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Max Waldman

Text from Ralph Hattersley, published in Popular Photography, January 1979.

THE ARTISTRY OF WALDMAN

Most of us secretly hope that one day we will discover a hidden treasure. We don't really think it will happen, nor do we expect it to walk up and tap us on the shoulder. Naturally, I was greatly surprised when it happened to me a few weeks ago. It started with a telephone call from Max Waldman. He wasted no time on any sort of preliminaries:

"Ralph, this is Max Waldman. I'd like you to come to my studio and see what I've been up to. The pictures you'll see will really stand you on your head." He was right: they turned me upside down, the first time this has happened to me in years.

Though I had talked to Max several times at parties given by our mutual friend Peter Bunnell, I knew little about him. I had been tremendously impressed by some of his pictures which were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York - very powerful and moving interpretations of the play Marat/Sade. But I had no information concerning the photographer who made them. I assumed they must be a case of one shot self transcendence. The photographer steps out of oblivion, excels himself with one magnificent set of pictures, then falls back again into the slough of nothingness.

When I entered Waldman's studio I saw I'd been greatly mistaken in this. On the wall were literally dozens of magnificent pictures. They gave my psyche such a great wrench that I'll never see photography in quite the same way again. I was not only stood on my head but unexpectedly confronted with a large segment of my inner self.

At this point, I have to talk about myself and my reactions to make coherent what Waldman is up to. In his pictures, I saw an aspect of myself I've known about for years but never seen expressed so powerfully. Had I made them all myself, I would have been completely satisfied with them. Even better, they were already made, so I wouldn't have to go through the creative agonies of projecting this inner me into photographs. Why bother to do over what has already been done so marvelously well?

For years I've tried to become a reasonably good critic of photography. This has involved literally thousands of hours of casting about for suitable criteria. I've tried a good many but held onto few. One of the few that seems to really work is this: if a photographer's work represents me, it is good. Here I assume it represents others, too, for in the very deepest way we are all very much alike.

Using this standard of judgment, I've satisfied myself that certain photographers are true artists. Among them are Bruce Davidson, Duane Michals, Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Avedon, Weston, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, Jerry Uelsmann, Bill Brandt, Max Waldman. There are others, but these come first to mind. Each of them represents well something in me.

The individual self is a good deal more vast than most people suppose. So extensive is it, indeed, that it takes all the photographers who ever lived to represent it. Even with that number, the representation is only partial. in a very real sense, it takes the whole human race in its entire history to represent just one human self. Anyone who expresses even a part of this self well, I would call an artist. And this is why Max Waldman flipped me. We'll return now to my visit to his studio.

I studied the pictures, then sat and talked with him for several hours, wondering why he had invited me to this visual feast. I found him a delightful raconteur, who speaks in much the same way that he photographs. He showed me some written pieces in rough form. Here again was a reflection of his total "life style." His writing has the flavor of Old England in it. As he himself says, "I've robbed all the tombs." His photography, conversation, and writing are deeply steeped in the history of the arts.

Seeing that I was engrossed in his conversation, Max took his time getting to the point. He carefully built up a case for the photographer who chooses to let his work remain unknown to the general public. The gist of it is that public opinion can put pressures on an artist that make it extremely difficult for him to be true to himself and his work.

He said that three years ago he had decided he knew exactly what he wanted to use photography for and how he had to do it. He had finally arrived at this point in his late 40s. The first thing was to sacrifice a profitable business in advertising photography. The second was to make photographs only when influenced by his own, personal muse. As Max expresses it: "I know what I'm about. No one has to tell me."

Finishing with the lengthy preliminaries, Waldman tentatively approached his reasons for wanting me to see his work. In deciding to dedicate himself entirely to photography as a serious art form, he also had to discover ways for making his living from it. Though he seems to have little attachment to luxuries, he does need food, clothing, shelter and film. To insure filling his modest requirements, he needs just enough public exposure to let people know that he exists and perhaps to encourage some to help underwrite his future projects. He says he has large plans and is fully capable of carrying them out.

Thus we at length came to my temporary place in Waldman's scheme of things. He had been impressed by my writing about John Loengard in The Hattersley Class. From this, he concluded that he could probably trust me and that he and I might be able to work together. He said that he felt it could be important for a photographer to get public exposure, but only if it were done in the right way. His work should be presented so that it can be seen for what it actually is.

Here he showed me numerous examples in which editors had badly mutilated photographers' work, both in camera magazines and in those for general circulation. I agreed that he was entirely correct. For example, the new portfolio series in the renovated Life magazine has been very badly handled. Both Max and I think that the photographers would have been better off to have refused publication. He also made the point that the photography magazines have also done a bad job in this respect. Again, I entirely agreed.

A good many art directors are unconsciously anti photography, and they mess up photographs in carload lots. Or, wanting to get into the creative act, they chop up (crop) pictures right and left. We might call this "negative creation by subtraction." All professional photographers are very familiar with this syndrome. And as I've suggested, Waldman has been a pro for a very long time and knows from personal experience.

