Interview with John Clark Mayden

John Clark Mayden is a photographer from and of Baltimore. An exhibition of his work, City People: Black Baltimore in the Photographs of John Clark Mayden, is at the George Peabody Library in Baltimore from October 7, 2019 through March 1, 2020. The accompanying book Baltimore Lives (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) contains 101 of Mayden’s photographs. This interview was conducted by Christina Thomas, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins and, as the Denis Family Graduate Student Curatorial Fellow, co-curator of the exhibition.

Christina Thomas: You started taking photographs in the 1970s. Who was John Clark Mayden back then, and who are you today?

John Clark Mayden: John Mayden in the early 1970s was a young guy who, you know, was happy to just be out on the street and walk, see, and record. That’s who I was—happy to be recording images of the city. And to pursue opportunity. Photography gave me an outlet that I never saw coming. The pursuit of that outlet has taken me down a road to 25,000 negatives in 48 years. A lot of ups and, I guess, some downs. But it forced the best out of me. Who am I now? Same guy. Well, an older John Clark Mayden. [Laughs.]

CT: What was life like for you growing up in Baltimore? What did you and your siblings do for fun?

JM: Well, I only have one sibling: my sister, Ruth. And we love each other very much—but we would dispute and argue issues, both of us being very much issue-oriented. She is very opinionated and I, too, am opinionated. So, we can lock in there. But growing up with her, I watched her, because she was an achiever. And I thought, I’m going to outdo her. I set my goal to hit a little bit higher in different ways. That’s what I was thinking; whether or not I did it is something else! My sister Ruth always was a standard to measure yourself by. Before she retired, she was Dean of the School of Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties, it was sort of a working-class neighborhood that I grew up in, and there were role models in there. It was stable. And then in the late Sixties I saw a change—where a lot of folks who didn’t have as much and weren’t working moved into the neighborhood. When I was in college from ’70 to ’74, I saw a significant change in the neighborhood for the worse. It wasn’t the neighborhood I grew up in anymore, going to parties in the basements of people’s homes and having fun during the summer, eating crab and acting silly, dancing in the basements. It changed; the whole deal changed.

CT: What area in Baltimore did you grow up in—east or west?

JM: Northwest. On Ruskin Avenue, near Auchentoroly Terrace. Near Druid Hill Park.

Those neighborhoods used to be so beautiful. I haven’t been back through there in a while, but the memories are great.

CT: Were your parents born in Baltimore as well?

JM: My father was, but my mother was born in North Carolina and her family moved up here. But she lived here most of her life; she came here as a child. They were both here for most of their lives.

CT: What schools did you attend?

JM: [P.S.] 137, which no longer exists, off of Fulton Avenue, down in that part. The school actually gave us a fairly decent education. There were a lot of kids crammed in that school. They used the school building and a church that was converted to be a school. When you were in the earlier years, you were down there in the church, and then you went up to the primary school. And they got you an education. It wasn’t a bad education, I would say. They taught some fundamentals. I had a rough time, though. I had asthma and I missed a lot of school. Not all of my teachers worked with me and I learned very early on that not everybody wants to see you succeed, because they won’t work with you and recognize your problems. That was, you know, a rough lesson, but nevertheless it was a lesson.

CT: And what did you all do for fun on a regular summer day like today?

JM: When I was younger, I loved to ride my bike. Back in those days, Druid Hill Park had no fences. The zoo was open. I would roll through that zoo so fast. I would go up there and see all the exhibits, then whip around and go through the Seven Sisters Lakes. Then I would bust around near the reservoir before bringing it on home. I had that thing timed down to where I could do it in an hour and 20 minutes. I had a German racer and I was no joke pumping that thing. I worked on building myself up physically because of asthma. That asthma. I used to be rushed to the hospital—that was no fun—to get my shot of adrenaline. That used to happen a lot until I got bigger and had a greater lung capacity. And how do you build capacity? Swimming. Swimming actually stuck in the family, because my boys were significant swimmers. Jay with Michael Phelps and the training team and all that. Adam had his ranking. I passed it on to them and now, I think, they’re passing it on to their children. That’s what I did. And as for my sister, we played pinochle.

