Maggie Steber - The Secret Life of Lily LaPalma
“I can’t wait to get home to my dead lizards in the freezer,” Maggie Steber tells me as we sit down to talk about this legendary photojournalist’s most personal body of work, The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, a fantasy world in which Steber’s artistic side is flourishing. I tell her I’m going to have to start my article with that quote. “Of course. That’s absolutely fine,” she laughs. But we’ll get to the dead lizards later.
Having spent more than three decades documenting some of humankind’s less than honourable moments, and witnessing more death and destruction than anyone’s psyche can bear, Steber is finding a new way to engage with photography and the results are exquisite.
In some ways Lily LaPalma has seen Steber reconnect with the type of photography she did as a child. “When I first started taking pictures I did this sort of work,” she explains. “I grew up as an only child and was brought up by my mother who was a scientist and very eccentric. We had a very lively, cultural life”.
(C) All images Maggie Steber
In her formative years she was drawn to the dark side of fantasy. Steber experimented making what she calls “very strange pictures. I loved science fiction, as well as pulp fiction and B-Grade horror movies. I loved to be scared to death sometimes as a kid,” she laughs.
As a student of photography her professor told her she’d never make a living out of her photographic art. Unable to imagine a life that didn't involve taking pictures and telling stories, she moved into documentary photography, becoming the first female picture editor for Associated Press in New York.
After several years behind the picture desk, and with the threat of being promoted to management, a career step Steber wasn't interested in, she threw in her job, left her boyfriend behind and headed to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) which was in the grips of a long guerrilla war.
In Rhodesia Steber sought out the back-story to the war, something she found far more interesting than the fighting itself, forging a narrative style that would come to define her documentary work. “All of these people who had built a life, who had established farms, who were the colonial rulers, they were fleeing and that was the story I wanted to cover. I stayed for two years until the ceasefire and then returned to the United States”.
Back home she started working as a photojournalist, but says it was “hard” and she found herself covering a lot of news stories, which she didn't enjoy. “You know the five hour stake-out to get a single shot. That was not for me”.
Steber decided she wanted to tell stories and began experimenting with long form photo essays. “I started working in Cuba quite a bit, on my own dime and time. I’d do portraits or whatever I had to do, to earn enough to go. Over time I built a big body of work, but it was terrible, and I never showed it,” she laughs at the memory. “But I learned how to do a long term project and to tell a story”.
After Cuba, Steber decided she was ready to try her hand at a long-term study. She thought about going back to Africa, which she really missed, but it was too far away. At the time she was freelancing for a French picture magazine and they commissioned her to go to Haiti. “I fell in love with Haiti. After 30 years I still work in Haiti doing various projects. That early work really put me on the map and that’s when things changed in my career and I used the Haiti work to get my foot in the door with National Geographic magazine.” A relationship that continues today.
Steber’s career has been a mixed bag, as is the case with most freelancers. She’s shot fashion and commercial work, often as a way to fund her documentary photography, but at the heart of everything she shoots is the desire to tell a story.
Which brings us to The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma, in which Steber’s skills as a master storyteller are clearly on display. But there is also a sense of playfulness here, as well as experimentation making the work fresh and engaging. “I’m reinventing myself as a photographer,” she says brightly.
Steber tells me that she was one of triplets, but the other two babies were stillborn. As an only child, but patently aware that there were meant to be two others, she gave her sisters names. One of them was Lily, who was dangerous and adventurous, dark and mysterious and it is this alter ego who Steber draws on for inspiration. “In Lily’s secret garden there are no rules, no boundaries and anything can happen.” Steber’s eyes sparkle with possibility as she warms to the story.
“Suddenly I had this place I could play and it didn't have to be real, or sad or happy or dangerous, it could be anything. It was somewhere that I could act out all of these things through Lily. The thing I love about the Garden is that I don't have to care if anybody likes it. You know as photographers we are always worrying about whether people like our work.”
After years of experimenting, and sharing some work on Instagram, her favourite social media platform, Steber is now bringing The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma out into the wider world. “Yes I am,” she says, her childhood Texan drawl suddenly noticeable. “But the Garden is not me, it is Lily. Sometimes it is fun to be bad and Lily is always killing people, so it’s pulp fiction, it’s fantasy”.
The pictures in the Garden are spontaneous, often found images that Steber works with later in Photoshop. She also uses Instagram filters and other apps. “I’ll be out and see something and just photograph it, which is a different way for me to work. Or I might be walking with friends and I’ll be like, oh can you lie down there for a moment, or could you run down that hall!” It’s clear she’s having a lot of fun and inviting viewers to use their own imagination in reading the work.
The Garden has not only provided a way for Steber to spread her artistic wings. Lily has also allowed her to exorcise some personal demons. “I’ve seen some terrible things in my life,” she says quietly acknowledging that many of the darker moments she has witnessed stay with her. We talk a little about art as therapy, and she agrees that in some ways playing in Lily’s Garden has been a release. “What I can say is I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long, long time. I’m gleeful in the Garden”.
And we're back to the lizards. “For the last few years I’ve been collecting dead lizards and freezing them.” We both burst into peals of laughter. “I live in Miami and I have a courtyard and these small lizards come in and I have cats and they are always catching them and killing them. I love them, they are like little dinosaurs, so I started saving them, wrapping them in foil and putting them in the freezer.” There’s more laughter and a caveat that she doesn't use the freezer for anything else. “It’s funny, when I was a little girl we had a freezer and my mother would bring home specimens from her lab, and she’d tell me not to eat anything out of the freezer. So I’m more like my mother than I’d care to admit!”.
Steber, who is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, is continuing her work on the Garden and the lizards will be its sentries. “They’ll keep the meanness, the criticism out. They are just beautiful. Some that didn't go in the freezer have deteriorated and they are now these amazing delicate skeletons”.
“The Secret Garden has given me a playground in which I can exercise my creative instincts and nature without any boundaries and any cares. At this point in my life I feel like I’ve earned this moment to play with something I have treated in a very serious nature and given up a lot in order to do.”
“My life has been so enriched by photography,” she says. “You know I’m just a little nobody from Texas. I’ve had a life I never thought I’d have and I can’t believe it sometimes. I’m grateful to photography and mostly grateful to the people in my pictures.”
See more images on Maggie Steber’s Instagram
Every Brilliant Eye - NGV(C) Patricia Piccinini - Psychogeography 1996 from the Psycho series
National Gallery of Victoria
This new exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia Melbourne explores the cultural phenomena of the nineties - grunge, techno, cyborgs, identity politics and DIY - with more than 100 works by some of the foremost artists of the period.
Util 1 October
Ian Potter Centre
Cnr. Flinders & Swanston Streets
(C) Tom Goldner
A group show celebrating the craft of the darkroom. Artists include Phill Virgo, Linsey Gosper, Shane Waghorne, David Tatnall, Ellie Young, Tom Goldner, Lynette Zeeng and Sophie Caligari.
Until 1 July
409–429 Gore Street