Now/It's: An Interview with Photographer Marcus Maddox

Documentation might be nearing its peak with regard to a place in the zeitgeist. Everyone is a documentarian one way or another, posting any monumental to innocuous moment within the everyday for positive affirmation from friends and strangers alike. Granted, that's a rather wide swathe generalization that certainly underserves people that set out to document something outside themselves. People like Marcus Maddox. After a rare health scare that would crumble most anyone's spirits, Maddox came to realize that his truest desire was to document the DIY scene of Nashville - in his mind, the truest Nashville - and so upon his completed isolated recovery, Marcus Maddox set out to complete what would eventually become his zine-meets-photobook, POM POMS, Vol. 1

Now/It's met with Marcus Maddox at Steadfast Coffee in the Germantown neighborhood of Nashville. 

Marcus - How’s it going?

N/I - Doing well. I appreciate you meeting up with me.

Marcus - For sure.

N/I - I saw the event for POM POMS Vol. 1 on Facebook, and saw a bunch of people I knew going…

Marcus - Oh, cool.

N/I - It looked super interesting - the idea - because I’ll do live concert photography, but the idea of shooting the people watching what’s on stage - that’s a cool perspective. Of the shots that I’ve seen, it looks great.

Marcus - I have it with me - you want to see it?

N/I - Absolutely

Marcus - This is my most personal project of all time. Here it is

[Marcus presents POM POMS Vol. 1]

N/I - Incredible. So how many copies do you have produced right now?

Marcus - So that’s the first of twenty-two copies that exist right now. This is basically my personal copy, and then there’s going to be a few that people can pass around at the show, but the other twenty-one copies are going to be for sale at the release show. And there’s a reason why I have twenty-two copies - its because I started this project when I turned twenty-two. Twenty-two is a very special number throughout the whole project. Like on the twenty second page of the book is the first photo I took for the whole series.

[Marcus flips to the twenty-second page.]

N/I - Okay, cool.

Marcus - Yeah, so that’s the very first picture that I took out of thousands for the whole series.

N/I - Right. It says in the inscription that it was taken on your twenty second birthday, October first.

Marcus - Yeah.

N/I - That’s awesome. It looks fantastic.

Marcus - Thanks. This was taken at the East Room, at my friend’s band’s show. He’s in Goth Babe. Anyway, that was the moment that I decided to turn the camera away from the stage and direct it toward the crowd. I felt it was more interesting.

N/I - Absolutely. I saw a digital version of “Physical,” that I thought was incredible. Especially due to the fact it was taken at Exit/In, considering their photo policy is just about the most strict in town.

Marcus - Right. It’s a problem.

N/I - I think photos through that lens are fascinating.

Marcus - Thanks.

N/I - So for this volume, you shot for how long? A little under a year?

Marcus - For this volume, these pictures are from October 2016 to April 2017. So what is that? Seven months?

N/I - Roughly.

Marcus - So there’s 162 pictures in the whole book, including the front cover and the back cover. They’re all candid. They’re all real moments. [Looking at a photo] So she’s actually laughing at something somebody had said to my right in a kitchen at a house show - this place called Dream House - it’s like this rare music venue in Nashville. They’ve only had two shows there, so both of those shows are legendary.

N/I - I would imagine.

Marcus - I didn’t go to the first one, but the second one was the one where I shot this volume’s cover. It’s also the show where I shot the pink shots. The dreamier shots are at the [Dream House].

N/I - Okay. And who was playing that second show?

Marcus - Savoy Motel. It was Ryan Donoho’s 21st birthday party - we call him “Domo” - and it was in Hillsboro/West End. I want to find some more of the shots from that show.

Marcus returns to flipping through POM POMS Vol. 1, searching for more shots from Dream House.

N/I - So it looks like most of the photos were taken at DIY shows….

Marcus - Yeah. So the whole point is to shed light on the indie side of Nashville.

N/I - Right. Absolutely.

 Shot No. 104 of  POM POMS, Vol. 1

Shot No. 104 of POM POMS, Vol. 1

Marcus - Because on the outside looking in, everyone think it’s country, country, country….

N/I - Country and Americana - as if those are the only two things happening.

Marcus - Yeah, but that’s really just the middle aged, white population. They hit Broadway, and are just kind of boujee, you know?

N/I - Right. Almost exclusively Broadway and the Gulch.

Marcus - Exactly. But this is showing the progressive side of Nashville. What I think is fun about this is that this is not New York. People tend to think that this stuff only happens in Brooklyn or Berkeley, California, or something like that. But this is the South.

N/I - For sure. I’m right there with you. Totally on board with that.

Marcus - Right. There’s all this style. There’s the people. There’s the culture - there are interracial relationships, there’s diversity….