CT: I don’t even know what that is.

JM: [Laughs.] OK, it’s a card game. I was big into chess, too, but she didn’t play chess, so I couldn’t wail on her in chess. But we would play pinochle.

CT: So, playing cards with your sister, biking, swimming. Was it in high school that you got serious about sports?

JM: Well, no, at the Y. Stroking, stroking, stroking, and not joking. But I learned more than swimming at the Y. Because the Y had boxing, it had basketball. I learned how to play basketball; I was a decent basketball player. Unfortunately, because of money, I could not play all those things in high school. It made me angry, because the basketball team won the championship, and I know I could have made that team. But what you gonna say. I realized I had to contribute because my sister was gone . . .

CT: She was at college?

JM: She was at graduate school. And my father wasn’t there; he had split. My mother worked, but I needed to carry my weight so I wasn’t a burden on her.

CT: And where did you work?

JM: At the Y. They had me leading things. They had me as a lifeguard. They had me open the gym and close stuff up. It was kind of crazy, when I look back at it, because I was getting home so late. Man, that was not right, because I got home at 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. And you haven’t done your homework, right? Then you got to do that, and then you have to get up. Maybe that’s when I started burning both ends of the candle. But, at any rate, it worked out, so I’m not complaining. And I loved working at the Y, really. The Y is historic, and I really loved that institution. It closed when I was in college, because the neighborhood changed and they had no support. I led the effort to reopen that bad boy when I got back [from college]. The majority leader down in Annapolis—Clarence W. Blount—was an old Y guy. So we talked about it, and he said, “Well, Brother Mayden, we have to do this.”

CT: What else do you think about when you think about your high school years?

JM: I was captain of my football team; I played football, middle lineman. And I was a track dude. I ran the 100, 200, and the 400. We were unique [at Northwestern High School] in that we were a mixture of Jews and Blacks. See, we were progressive. We had Black history, and we had a student council. I was running a student council class, and I conducted it to facilitate the work that the student council needed to do. That’s when we held our open forum for everyone, to make sure we were polish ready and we had our agenda clear. We had Black history and we had Black studies

CT: I wanted to ask you about some historical events that occurred in Baltimore during your childhood. I know 1968 was a big year with . . .

JM: The riots. Yeah, of course. One place I photograph regularly is Pennsylvania Avenue. And I, like a young dummy, walked down Pennsylvania Avenue during the riots because I wanted to see what a riot was.

CT: How old were you?

JM: I don’t know. ’68, born ’51. So, I guess, 17. I walked down there with another dummy who’s now a surgeon; we walked down there together. We wanted to see what a riot was. But, you know, a couple of people did stuff like that. They drove around and looked, because they were thinking, what is this madness? So, I wasn’t the only crazy one . . . well, we weren’t. And I say that because that had an element of political awareness . . . We were inquisitive about what a riot was, and then we realized this stuff is no joke. So, we did get out of there, but we walked down there pretty far.

CT: And then you went to school in Ohio.

JM: I’m a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University, with a degree in politics, government, and fine arts.

CT: Why the decision to go to Ohio?

JM: Because they offered me the most money. And I wanted to get the hell out of Baltimore because politics had gotten rough. So I thought, you know what? Maybe it’s time for me to see something different. I wanted to get away from ignorance.

When I was growing up, we didn’t have a car. When my father got a car, he split. So, I only knew the city from the bus routes. When you ride the bus, that’s the only way you know—routes—and what you see is [limited to] those routes. That’s part of what interested me about some of the people that I have photographed. One of my series is “Old Bus Riders.” I’m figuring, these people, they’re just doing, you know, just living—living for the day, traveling the routes that are there. So, I understood it. That was the very first series I did that was really successful, or the second, actually, published in The Black Photographers Annual.

