While New Yorkers are sleeping, photographer Maxwell Schiano is up wide awake at night, capturing every nuance of the city. Also known as newyorkcityvibe on Instagram, Maxwell uses his filmmaking background to turn mundane scenes into remarkable film shots, from apartment doormen reading newspapers to food cart vendors on the streets. New York City's bustling culture may be intimidating, but Maxwell thrives with his camera in hand, making sure you feel the city's warmth and collectiveness that he feels through his photographs.
Hi Maxwell, welcome to the online magazine! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a photographer and filmmaker living in New York City. I got my start as a director and video editor primarily on music videos, fashion films and eventually ended up working on commercials and on-demand content for television. I used to take photos as visual notes and inspirations for my filmmaking process but when Instagram came about, friends and family started encouraging me to explore my photography more, where I then got into street photography using my iPhone. Since then I’ve jumped into it full force and photography has become a full part of my career as a creative, and where I have done the majority of my work in the last 6 years. Ever since I discovered film it has become a huge part of my process from not only shooting but also developing and scanning myself, and I feel like it’s taken my work to another level over the last two years.
How did newyorkcityvibe come about? Are you a native of NYC? What fascinates you about the city?
New York City Vibe first came about on Instagram; my personal handle just wasn’t giving me the space to explore what I wanted to do creatively and when I originally started the name it was anonymous so I could just focus on the work. The original idea behind it was taking photos of the city and relating them to the vibes of movies. The captions would read something like “That 1999 Wachowski Sisters Matrix Vibe.” It took off instantaneously with a mix of people who loved the city, people who loved my movie knowledge, and people who loved both. Since then it’s just evolved as a means for me to celebrate the city through my photo and video work.
"What I love about NYC so much is that it’s a place that makes you feel small, that you’re part of something. I love the collective excitement, frustration, chaos, and energy. When you’re up at 3AM and you look out your window and you see someone across the street that is up with their lights on just like you, I love that."
I was born in Huntington, Long Island but my family moved a lot while I was growing up. New York was the only constant where we would be for every holiday and just always coming to see family. I remember when my dad used to take me into the city and he’d have me pick the most hole in the wall pizza place and guarantee that it’d be the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life, and then as we walked the streets he’d always ask me if I wanted to buy a fake Rolex, it was a running joke that just makes me think of my first moments as a kid in NYC. I never really understood the feeling I had as my family was moving around so much and as I was growing up when we eventually landed in Metro Detroit Michigan, but I always felt like a fish out of water. This year it’ll be 15 years since I’ve been back in New York and yeah, it’s home.
How does black and white versus color play into your work? Do you find them to be separate or complementary?
With my background as a filmmaker, I definitely see more in color than I do in black and white, and that motivates a lot of things I shoot with mood and setting, but sometimes there's something that just light and shadow captures deeper than color. The way it cuts through the distractions and sends your eye right into the heart of things –– especially people and especially street photography. When you look at my work you’ll see that there are few b&w photos but those scenes are much more intentional than a lot of my color shots and photos that I have a strong emotional connection to.
What recent challenge have you encountered as a street photographer?
My biggest challenge right now as a street photographer is getting out of my neighborhood. Over the last 2+ years, I’ve really wanted to document my immediate surroundings honestly and do that by constantly walking around and exploring new aspects of the parts of the city that are close to me. I’m having a hard time venturing out because I want to photograph other areas in the city with the same integrity – knowing how it feels to exist in those spaces as a regular and not a visitor.
One of my favorite things about the city is remembering the people you see every day in your routine. I used to work overnight a lot when I worked on commercials as a video editor and I remember seeing all the doormen in the buildings in that area because they’d be the only ones out at that hour, and that commonality is what I love, that in this big city we can find these smaller worlds crossing paths. That’s what I want to photograph with my work, and I hope that comes across in my photos. So I’m working on finding that space in new neighborhoods now.
Can you pick one image from this series and tell us the story behind it?
I was on the side of the street as I was loading the film into my camera not paying attention to anything. I looked up and I noticed this doorman staring at me trying to figure out what I was doing. I thought wow this is such a great photo, the color the framing – it felt like a perfect New York vibe. So I immediately turned my camera to take his photo and right as I did he put the newspaper in front of his face, it was truly a magical moment. The extra bonus is that the headline of the paper reads “Hanging in Suspense.” It’s probably one of my favorite photographs ever and just represents the beauty in the every day of New York City.
When you are out shooting, how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
Now that I’ve switched my process over to shooting film I’ve become more planned when it comes to my lens choice and my aperture/shutter speed setup. This is mostly so I don’t have to think of these things and I can focus on just taking the pictures. It’s why I tend to love shooting higher speed films, or pushing my film regularly, where I can shoot stopped down so I have a wide zone of focus and with a quick shutter speed so I can freeze the action. Setting these things ahead of time just lets me do my favorite thing which is just being present in the city and waiting for these moments so that when they come I’m not messing with my camera to find the right settings.
Is there anything new you’d like to experiment with?
I have two things that I’m looking forward to experimenting with and that’s more double exposures and creating some slow shutter street photography using slower film stocks, just truly embracing more abstract ideas with my storytelling. When I first started shooting film it was a challenge for me to get it right and now that I feel like I’m more confident in that area it’s a good time to throw that out the window and start letting go of that control more creatively.
What is one thing you would tell yourself from when you first started out?
One thing someone told me early on as a creative is to never look up to people, always look over to people as your peers, because if you’re always looking up you’ll always see yourself below them. As you develop as a creative you realize that it’s not about being the best but more the constant search for knowledge and ideas in the process. Capturing things that mean a lot to you, whether they’re likable or not. Now that I’m older and have made more mistakes I truly understand that better.
Finally, what can we expect next from Maxwell Schiano?
I’m very grateful for the journey that my work has taken me on but truly my favorite thing is just creating for the sake of creating and celebrating New York through that. Last year I put out my first publication, a zine celebrating NYC food carts and it opened up a whole new world for me. I’ve recently run a second print of that zine and it’s up for sale on my site with the proceeds being donated to the Street Vendor Project. I’m excited to continue this series with another edition celebrating other facets of the city, so look out for that in the next couple of months or so. Until then you can find me on the streets doing what I love best, capturing New York.