She was standing at a bus stop in Reservoir Hill. He described her as dark-skinned and very attractive. They made eye contact. She gave him a slight smile, and he clicked the camera shutter. A few minutes later, she hopped on the bus, never to be seen again. And although no one knows her name, thousands have seen her face.
After more than 50 years of work behind the lens, Baltimore photographer Mayden is enjoying something of a moment. In 2019, he published his first book, an award winner, with that woman on the cover. Now a number of his powerful images are featured in the recently released “Between the World and Me,” an HBO film based on the literary work of Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Mayden is a street photographer experts have praised for his documentary quality and work with light. All of his images are captured in black and white, mostly focused on West Baltimore, where he grew up. His portfolio includes quiet moments that capture porch sitters, bus riders and city dwellers. He has documented sizzling summer days and crisp, cold winter days where snow blankets the crosswalks and streets.
Early in Mayden’s career, in the 1970s and ’80s, figures such as novelist James Baldwin recognized the photographer’s work. Baldwin, who acquired some of Mayden’s images, praised the pictures for documenting the “majesty of black life” and for getting portraits of people who were “weary but not cast down.” Mayden had showings at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C.
The recent attention was sparked by Gabrielle Dean, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. She first met Mayden at a casual dinner at his home through his friend, Lawrence Jackson, an English and history professor at Hopkins. She was struck by the black-and-white portraits on the dining room walls. The images were printed on a high-quality paper with a sheen that looked almost silver.
“There’s a lot of conversation about how photos were developed to illuminate White skin,” Dean said. “But Mayden tunes his photos to be incredible for Black skin.”
She describes the portraits as arresting, including one called “Urban Gentleman,” which depicts a man with piercing eyes. She and others were in awe of the rich history documented by Mayden, including images of landmarks that no longer stand, such as the famed Royal Theatre on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mayden wound up donating 150 of his urban Baltimore photographs to the Sheridan Libraries for the university’s Billie Holiday Project for the Liberation Arts, an initiative overseen by Jackson that is designed to foster links between Hopkins and the city’s historic African American communities. They also collaborated on an exhibit at the George Peabody Library in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood.
In October 2019, Johns Hopkins Press published Mayden’s book, “Baltimore Lives: The Portraits of John Clark Mayden,” a collection of 101 of his most important photographs, a record of the many faces living in the city between 1970 and 2012. Among hundreds of books published by small, independent and university presses, the book was named the bronze winner for nonfiction photography books in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year awards.
In their citation, the judges called out Mayden’s technical virtuosity, saying his rich portraits of city residents were a rebuke to the negative portrayals of the city: “Mayden’s work freezes moments and places in time. They capture ordinary people ‘who are not expecting us,’ many of whom seem burdened by problems, but whose everyday lives resonate with intensity. . . . Gorgeous velvety tones and textures reveal skill with composition, lighting, and darkroom technique.”
Mayden was introduced to the art of photography when he was just 19, while a reporting intern at WMAR-TV. He remembers having an editor who used to have Mayden and the photographer wait on the porch outside the station until the editor made decisions about that day’s assignments.
In that downtime, the photographer would give Mayden quick lessons on a Nikon 35 camera. It all came down to mastering three basic functions: f-stop, aperture and shutter speed. Once Mayden had a grasp of what he could accomplish with the camera, he decided to learn how to develop photos using the darkroom in the newsroom studio.
“I was a photographer before I became anything else,” Mayden said.
Mayden also had a love for social justice. When he was in high school, he would lead his classmates in rallies and demonstrations, and was involved with reopening the second-oldest Black YMCA in the nation.
After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in political science and government and a minor in fine arts, Mayden went on to become an attorney. He served in the solicitor’s office for Baltimore City, working primarily with real estate in neighborhoods around Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mayden dedicated his working life to law and says that the art of photography and his passion for social justice often combined.
“I wanted to express political interest, and my camera was a self-expression tool,” Mayden said.
From development distribution agreements to property settlements, Mayden was frustrated with the city’s blight and believed the camera was a way for people to see what could be done to make Baltimore better.
The work led to some tough moments, like the time early on when he took the portrait he titled “Urban Gentleman” in front of Lexington Market.
A bystander was stumbling off the street and had saliva and mucus coming out of his mouth. The man’s eyes were glazed over and his clothes were disheveled.
“It was intense,” Mayden said. “I took a giant step forward and took my shot.”
Mayden has said in the past that he had to learn to be tenacious and throw up his camera in strangers’ faces. He said that much of the devastation he has seen in the neighborhoods over several decades has not changed.
“The struggle remains high,” Mayden said. “Though there is progress, it has not gotten better to the point I assumed it would.”
Today, Mayden does not go anywhere without his Hasselblad camera. He is retired and, because of the pandemic, spends most of his waking hours in his garage in Hunting Ridge, a historic neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore. He has transformed the garage into a darkroom where more than 30,000 negatives are stored.
Of the prints that he chooses, he spreads them out on a long table and uses a pinch of bleach to maintain the details in the image. Sometimes Mayden listens to music and sings as loud as he can in the process. Other times, he simply works in silence.
Said Mayden: “I enjoy myself and the epic battle between me, myself and the darkroom.”
— Baltimore Sun