Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

The Hornet

Serving the Fullerton Community Since 1922

The Hornet

HiStory: The Happy and The Ugly

By Amanda Morales


Tony Maher is known as simply a photography professor to many at Fullerton College. An Irish man who wears Ninja Turtle t-shirts while teasingly warning his students to not ever do hand hearts in photos. Ever. He loves all things athletic and won’t think twice about telling you how much your photo isn’t as great as you think it is.

Despite his blunt tongue the atmosphere in his classrooms is always that of a Bob Marley song, friendly and inviting. Javier Larios, who’s currently taking his Analog to Digital class,  said, “He’s an outgoing guy who you can tell really loves what he does.”

Maher is an established photographer in the field and has had a number of solo exhibitions thus far in his life. His pictures have been showcased in The Robert and Frances Fullerton Museum of Art and in The Museum of Art in Lancaster. They’ve traveled all over Southern California to Augustus, Georgia, New York, San Francisco, Berkeley, Toronto, Australia, and Ireland. “If I were to name all my exhibitions it’d be ten pages long,” he laughs.

Maher loves photography so much he’s managed to incorporate it into HiStory, the title of his 20 year long diorama project that showcases the happy and the ugly of his life. Where instead of focusing on the actual diorama itself he makes viewers look at photographs of his creations.

The idea to connect two different elements of art started when he was in college. Even though his life centers on photography now, it wasn’t always so. He was majoring in drawing and painting and was planning on becoming a tattoo artist. If one saw his heavily decorated arms you wouldn’t think it’d be too far off from the truth.

“I took a photo class and had a really great instructor, really influenced me,” he said as he waved hello to the incoming students.

“The work of Walker Evans is actually the photographer that inspired me to change to photo because of the realness that hides in the imagery,” he animatedly expressed with his hands. “But it’s all still created.”

Growing up, he was in love with models that replicated life.“There used to be a place called Miller’s Outpost that around the top of the crown molding base would have old models of Wild West towns. It was like an intricate doll house, so it was a toy, but it was very realistic and in a grown-up store, so it was cool.”

His fascination for the realistic miniatures of the everyday stayed with him until he found an abandoned model in a trash bin full of discarded dioramas. “It looked so much like my friend’s house, I knew I had to take it”, he said. So he took that one, and then he took some more from the pile.

He re-created a new story out of it and let his imagination run wild.

“The idea that creating an image, creating the narrative between me and the viewer and what’s in the photo is really amazing to me,” Maher said. “Then making the dioramas gave me the hands-on aspect of actually creating the space.”

When he re-photographs those completed diorama pieces, it’s just another layer of another aspect that adds to the narrative he wants.

If you look at the array of models he’s created over the years, a lot of them have backstories that can’t simply be explained with a photograph alone. It seems as normals as waking up on a Sunday morning but a more darker tone is hidden underneath. One diorama titled “Fixing the Sprinklers with Gramps” looks just like that: but it isn’t. 

“Me and my younger brother Andy were fixing the sprinklers with my grandfather and during this event, my grandfather, who was a WWII vet, had like a relapse,” he said with the shake of his head. “He started talking about being in a foxhole and living in a ditch just like this and watching his friends blow up. It was crazy.” 

Something so mundane and so ordinary reminded his grandfather of a place of war and that really stuck in Maher’s mind until he was able to recreate that memory. Maher usually only showcases photographs of his dioramas but just once he broke that rule back 2011 when he brought the diorama to a big solo show at Cal State University San Bernardino. A real foxhole was made and the diorama was then put inside. Two shovels stood beside the hole while a picture of the diorama hung above it. An inception of imagery to bring the point home.

“My wife’s favorite is the ‘Skinny Dipping’ one,” he laughs. It’s hung up in his living room where he sees it everyday. The picture of the diorama lacks humans, a common pattern in his work, and focuses on a lit up swimming pool in someone’s backyard. “I don’t know why she likes the photo recreation of her husband skinny dipping with a different woman, but yeah.” 

In his studio he has the “Rafting Napa River with Uncle Jim.”. It brings him back to his childhood days with his brother when they fished and camped for the very first time, a loving memory. The image of the yellow raft now permanently resides on his body as a tattoo.

You’ll quickly notice that a lot of his houses are caught on fire amongst the dioramas. “It’s a part of living in Southern California,” Maher nonchalantly says. 

When he used to work at the newspaper, he used to interact with these natural events as an on-the-scenes photographer. “An aspect I loved other than photographing the fires itself, devastating as it may be, was the community that came together. People helping people out in a time of need,” he said. 

Early next year Maher has eight pieces that will be exhibited at an event called In the Sunshine of Neglect, a giant show of Southern Californian artists who’s work will be shown at the California Museum of Photography. Big names in the industry are in this thing like John Divola, Lewis Baltz and Julie Shafer. Anthony Hernandez will also be showcasing. “Anthony Hernandez is the guy who totally influenced my undergraduate work, when he visited my grad school I talked to him and he’s a really cool guy,” he said. “I kind of stalked him to finally be able to meet him, but oh well.” 

When people come see his work, he wants them to feel something. He wants people to see his narrative or maybe see their own. Maher adores photography because the photographer is the one who makes the tone of the scene. Photographers construct how viewers will feel and how they’ll leave feeling. “A photograph isn’t by accident; it’s by purpose and if anything I want people to understand that while knowing there’s an intentional story going on.”