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magazine home > archives > spring 2004 > features

A U of M alumnus with an eye for detail finds success in the Big Apple.

Picture Perfect
by Greg Russell

Fagan doorman photo 1
Fagan's 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.

Fagan doorman photo 2

Fagan 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 space."

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,'" Fagan says.

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.

Dr. Ernest Nichols
Fagan was named one of the top young emerging photographers in America by a prestigious photo journal for the doorman series.

"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 Layne Peterson.

"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."


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