Because we were stuck. You asked about where I grew up and it was right down there near Auchentoroly Terrace and Fulton Avenue. The bus was changing drivers [at the Fulton Avenue bus turnaround] and it was the summer and it was hot as hell. No, I reverse that; it was winter, because people had coats on. But the point is, they were irritated, because they had to sit there for so long and the irritation is what got them. When you’re working class, you have to put up with so much, and this was more crap that they had to put up with. And I felt that. I don’t know why the heck I was on the bus, but I was, and I just started taking pictures. And I got some of the best pictures that I’ve ever taken.

This was at a stage when I was learning to be a photographer, doing “one shots.” Which is what I did with that—one shot, one shot, one shot. That’s what I had learned with television [photography], because that’s what they used to do. Maybe there was a two-shot or so in there or maybe a one-two shot or a one-two-three shot, but most of it was a basic frame full rectangle—boom!

CT: When did your interest in photography begin? How old were you? J

JM: I was 19 years old and I was working in television. I was a reporter.

CT: Was this in Ohio?

JM: No, WMAR TV here in Baltimore. They gave me, well, they didn’t do anything to start my photography career, except they gave me access to information and a darkroom. They had some tremendous people who ran their labs and had a wealth of knowledge. So, I would just go down there and talk to them. One of the news photographers used to carry a 35mm [camera] around his neck when we would go out on the streets and do interviews, so I started to ask him questions— “Tell me about this thing”—and he did. And I started to realize, you know, this is basic. I can do this.

I’ve done some spontaneous things in my life. I went out and bought a camera, just like that. Because I said to myself, I can do this, and this looks interesting. I thought, these guys will teach me about the darkroom they have, this fabulous, state-of-the-art facility. I worked there. I seized opportunity when it presented itself. I jumped all over that.

I bought a Canon that had a plastic reflex mirror. It was not a wellmade camera. I don’t know why they thought that was good, but it was a waste of my money. I had my big boy pants on, so I sucked it up, but then I got a Nikon and everything was fine. I got into the Nikon system, and I liked that it was tough; you could beat it up and it didn’t seem to break. I loved them Nikons until they wore out, the parts truly wore out. So, I stuck with that [camera] as long as I could.

CT: When did you start doing street photography? Did you start immediately when you purchased your first camera?

JM: Absolutely! As soon as I bought the first camera, I went out on the street and I started doing street photography because I thought, what do I want to photograph? This. I went out there to do it. I don’t remember the very first pictures that I took. I guess I could look and see if book one [of my negative notebooks] shows me my very first images. I used to harass my mother and my grandmother and shoot in my neighborhood. I’ve always been a walker, and I would park my car a distance and walk. Walk too far and have to walk all the way back. That’s always been my pattern. So, I would do that and enjoy seeing neighborhoods and stuff. Because you don’t see anything unless you walk it.

I don’t like taking people with me. I don’t take people with me because if we get into something, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to handle themselves. I know about me, but I don’t know about you. [Laughs.] And it’s what you don’t know that usually burns you. Especially now with the way it is, because it has become harder to do street photography. On the one hand, if you spend time and you develop a relationship with a neighborhood, you can do that—the people trust you and know you. But if you are doing some of the stuff that I frequently do, which is just pop in, shoot, leave, then, you know, a lot of people are not about it. And that’s what I have done most of the time. Except in some of the neighborhoods I would be a repeat guy so they were used to seeing me. But now, because of the violence level that’s in this town, you really have to be careful.

CT: Were there other photographers you looked to as a source of inspiration? Or was it finding your own technique?

JM: The latter. I grew up looking at Life in the Fifties because I was born in ’51. Of course, I saw Gordon Parks, and I thought, oh, and everyone thought, oh, he’s great, he’s great. I don’t want to be perceived as arrogant, but I never spent a lot of time thinking about him, because I figured, me and this camera, we got a bond and we are going to do what we got to do. I didn’t study [other photographers]. We would talk in the studio—actually, there were white photographers that they would tell me about—and I would listen to them talk. I was listening. But that was about as far as that went. I thought that you developed the mechanical skills to know how to produce quality images. That was my focus.