Writers and editors also take their licks at the poor photographer's work, using it as raw material with which to create personal castles in the air. Since this is one of their very favorite preoccupations, Waldman frankly wanted to know if the two of us could find a way of getting around it. I said I didn't know but that we could try.

He said he wasn't interested in public exposure as such - "Whatever for? What real good does it do for those really dedicated to their work?" He insisted he was speaking for all serious photographers when he said that their work should be presented to the public in a clean, undiluted, and honest way. His feeling is that any other type of exposure is either useless to them or positively harmful.

Again, I found myself in profound agreement. Though this may sound like nitpicking, I've been in the editorial field long enough to see literally hundreds of examples of the mutilation Waldman fears for himself and his peers in serious photography.

In this first visit to Waldman, I decided I'd stumbled across one of photography's few unknown greats. Rather, he'd cast out a net and hauled me in. In his special field. theatrical photography, he towers over anyone else. now and in the past. Furthermore, I seriously doubt if we'll see his equal again in the next one hundred years. Let me explain the basis for these opinions.

When we talk about Waldman, we have to use the term "art." Though this is a much abused word. it is the only one that will do. Art isn't tinsel or dancing around a pitcher of martinis. It's something else. Art grabs you by the gut. It confronts you with reality. This doesn't mean it's comfortable. however. for reality as such is often much more uncomfortable.

Anything that glosses it over is not art. In fact. it is anti-art (and anti-human) in the very deepest way. Though this is a world in which most of the so called art is actually its opposite there is still a little bit of the real thing around - fortunately for the human race.

Art is a gut thing. It literally grabs you by the solar plexus and says: "These are the hidden things you've been unconsciously worrying about all these long years. Through my eyes, you can at last see them for what they really are. And then you can finally come to terms with them."

We are all lost souls

Art makes life stand out as something large. In Waldman's art. you see that life means being born and dying, with a brief. blind struggle for understanding in between. In the largest perspective, nothing truer could be said about the human race. We are all lost souls, every one of us. And the way home is a long and hard one. I don't think anyone has depicted a lost soul better than Max Waldman, no matter what medium he has used.

The idea is unpleasant. of course, for who wants to know the truth of the human condition? But here it is for all who have the courage to live without their rose-colored glasses. The way to freedom and salvation is to let reality belt you in the gut; not to drown it in escapism, alcohol, or pot.

Though it probably isn't necessary, I'm going to fell you what I think you're confronting when you look at this Max Waldman portfolio. It sometimes helps you see if another will point things out for you. First of all, you're seeing talented young actors working desperately hard to say something meaningful about life's central problems - being, self discovery, self-liberation. They are trying to show that human life can be seen as a cosmic thing, not just as an episode played out in a teacup.

You are also looking at a photographer who has understood what the actors were getting at and has given them a lift toward their goal. In effect, his photographers are telling them: "This is what you're really trying to say. This is what the playwright meant. And this is why we as a nation badly heed a theater." The actors in general agree with this. Many have even gone so far as to say they didn't really understand the plays they were in until they saw them reinterpreted by Waldman.

There are some things we're not seeing, too. These should be talked about. Where we see nude bodies, for example, we're not seeing the next anti-woman Playboy pull out. They're not calendar pictures for barbershops, nor are they anything even remotely like the spoil from a police pornography raid on 42nd Street.

In the actors, and the photographer, we're not seeing minds that revel in nudity as such. The sole point of the nudity here is to help cast a light on this struggle called "human life." On this great field of battle, whether people wear clothes is of no consequence whatsoever.

In the Marat/Sade pictures, we're not being told it's terribly important to know that madmen exist in this world. Or that there is any good reason for acting out the things that only madmen do. The reasons for the pictures are much closer to us than a play about an ancient French asylum.

The real meaning is something like this: through their art, some young actors have discovered the madness in themselves and projected it from the stage. They offer it as a mirror in .which we can see our own unsanity. Waldman's photography polishes this mirror brightly so the dark will show.

I don't think we're really hearing egos moaning to us through the pictures, though actors are often accused of egotism. It seems more likely we're seeing minds that have begun to discover the thick prison walls, which egotism builds around people, and are trying to show what a desperate struggle it takes to tear them down. The desperation is certainly here. What else would explain it so well? If the theater and photography can help us to understand such things, it is a measure of our need for them.

With the picture of Titania and Bottom we move into. a less symphonic mode. Queen Titania has been bewitched to think this silly donkey is actually a young gentleman divine. Very human of her. It suggests that even fairy queens and angels can make mistakes. In this quieter mood. we can respect ourselves by comparison. insufficient as we are. If in our hearts, we know that tomorrow we'll rejoin the battle as best we can.

Max Waldman makes all his pictures in his studio. As you see, he seldom uses props. The actors must abandon the familiar security of rehearsal rooms and recreate what the playwright had to say in an empty studio surrounded by four white walls. There is light. of course, which adds a kind of magic to an otherwise naked room. And there is a magic of purpose. The young people with whom Waldman works are utterly dedicated to their work.

