In Their Element

A Westerly photographer captures interesting people in suburbia


In ancient Roman mythology, the god Janus is depicted as having two faces because he is the master of both the past and the future. Photographer and Italian immigrant Maria Scaglione has a similar duality in her work, balancing a career as a wedding photographer with her passion for documenting the lives of unique individuals in their homes and surrounded by their personal histories.

Scaglione spent the first 12 years of her life in the tiny Calabrian village of Cocozello before her parents brought her to America to settle in Westerly. Inspired by the textured landscape and mountains of her birthplace, Scaglione developed a passion for sculpture from an early age, even apprenticing at a marble-carving studio in Florence during a return to Italy to study art and art history.

At the same time, she was nurturing her interest in photography, capturing documentary-style images of her relatives and neighbors engaged in everyday village life both in Cocozello and Westerly. Furthering her move away from the three-dimensional world of sculpture, Scaglione attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City to study photography, learning at this bastion of postmodernism to work with reality as it is – to “become an objective viewer and take something back from that,” she says.

As wedding photographer, however, Scaglione must follow certain conventions: no matter how avant-garde the bride and groom, for example, everyone wants photos of the bride walking to the altar, the exchange of vows, the first kiss. What keeps the work interesting for Scaglione is the opportunity to capture the less-staged, more organic moments in between these standard, staged scenes, where she can become less of an artisan and more of a photojournalist.

As a teenager growing up in South County, Scaglione was jarred by the regimentation of suburban America, particularly in contrast to the free- form environment she knew in Italy. “In Westerly, everything was flat, all the houses were alike,” she says. “I always wanted to know how people lived in that environment.”

Capturing people in their own spaces – or “creating my own space within their established ground,” as she puts it – was a natural outgrowth of this curiosity. But Scaglione isn’t interested in documenting the banality of suburbia: rather, she seeks out “intriguing” people to profile. Some might call them characters, recluses or eccentrics, but Scaglione has a way of drawing such people out and getting them to share their passions.

It’s the individuals who are the stars of her images, not their surroundings; Scaglione’s goal is to get her subjects to feel at ease and to capture them in their natural environment, and not to highlight their fabulous dining room. On one shoot, for example, Scaglione ended up posing her subject in the crook of a tree in the backyard when all interior settings proved unsatisfactory.

Scaglione will typically shoot 1,000 images in one of these sessions. “I like looking for the one picture I didn’t know I was getting,” she says. A dozen of these images she submitted to the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts recently won Scaglione a $1,000 fellowship grant, and Classic Framers in Westerly staged the first local exhibition of her Interior Explorations collection in October.

After a decade of making a living as a wedding photographer, Scaglione is enjoying the freedom of having her subjects work for her, rather than the other way around. “What I enjoy is the search for surprises,” she says. “I like to let the process guide me.”


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