Marcus flips to another photo, of a young interracial couple at a concert.

Marcus - This was a sold out show at The End, and this couple was in the front row. So you have Soccer Mommy playing - and they have a black guitarist - and you have this black guy holding this white girl’s hand in the front row. That’s the kind of stuff that I feel is scarce. It’s scarce in the view of the South. In general, I feel like it’s cool to see this stuff. Even before I was making this, I had always seen the progressive side of Nashville, but nobody cared to document.

N/I - Right. Because it’s not necessarily the most…. It’s progressive, it’s a countercultural movement, but it’s not necessarily the case that someone in Nowhere, Iowa is going to be as into the idea of Soccer Mommy as they would to any major country music person in their place. So you’re documenting a movement. It’s an aggressive movement in the sense that it’s powerful and everyone that’s in it is enthralled by it. But at the same time, it’s not some sort of “We’ve got to beat the shit out of Old Nashville,” or whatever.

Marcus - [Laughs] Yeah. Right.

N/I - It’s within it’s own world. It exists in nearly mutualistic, commensalistic relationship to Nashville. I think it’s awesome.

Marcus - I think so. And it’s not that I want to get rid of “Old Nashville.” It’s that I want to show a new world within in.

N/I - You’re showing a different dynamic.

Marcus - Yeah. This is opening a door to something fresh. A fresh view of Nashville and the South. To be honest, I think it’s coming at the right time, too. There’s people coming onto Nashville for other reasons, and I feel like if this also gets onboard with….

N/I - All the other things that are coming into motion.

Marcus - Like the hockey team. That type of hype.

N/I - Oh yeah. That was wild.

Marcus - But it’s not just the hockey team. I looked at an article on Forbes, and they were talking about all these booming neighborhoods that people move into and immediately buy into.

N/I - Well that’s one of the biggest things. I don’t know about you, but I grew up around here, so it’s wild to think that now there’s Inglewood. There’s The Nations. There’s the West End area and Hillsboro Village area - which have both been there….

Marcus - Wedgewood/Houston.

N/I - Yeah. I remember not even seven years ago, when I was in high school - no one called Wedgewood/Houston “Wedgewood/Houston.” It was just the area near the old Sounds stadium. But now everywhere has it’s own miniature culture that contributes to the greater culture of Nashville.

Marcus - Right. I grew up here, too. I grew up in East Nashville. So we’re rare. So this is good. We’re actual Nashville natives.

N/I - It is good. And it seems like both of us want to document more of what’s outside the nuclear Nashville bubble. I’m sure with you growing up here, we’ve probably experienced a lot of the same things, like going out of town and people finding out you’re from Nashville and automatically assuming you live on a farm. But now, everyone is becoming more aware of the growth.

Marcus - There’s stuff popping up everywhere. It’s turning into a major city, like a hotbed.

N/I - Seriously. And the arts community is really finding it’s footing. For a long time, the arts community felt like people just looking at the country music and songwriting stuff, but then you get a booming photography scene that has blown up exponentially. It’s helping make a major shift.

Marcus - Well there are so many talented photographers coming in and out of Nashville right now. I’m friends with Phoenix Johnson, Evan Boutte, Cobey Arner, and the Wilder crew. I’m friends with all those guys, and I’m just so proud of all this talent in Nashville. They’re really making some admirable art in Nashville. I feel like it should be seen more.

N/I - Absolutely.

Marcus - I feel like the art crawls should be them.

N/I - Right. How do you feel about the art crawls in general?

Marcus - I just don’t know what it is, like where is all that stuff coming from? I feel like people go there and what they see is really crafty. It’s not contemporary, it’s crafty.

N/I - Sometimes the pieces feel sort of Bob Ross-y - and that’s not a knock against Bob Ross or any of those people- but it begs the question of whether or not the piece I’m looking at is an innate thing dying to explode out of someone, or is it a learned thing they’ve seen and was ultimately received well.

Marcus - Yeah, and I’m not knocking it all. I’m not trying to sit here and be pretentious by saying “That’s not good,” but for me personally, with what I do, I want to put an emotion on the table. I want to tell a story and say something about real people and real things, and with [POM POMS Vol. 1] I feel like it shows real life in a very cinematic way.

N/I - For sure. It helps that at a show you’ve effectively got a score and everything else sort of falls into place.

Marcus - Yeah, and what I hope people realize when looking at these pictures is that they’re all taken while live music is happening. Like this guy looking into that girl’s eyes, and another girl dancing, drenched in red light - that’s all while disco music is playing at this Okey Dokey show. Sparkle City was dj-ing, and while they were dj-ing, all of that stuff was happening. I just go around and observe. During most of this process, I was a really big loner. I was mostly in the shadows, just observing. In order to get most of this stuff, you have to be around. You have to be the eyes.