Actors stay in characters

He will work only with plays he's deeply interested in and with acting companies whose methods and objectives he admires. Even so, it's surprising what he gets out of his subjects. In photographing actors it's a great problem to get them to stay in character. Instead of staying immersed in the personalities they're supposed to be playing, their minds wander off somewhere.

They're especially prone to do this when they see that their only audience is a photographer. It doesn't seem to happen with Waldman. In looking through literally hundreds of his pictures, I didn't find one case of an actor out of character.

One result of their being so deeply in character is that the photographs don't tend to look like theatrical pictures at all. They're more like photo-journalism by a man who has worked his way deeply inside of situations very few people are privy to.

I wanted to know how Waldman managed to do it. He said that first of all, he knows what he wants and gives a very strong lead to the actors. He studies both the play and the acting company thoroughly. so that he has a realistic concept of their strengths and weaknesses.

Then there is Waldman himself. He has a monolithic personality few actors would care to thwart. Waldman wants what Waldman wants. and that's all there is to it. As one actress put it. "Max lets its do exactly what we want - as long as it is also exactly what he wants."

In working with a play, Waldman makes no attempt to follow the interpretation already created by the director. In his studio. the play is entirely reinterpreted. He uses three basic approaches in setting the action. In the first. he has a definite picture concept in mind.

He sees this Lis a relatively tight visual framework. within which the actors can do their thing. Though they have all the latitude they actually need. they are not permitted to exceed it by breaking apart the predetermined design of the picture.

Using this approach. Waldman may take over total responsibility for the picture. directing the actors down to the very minutiae - "John, move your left hand two inches to the right. Alice. more twist and tension in your back. Marv. more thrust in your neck. Allan. carry your weight in your right hip," etc. With a dozen or more actors, the action can get very frenetic for Max. During all this, he also demands that his subjects stay entirely in character.

He goes with fixed action

He uses another approach when a certain bit of action has already been strongly established. That is, when it has been fixed in the public mind by actual or supposed history, the playwright, or the director of the play. In this case, to reinterpret it might attract attention to the reinterpretation as such, which would defeat his photographic purposes.

An example here would be the strongly established idea that Marat was Murdered while sitting in his bathtub. Waldman wouldn't have him murdered in bed, of course, nor even when standing up in the tub. Faced by a limitation like this, he satisfies himself by completely redesigning the scene. Since neither the playwright nor the director had the camera in mind, the redesign is necessary.

His third approach is more amorphous. He sets the action or meaning of a scene with a key word or concept, then he asks the actors to work freely within the fairly loose restrictions he has defined. Here, of course, he has much less of a notion of what his final pictures will look like.

In thus initiating an action, Waldman makes it very clear to the actors that they must not try to enter his mental dimension. Whatever they do must evolve from their own mental and emotional framework. Should they try to pick his brains, or second-guess him, there would develop something patently untrue to human nature. It would look "actorish."

Since Waldman moves so boldly in his reinterpretations, it would he interesting to see how a director would react to it. Take Peter Brook, director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, who directed Marat/Sade. He is generally considered one of the finest directors in the English-speaking world.

Upon receiving a portfolio of Marat/Sade photographs from Waldman, he wrote him a letter. Max showed it to some actors who had worked with Brook. To his surprise, they burst into gales of laughter. He asked them why.

"Well. Peter Brook isn't given to flattery," said one. "If I should play a role that requires me to slash my wrists onstage each night, I'd naturally hope for a glimmer of loving concern from him. He would only say, 'What! No more blood?' " This may be an old saw in the theater, but it does get its point across.

Brook praises in letter

The letter reads: "I think your photographs are among the most remarkable I've ever seen. It is rare to see a photographer's work that has such a strong, personal stamp. I am most impressed. They are beautiful and capture the spirit of the play with the utmost freedom. . . ."

To accompany a portfolio in Aperture, Brook said further: "Max Waldman saw the Marat/Sade and responded deeply to its images with images of his own: images that are the same and different, as though he, peering through the smoked glass of his own obsessions and hallucinations, sees a fellow sufferer on parallel rails. His world of forms and shadows is tragic, melancholy, elegiac, primitive. It is not my world, nor that of Peter Weiss: it is our work revisited through Mr. Waldman's eyes. I like his eyes."

I think that Peter Brook sums up Waldman as well as anyone could. He also explains my tremendous reaction to his photographs. It just happened that I was one of the "fellow-sufferers on parallel rails." I found the obsessional, hallucinative part of my being documented in the Waldman pictures. I've called them "art" for the record was clear, accurate.

It is it limited art, to be sure, for there is much else that can truthfully be said about human beings. Nonetheless, that is all we have had so far in photography. We've yet to see the photographer who could express the self in all its dimensions. If Waldman were to suddenly free himself from his obsessions. the world would be the loser. It is through seeing other men's obsessions that we discover and learn to defeat our own.


 

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