doormen series, shot in 2001 shortly after the U of
M graduate moved to Manhattan, offers a rare glimpse
into a service industry not often talked about.
Four years ago, when Shannon Fagan went looking for a way
to get his foot in the door of the photography industry, he
turned to---who else?---doormen.
"It was my series of photographs of New York City doormen
that really opened the way for my career," says the University
of Memphis graduate (BFA '99). "It was my in."
In, as in a photographer named one of the top emerging
young photographers in America by a prestigious photo journal.
In, as in a photographer whose work often adorns the pages
of The New York Times, Harper's, Time,
The New Yorker and Fortune.
"I try to take subtle moments in subjects that you might
see every day and heighten them," says Fagan, when describing
his photographic approach. "I let things pass through
me and put them back out there in a way that expresses a certain
point of view."
More often than not, that point of view is Fagan's. Since
moving to New York City shortly after graduating from the
U of M in 1999, Fagan has carved a neat little niche in the
photography world by adding an individual feel to his photographs.
Editors have found that his ability to uncover subtleties
in common, everyday subjects often speaks volumes to audiences.
"I try to capture a behind-the-scenes aspect of the
subject I shoot," he says.
Fagan's portraits of Manhattan-based doormen reveal an enlightening
and sometimes eerie glimpse at a service industry not often
documented. Shot in 2000, much of the series ran in a 2001
issue of Photo District News and prompted the magazine
to name Fagan one of the top 30 new photographers in the country.
"Coming from Memphis where there are so few doormen,
I was intrigued by who a doorman is and what he or she does
in their 'in-between' moments late at night," Fagan says.
"My guess was that they were really bored, and I wanted
to photograph that boredom so I began wandering around late
in the evening photographing them.
credits the doorman series with helping him obtain work
in The New York Times, Time and Discover,
among other publications.
"Quite often, I would see them not just holding the
door, but also sitting or standing or reading the paper. Or
they might be asleep in a chair, or just staring off into
Fagan says that, oddly enough, he found these doormen not
to be bored, but very proud of their jobs.
"Many are second generation doormen and they enjoy what
they do," Fagan says. "The late nights give them
time to sit and think."
The series gave Fagan a much-needed break in a very competitive
field. "Now when I walk in with my portfolio, clients
say, 'Ah, you're the guy who did the doormen series,'"
One editor who has taken note is Stephen Guarnaccia, editorial
page art director for The New York Times.
"He has brought an original approach to what an op-art
piece might be," says Guarnaccia. "He's created
his own mini-genre. There was really nothing like him before.
He's not just giving us documentation, but his own particular
point of view."
Before Fagan, it was rare that a photograph would appear
on the editorial opinion page of the Times; artwork
on this page traditionally has been reserved for illustrators.
Now, the paper frequently uses his photo-documentaries to
describe common subjects---mittens, department store Santas
and even snowflakes---in a new way that often generates letters
to the editor.
For example, in the Jan. 19 edition of the Times,
Fagan took a subject normally seen as annoying by New Yorkers---snow---and
found an approach that would draw several letters to the editor.
He contacted NYC-area grade schools, asked students to create
paper cutout snowflakes and then photographed them on a black
background. A simple approach, but one that garnered what
editorial opinion page editors crave---work that makes their
readers think and react.
"They got 13 letters pointing out that none of the snowflakes
were scientifically correct," says Fagan. "Some
people even drew diagrams and faxed them in on how to cut
a six-sided snowflake, as kind of a tease to the editors."
In the March 3, 2003, edition, the Times ran a series of
"lost" mittens Fagan had found and photographed
under the title, "Is This Your Mitten?" Several
readers wrote in claiming ownership of the gloves.
"His work makes you think," says Guarnaccia.
"The editorial page of the Times is seen by millions
and to get letters back about something I have shot because
it is political or social in nature, that is exciting,"
Fagan says. "Exciting in that the artwork draws letters
and not just the editorials."
Fagan says his biggest challenge in shooting for the Times
is "making the idea work in black and white."
Fagan credits much of his success to professors in the art
department at the U of M.
was named one of the top young emerging photographers
in America by a prestigious photo journal for the doorman
"Larry McPherson, Larry Jasud, Robert Lewis ... they
all had a big influence on me," the photographer says.
It was McPherson, an associate professor of art, who gave
Fagan his first exposure to New York when he arranged an internship
for him during his sophomore year with fashion photographer
"Shannon did about six times as much work as the other
students," says McPherson. "I expected him to succeed
because he was so curious and so eager to learn."
As of late, more and more of Fagan's work involves advertising
shoots. His client list includes Verizon, Citibank, AT&T
and Principal Financial Group.
"It is very hard to make it as a freelancer doing just
gallery pieces," Fagan says. "You have to make a
living, so more and more I find myself doing assignment work.
And in assignment work, the challenge is to make it personal
and to meet their expectations at the same time."
While he lately has been focusing on the small business side
of the industry, Fagan says he always returns to the "personal"
side. He has recently shot bull riders, barbers and a grand
master of chess.
"I have always enjoyed meeting new people and learning
about their lives and getting inspired and learning about
myself through them," he imparts.
Fagan says he owes the doormen of New York City for something
more than just helping him get his foot in the door.
"As odd as it might seem, you can learn about yourself
by photographing doormen," Fagan says. "I learned
a lot about myself and about my place in New York by photographing
them. Now, I feel at home here."