N/I - Sort of omnipresent, but never noticeable.

Marcus - And a lot of these people don’t know that I was even taking the pictures. Most of them don’t even realize that I was there. But at the same time, I’m scared shitless to take most of these photos, because I have to stand in a position where I’m not there, but I also have to be there.

N/I - Right, to get the proper angle, and capture all the emotion in the photo.

Marcus - And then if they notice, then it’s over. It’s over if they notice.

N/I - Well you’re trying to capture people in a candid moment. If they look into the lens - even if it turns out to be a nice photo - the photo is ruined. It honestly kind of amazes me with regard to the kind of foresight you probably need to have in order to properly capture these moments.

Marcus - It was definitely hard to get some of this stuff. It was hard to go to stuff and get shots that weren’t compromising, like if there were underaged people. Because I try to do everything tastefully, I don’t want anything to look sloppy or embarrassing. I don’t want to play it safe, but at the same time, I also don’t want to go over the line. I want to reach the edge, but not go overboard.

N/I - Well there’s something to be said for exercising some semblance of control.

Marcus - Definitely try to stay respectful, but at the same time capturing the “realness.” [Turns to another photo] Like these two people hanging out - they’re friends - but I wanted to showcase their style and the general vibe in the room, I turn to the right a little bit, and then I get this girl blocking them ever so slightly, so they’re not there, but then they’re revealed at the same time. And then this is Chelsea's room, and she gives people tattoos while they’re there. I thought it would be cool to show that. And this is Wedgewood/Houston, if you google “Hip Culture of Wedgewood/Houston,” what it actually is doesn’t come up. I googled it, and it was just restaurants.

N/I - It’ll be places like Bastion.

Marcus - But these are actual young people in Wedgewood/Houston, showing what they actually wear, what they actually do. And my whole style of photography is this warm, vintage tone, so in a few years, I feel like this could be really nostalgic. I tried to make it feel nostalgic now, but I feel like with time, it’s really going connect.

N/I - For sure. Just in looking at the photos myself, there’s something highly empathetic about all of them. You’re immediately connected to whoever the subject is whether or not they’re looking directly into or near the frame, but there’s something very connective in the sense that you don’t know what they’re doing exactly, but it seems like something anyone could be doing. Thats very tough to connect through photo, yet you manage to do it on every photo that I’ve seen.

Marcus - Thanks. [Turns to another photo] This is a photo of a girl getting her ear whispered in, it’s crazy. I was at this house show - and I was watching the band off to my right - and I just peeked around the corner of this door, and I saw that he had pulled her to the side to have a conversation, and I saw this mirror right here and I thought it was rad. You can kind of see the flash, and if I had stepped a little more one way or another, the photo would have been lost. I thought it was one of the more fun shots. It looks like she’s looking at me, but she’s just listening to what the guy whispering is saying. I thought it was emotional.

N/I - Right. She’s not looking directly at you, she’s just staring off blankly into space, but it could lead anyone to assume any assortment of arrivals when it comes to what’s actually happening in the photo.

Marcus - And she noticed me after I took a few shots and started laughing and smiling, but what matters is I got it while it was real. And that happened throughout all of this.

N/I - Oh for sure, that doesn’t surprise me.

Marcus - There’s this one shot…. It’s the last shot in the “Experiencing” section. I’m friends with these girls, and they kind of posted up so I could take a picture of them. I thought it was interesting, because I took a bunch of pictures of them while they were posing, and then I started acting like I was putting my gear up so they could break out of their…. Stiffness.

N/I - Act a little more naturally.

Marcus - So while I was doing that, you can kind of see how one girl is getting down from where she was posing, and she looks at her friend. She had that definitive look on her face that simply said “You’re my friend.” You can the see the genuine gaze.

N/I - There’s a curve to her smile that only happens when you’re smiling at someone you care for.

Marcus - Yeah! And she was smiling at her like a friend. But then the third friend, on the other hand, she noticed that I was still taking the pictures, so she’s still looking at me. She’s like a model - she’s beautiful. They’re all good friends. I took this shot after they were done posing, and that’s what POM POMS is all about. It has a beginning, middle, and end…. So in the beginning, I have the statement and the title page, but I begin with the parking at a show. I was scared to take that shot, the guy in that car was coming right at me. So all the cars that you see parked are at that show, then paying for tickets, the sticker sign at The Basement, people entering, the door guy.

N/I - So it’s a whole sequence of events within a single event.

Marcus - Oh yeah. And then you have a blank page before all the moments that happen at a show. There are a few performance shots sprinkled in - they’re rare, but they’re in there - and then after the experiences are over, the party is over. You have the trash after the show. So there’s a story being told of “a show,” but through pictures from forty different shows. There’s people walking home, a girl holding a guy’s hand while they walk home. The parking garage after the show, Cafe Coco - we always go to Cafe Coco after a show at Exit/In.

