The Story Behind the Photograph - "Self-Portrait"

© 1975 Mark Maio    "Self-Portrait"

© 1975 Mark Maio    "Self-Portrait"

Of all my photographs, the one I probably get asked to explain more than any other is "Self-Portrait".

I grew up in a very close, extended Italian family. All my grandparents were from the same small village in Sicily and all my aunts and uncles married other Italians. My grandfather, a coal miner in Pennsylvania, died of black lung a few months after my mother was born in 1929. After his death, my grandmother and her eight children moved back to Milwaukee’s Italian East Side. It was the start of the Depression and my mother's older brothers had to leave high school and find work to support the family. This predominately Italian neighborhood fostered interdependence between friends and relatives which continued even after most of them moved to the suburbs to raise my cousins and I.

Although as I grew up my relatives no longer lived down the street from one another, my weekends were filled with activities centered on my extended family. I saw the thirty or so first cousins on my mother’s side every week at family events. My cousins and I were more like brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles became extensions of my parents. All my relatives worked in blue-collar jobs and none of them even thought about moving away from the family to take a job. My father and my uncles worked supporting their family's at the same job their entire careers until retirement. Having survived the Depression and serving in World War II, none of them had the opportunity to go to college or take a chance and chase their dream in some other part of the country. 

Being raised Italian Catholic, there were certain expectations our parents had of us. Besides the obvious - religion, the unspoken but predominate one was that like them, we would find a job, get married and live as close as possible to the rest of the family in Milwaukee. While I enjoyed growing up like I did and loved the closeness of my extended family, I never felt like this was my destiny. I knew there was something more I was going to do and ultimately it wasn’t going to be in Milwaukee.

I made the self-portrait as a class assignment while I was attending college getting my degree in photography. In order to afford to go to college, I lived at home, worked in a steel mill at night, sold my car and took the bus to school every day. The bus route included a trip via a long viaduct that connected downtown to the south side of the city over an industrial valley. Below was a tire recycling plant I could see from my elevated bus seat on my way home. It always interested me as I watched the late afternoon light scrape across the shapes and forms of the mountains of tires. Thinking about my self-portrait assignment after riding the bus past the tire plant for a few days, it occurred to me that I felt like that one whitewall tire sitting there in a huge sea of black wall tires. In many ways I was like the rest of the tires but something about me felt different. I couldn't articulate it at the time but it was as if the other tires represented my life in Milwaukee if I stayed. I decided to come back and make a photograph of that as my self-portrait.

It was early spring and I waited for one of those unusual days in Milwaukee when the sun was actually out. There was no place to park on the viaduct and since it was about a mile long with the tire plant at the midway point, I had my girlfriend drop me off with my 4 X 5 view camera attached to a tripod and come back an hour later to pick me up.

I was the only student to turn in an image not actually made of themselves. I remember it didn’t go over too well with my professor, but I always liked the image and still show it. As it turned out, besides me, only one other cousin decided to move away from Milwaukee.