgender and cisgender individuals posing nude under a series of colorful lighting schemes. With 23, I wanted to explore the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality.  There have been many books of nude photography, but I wanted to do one that depicted gender and sexuality in a less binary way.  I am also working on a photo series about sleep and intimacy.

What is your definition of beauty?

I don’t think I have one.  I think our individual perception of beauty is constantly shifting based on our emotions and life experiences.  

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