Q & A with Photographer Major Deegan

In the first post in our new “Creators” series of profiles and interviews, Global Graphica producer Van Corsa speaks with Major Deegan, a.k.a., “Seymour Templar,” a.k.a., New York City-based Belgian photographer Daniel Puissant …

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How would describe yourself?

I’m an artist and I utilize any kind of medium to express what needs to be expressed. It’s beyond my control. It just happens without my knowing. When you create something, you are aware it was a creative act, but I don’t set out to contrive the creative act itself.

Some people think of you strictly as a street photographer, but there’s a lot more to what you do that just taking a picture, yeah?

I communicate. That’s the core of what I do. I’m not good with words, so I fall into using other means to communicate. At the moment, the means is pictorial and based on reality, so to speak.I would not call what I do “street photography,” per se, but I would call it portraiture. Because what I do is more about representing an interaction with things that are dear to me. It can be a person on the street or my friends or my cats in the backyard.

So what is “street photography”?

If I were making a documentary on street thugs and documenting their life and situations, then it would be purely street photography. Then it would be in its own context. But I don’t focus on stuff on the street itself. When I travel, it’s really hard to do street photos in cities I don’t know. I have to love someplace, have an existing relationship with the place, to be able to capture these things, people on the street and so on.

Explain how this happens?

It’s the moment when the subject recognizes me and pulls me in. I don’t set out to discover these things. They discover me. I’m just “good enough” and consistent enough with my camera that I can receive these moments. They are like presents. I’m attracted to people who stick out. People who are affirming their existence in interesting ways.

How did you start?

I started realizing how important it was to me to simply become better at taking pictures and really, really devoted myself to using photography as my own language, a distinct style that is recognizable. I was interested in the existence of photography as a language only very recently, in the last three years or so.

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I always see you with a big camera everywhere, even while sitting down to an after-hours dinner in a Chinatown restaurant at 2:00 am. It’s like the camera is permanently attached to your hand. I imagine you sleep with it next you. Do you ever just take a break and put the camera away for a while? Sometimes when I’m exhausted mentally, I leave my camera at home. Mostly it was feedback I would receive on Flickr by other photographers. When I started getting approached by magazines and getting positive feedback, I became conscious of this talent and that I should take care of it, be true to it. It kind of took on a life of its own.I was just “paparrazzied” on the street last week. I noticed this guy taking pictures of me. Since he was doing what I kind of do, I recognized what he was doing and I approached him and said “I know what you do.” And he said, “I know, I know who you are — you’re Major Deegan!” It’s happened pretty frequently.

A lot of people must know you from the Hello Kitty picture, the one where the cops are arresting the person in the Hello Kitty costume in Times Square.

Yeah, I’m kind of famous for that picture. It’s been published everywhere, by everyone.

Describe how you got that picture?

As a kind of mental cleansing thing at lunchtime, I liked to walk around for like 20 minutes and take photos. It’s a mental release from work when I go out to get my lunch. The Hello Kitty photo was one of those moments that even when I take the photo I can see that it will be a great photo. It’s so full of cliches and it was easy to pass around. It was an instant internet meme. It’s far from being my favorite shot and it was kind of an easy picture. It’s like a total  Family Guy kind of moment: Hello Kitty getting arrested by the NYPD.

By the way, why was she getting arrested?

She was getting arrested because she was performing and didn’t have a permit for Times Square. The person inside the costume was an older  Chinese lady who wears these costumes and poses for tourist photos and then asks for money. There are people doing this in Times Square with all the Warner and Disney characters.

Tell us about photographers you like.

If there’s one photographer I really admire it’s Saul Leiter.  His work is instantly recognizable. but it’s also the kind of photo that my mother would say, “I can take a photo like that.” But, no, it’s a photo that requires a very special talent. The beauty and simplicity of his work is overwhelming and that’s difficult to achieve and make look effortless.

A few times I’ve been out with you in New York City and you’ve come close to being attacked by people who are upset with you taking pictures. Do you provoke people or are just a magnet for trouble? What’s up with that?

Hehehe, it’s very rare that I get into a fight with people and when that happens I back off easily if they don’t want their picture taken. One time I was trying to take a picture of someone drinking outside, in front of a small Mexican ceviche place in the Lower East Side, and the owner of the restaurant said “No!” so we got into an argument. We were about to get physical, but he backed off when his friends calmed him down. We started talking and joined them for a drink and quickly became friends and ended up at a Chinese restaurant hanging out and drinking until like 3:00 am. Sometimes people say “No,” but there’s a “Yes” deep inside them. I not interested in antagonizing  people.

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(Above: “Juicy,” self-portrait by Major Deegan, 2010. Copyright Daniel Puissant Photo. All rights reserved.)

Tell us about some of your favorite photos you’ve taken.

The most recent photo I’ve taken is always my favorite. In general I have two types of photos: There are ones that very popular and some that are not popular at all. It’s these “unpopular” ones that I like because they’re more complex and subtle.

More complex and subtle?

They are more like a paintings. I like their composition and the interaction of the different layers and their tranquility and are open to a lot of interpretations. But it’s almost easy to miss because it looks like an accident and it includes me, which is something I like. I like to be included like an actor in a scene and it’s a very NYC thing in a subtle way. Complex yet simple.What people like most is stuff like this image of the Hasidic Jew hitting on the hot blonde on the street. If you don’t have a powerful photo, it’s hard for people to slow down and take in what they’re looking at.

 

Let’s step away from photography for a sec and talk about your tattoo, because for me it says a lot about your character. It’s a picture of a cartoon bear wearing an eye patch and a crown. It’s f***ing brilliant. I got the tattoo at  Mishka’s first anniversary event in New York. As a party favor they hired a few tattoo artists and gave tattoos for $3.50  because 350 is the address of the store on Broadway. So you could chose from a dozen images and I picked that one. The bear the crown, the eye patch. It’s very Belgian, almost like Magritte. It’s so obviously ridiculous, but it respects the act of getting the tattoo and contradicting the thing at the same time and that’s terribly Belgian.

Tell us more about “Belgianness.” You seem really aware of it, perhaps, being an expat makes one more aware of their cultural identity, their foreignness.

I didn’t really know. It’s not really discernible. Ensor, Magritte and so on. It’s familiar and yet foreign and there’s something that irks a person to ask the question “Is this normal?” So I come from a world and that’s specifically Belgian. Parisians and the Dutch are similar but different. There’s an expression: “The fact of being Belgian” or “belgitude.” It means being conscious of having great qualities and not owning up them. It’s a self-deprecating thing. It’s about everything being a little bit surreal. Belgians are a surreal people. Belgium is an invention that doesn’t make sense. It’s been invented out of bits of Western Europe that nobody else wanted. France and Holland didn’t want it but they needed a buffer between the two countries. That’s Belgium. And that kind of explains everything. There’s this deep-rooted feeling that among European countries, we’re not worth much. But the food in Belgium is better than French food. The wines admittedly are not. King Leopold I once famously said, “Small country, small minded people.” Some people think of Belgium that way. It’s one of those things that is totally untrue, and yet totally true at the same time.

See more of Major Deegan’s work on his website: www.seymourtemplar.com