This is the first installment in a continuing project in which WIRED’s photo editors speak with photographers about their experiences during Covid-19 self-isolation. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Maggie Steber’s career has spanned 40 years and taken her to 70 countries. Her portfolio includes photographs covering everything from war to fashion to science. This coronavirus pandemic, though, has her self-isolated in her Miami, Florida home (along with two feline roommates) where she’s focusing on a long-term project titled The Secret Garden of Lily LaPalma. Lily is Steber’s alter ego—and the photo series is her story of self-isolation. Lily leads a very secret life in her garden, Steber says, so this moment of keeping to oneself gives her great joy. Three years ago, the photographer received a very generous grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in support of this project, but, Steber notes, Lily doesn’t care if anyone likes her work. She makes art for herself.
Anna Alexander: What are you doing these days to nourish your photo soul?
Maggie Steber: Two things: Making new photographs for my Guggenheim project, and looking through photo books from my collection. Oh, and also editing a lot of work still in slides that I never had the time to edit! So three things, really. The editing of older material is thrilling, but also sometimes depressing because some of it is so bad. The making of new photos for the secret garden project, though, is always thrilling.
Have you been organizing your archive or is it already super put-together?
Organized is not in my vocabulary. One personal silver lining that has emerged from this moment—for which I am terribly grateful—is that, for the first time in years, I have had time to look at contact sheets and select slides. It’s rather wonderful, sort of like a mini-slide show that takes me back to the earlier years of my career.
Do you find yourself more involved with the art community now that you’re sheltered in place?
I find myself more involved with friends in general, from both within and beyond the art community. I am, perhaps, most involved with my own art community, so to speak, which is my imagination. Believe me, it’s a very lively one.
With regard to keeping up with people, how are you feeling toward social media now, as compared to before the pandemic?
I must admit that social media usually exhausts me. I get asked for too many favors, but that’s probably my own fault. But now I’m so glad for it because I can see what others are doing and write messages to them and just enjoy the slower pace of the kind of engaged conversations we can have without watching the clock.
Where do you go in your home to ensure you don’t lose your mind?
My garden and courtyard are where I find balance. I also love what’s referred to here in Miami as a “Florida Room” (otherwise known as a solarium) because the morning light floods in. In the garden I hear the birds singing and lots of little lizards running around and my two cats follow me around pretending to be dogs. Their names are A and B because I got tired of thinking up clever cat names.
Besides your usual medium, What are your other creative outlets during this time?
I sing a lot. I make up songs as well as sing songs already written. I even sing pretend opera.
Suggestions for self-isolated artists in order to avoid insanity?
Everyone seems to be cooking, but I can’t cook. I mean, no one would want to eat what I cook. Instead I make still-lives out of cooking utensils. I would say, take long baths with bubbles. Go through your closet. Look at old family photos. Personally, I tend to do things that I think I could turn into photographs. More than anything, though, listen to music. All kinds. Music, Music, Music. For me, it ranges from Italian opera to classical music to jazz and blues to Texas swing.
How often do you go outside and for what reason?
I probably go outside as many as 20 to 30 times. In my courtyard: To play with the cats and feed them; to watch the lizards to dig up bugs; to feed the curly-tailed one who visits me. In the evening, to look at the moon and take a break from editing. And sometimes simply to go for a walk.
Do you watch TV? Maybe even binge?
I leave the TV on, but mainly for noise. I like watching old Westerns—crazy right? There’s an old cowboy series called Cheyenne starring Clint Walker. He was a big, handsome, soft-spoken guy and even though he died a long time ago, I’ll get up at 5 am just to watch. There’s something quietly sexy and visceral about him. Oh, and I also watch Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers.
What about book recommendations?
Most of the time if I’m reading, it’s to do research. It’s mostly poetry, W. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and books about cinema and filmmakers.
Do you pass some of your time going down Instagram rabbit holes, like we all do? What do you look at? Who do you follow?
I follow 1,580 people! I’m delirious about looking at photographs. I tend to visit people for a while and then move on to others and then circle back around. My favorites are people who do very dark mysterious work. I also really like the antics and out-of-this world work of Naomi Harris and Landon Nordeman, for his fashion stuff. And I also love Nadav Kander’s work! This isn’t photo-related, but whenever I want to dance, I go to Aranivah’s page. (Dance Culture by Aranivah). She is amazing. Does all kinds of dances. I even get dressed up to dance to her tutorials.
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