And it’s not out of disrespect, but when I was published in the first Black Photographers Annual, the publisher told me, you know, Gordon Parks doesn’t print his pictures, and I said, what? He told me the studio that did it, and I thought, man, well, that’s not good. Then, at the Studio Museum of Harlem, there was an exhibition of work from the Black Photographers Annual and my work was next to his. And I have to say, it looked damn good. I said to myself, shoot, you don’t have to look back, because you stand on your own. I have sought techniques on occasion from others, but that’s it. My best buddy Peter MacGill from college turned me on to warm-toned, double-weight paper; he’s the one who introduced me to that. Then I became addicted. I really loved that paper and used it until they stopped making it. . . . So, I learned from people, but I pretty much worked alone.

When I was in college, I was part of a small group of photographers. We had classes, just the four of us—the elite—and we met . . .

CT: . . . this was in Ohio?

JM: Yes, Ohio Wesleyan. And we talked about things, and we went to New York. We went to New York for independent studies there and to room together. You learned certain things from some guys and they were very helpful. One guy in particular, because he had a range-finder camera, which did not have a reflex mirror. Reflex mirrors in your camera give you a range of motion, so whenever you take a picture, like with your Nikon, it is not 100 percent in focus because of the reflex of the mirror. The range finder merges the images together, does not move, and it’s 100 percent focused. I never had the money to buy one. But I didn’t worry about that, because the Nikon F was still good. It was a good camera. It’s just that I didn’t have the rich boy’s camera. So, I just accepted that and kept on moving. But I learned from him, and the images and how he printed, as opposed to how I printed. That is where the learning came from for me. It wasn’t somebody you’re looking at as a mentor per se; I just wanted the information so that I could apply the skill

CT: Earlier you were talking about the difficulty in doing street photography. How do you go about producing these iconic pictures?

JM: You only go out when you have the tenacity to just throw that camera up in somebody’s face and then take the image because that’s really what you want. And if they say no, you might push; you have to be prepared to do it.

Early on this little old black lady over in East Baltimore intimidated the hell out of me for throwing my camera up in her face. This was the early ’70s. And then she started laughing, and I realized, I’m being played. I can’t let this happen anymore. I realized that you got to take a different approach. You can’t be a chump. Or, if you got a chump’s mood, don’t go out with that camera.

CT: You have often worked in series, like the “Step Sitters.” How do series affect your process? You have a few of a woman named Gloria . . .

JM: That’s Reservoir Hill.

CT: Could you talk about Gloria?

JM: Gloria lived near me when I was in law school [at the University of Baltimore].

We lived on Callow Avenue, on the third floor [of a rowhouse]. I could look out from my corner window—we had a beautiful bay window—and I could just look out over that neighborhood. It helped me, actually, in picture-taking, because then I could run down and take pictures when I could see things come together. I do anticipate a lot of times when a picture is going to come together, and I can move on it before it happens. And so, back when I was younger and faster, I could do that. [Makes a running motion.] Gloria was a character in the neighborhood. Gloria and Johnny, because Johnny was there also. We became friendly and we used to talk.

That was one of the situations where I definitely knew the people. I was vice president of the community association, so I got a couple of festivals going there, and we would cook food; my wife was involved, and we knew the people in the neighborhood. They were real comfortable with me and I was real comfortable with them. I knew who they were and what they were. We stayed there until I passed the bar.

CT: And do you let the people you photograph see the pictures afterwards?

JM: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. A lot of times I don’t, because I can’t guarantee how fast I’m going to do the work. Sometimes I’ve gone back and given people pictures, I have. But my heart has been hurt, actually, going back to places where people have died. Some of the boys, they died on me. It hurt my heart. So, I realized, you can’t get yourself too caught up in folks because, if you do, this will beat the hell out of you. I’ve learned that lesson running to the hospital and finding out they were dead. So.

CT: What do you want people to see when you are capturing these images of Baltimore?

JM: I want them to see what I’ve documented, as presented. I’m not trying to force their hand as to how they see it, but for how I present it. By that, what I mean is, I manipulate in my documentation, in my printing, in my development; so, hopefully, whatever I presented to you, you’ll see. And you’ll come up with your impression. I’m not trying to tell you how you’re going to see it, though. I learned a long time ago that is impossible to do. So, I don’t sweat that at all.