N/I - Right. It’s next door.

 Shot No. 138 of  POM POMS, Vol. 1

Shot No. 138 of POM POMS, Vol. 1

Marcus - Then there’s the end. You have the afterword, the acknowledgements - so it’s a whole book. It’s a photobook, but packaged like a magazine to fit the context of a show, like with music photography, but not quite the same.

N/I - Sure, there’s more of a defined story in POM POMS, whereas a photobook might just consist of photos from five years of work with some feeble through line hoping to serve as a larger theme. There’s a definitive through line with yours.

Marcus - It’s still music photography - I want people to see this as music photography - but in a different way. It’s pictures of stuff that musicians would write songs about, instead of pictures of the musicians themselves. Musicians are still very important to this. [Points to a photo] He’s the singer for HOOPS. He came to Charlie Bob’s and played a show….

N/I - Yeah, I was at that show. I’m sitting here looking at the photos and thinking “How did I not see you doing this,” but I guess if you were being conscious about not drawing attention to yourself, I shouldn’t have been able to see you.

Marcus - Oh yeah. I was a spy. I definitely didn’t talk to very many people.

N/I - You kind of have to be pretty solitary in that mission of finding the moments. It’s one thing to say “hi” to people and then go off elsewhere, it’s another thing to do that and then disappear into plain sight. It’s much easier said than done, I’m sure.

Marcus - And that’s what I did. I had to sacrifice my urge to have a personal life in order to make this art that means the world to me. It’s funny, because this is all about human connection, and forming relationships, but it took a person to not have a relationship at all to make this. I’m connected to these people, but at the same time, I’m not. I had to be alone to do this. This comes out of loneliness. This comes out of pain too, because I went to the hospital the summer before this past year.

N/I - What for?

Marcus - I got my esophagus removed. It was this major surgery. I have a scar of thirty staples on my chest. I think the doctor is even in the acknowledgement - Doctor William Polk and Doctor Jeff Gibson - they saved my life. I almost died. It was because I had this condition called “Achalasia.” Achalasia is a rare disease - so your esophagus takes food and pushes it down into your stomach - mine closed off.

N/I - Oh geez.

Marcus - So food was trickling down into my stomach. I wasn’t getting nutrition.

N/I - I assume you became relatively malnourished.

Marcus - Yeah, I was really malnourished. I’m skinny now, but I was bad then.

N/I - So is that a congenital thing, then? Were you born with that condition?

Marcus - I was born with it. I didn’t know that I had it until I was in high school, and it just got worse over time. Up to the point where I could hardly eat food. So I had to go in for this surgery last summer, and they had to take my esophagus out and replace it with the top of my stomach. It put me out for a long time. I couldn’t eat for five days, and I was in the hospital for eight days, and had to recover for six weeks in isolation. So during that six weeks, I just had to be at home. Before the surgery happened, I was basically a scene-head. I would go to all the shows to be with all my friends. That was around January 2016, when I was a regular music photographer. I would go to all these shows and just take pictures on stage. I did what everybody else did. But I had that surgery, and afterward I was in so much pain and so much isolation, I couldn’t go to a show, I couldn’t hang out, I couldn’t walk. So I’m just in my house day to day, waking up, barely eating, going back to sleep, and not going anywhere. That pain and isolation made me reconsider what I really cared about in life.

N/I - I would imagine so.

Marcus - I mean, I could have died.

N/I - You would have withered away.

Marcus - The doctors were like “This surgery could kill you. You could get pneumonia and pass away. You could not get the nutrition you need and pass away.” So during that time period, I thought about what really matters to me in life, and it’s the people of the music scene. It’s going t shows and people watching. It wasn’t that I just appreciated the music that I was hearing, it was that I appreciated the culture. The style. Being able to go to a place and feel comfortable and talk to people and laugh. That’s what I really missed when I was in the hospital. I wasn’t just missing seeing someone play. It was being able to see the craziness of all of the friendships. Not just my own, but others. So while I was in the hospital, I was starting to forget what it was like to even go to a show. And I was getting angry. So I made a personal declaration to myself that when I got better, I was going to do something to remember it all in a concrete way. I could not let myself feel that way again. So I came up with the idea to take pictures of the people, because that’s what I really cared about. And once I started taking pictures of what I really cared about, the pictures really started to make sense to me. It stopped being music photography and became an emotional journey to document all these people I really care about. Hopefully I can make this - something that I care about - and share it with others in hopes that they come to care about it too.

N/I - That’s a beautiful thing.

Marcus - I think so.