☛ Saxe Photo Blog: “John Max” by David Saxe, 2008. © David Saxe, 2011. Used with permission.
The above portrait of Canadian photographer John Max who died last Thursday was taken in Montreal by his friend and fellow photographer David Saxe on August 7, 2008. Earlier today, I wrote to Mr. Saxe and ask for the permission to use his photograph. He was kind enough to provide me with additional information about the context where it was taken:
The photo was taken on August 7, 2008 at John’s place on St. Denis Street. I had not seen him since his problems with his brother regarding their home in Ville St. Michele and he called me out of the blue. As it happened, I was planning a trip to Montreal the following week from my home in Vermont so we spent a few hours together and caught up. I took about 15 photos of him and he took one of me with a disposable camera. Come to think of it, I have never seen a photo that he ever took of me and he had taken more than a few over the years. They are probably lying among the 1500 rolls of undeveloped film that he told me he had.
David Saxe was a good friend of John Max. On his blog, he wrote a poignant testimony about his friendship with John, how it came to be and what role photography had in it:
One year, I think it was in 1967 or around there, I was subletting an apartment from my brother who was in England for a year and John rang the door bell. He did not know Henry was away but he came in anyways and we spent a couple of hours drinking coffee and talking. At that time I wasn’t sure about being a photographer and was into it in a sort of half-assed way. I showed him some prints, but in his direct blunt manner he told me that they were uninteresting, poorly printed, and I had a long way to go. He then told me that he was going to be preparing for an upcoming show and he could use some help and would I be interested in helping him print his contact sheets. For the next week, I would show up at his place in Ville St. Michele at 9:00 PM. We would have drink some tea, and then descend into his basement darkroom for the remainder of the night. Twenty pots of coffee later, I would emerge at 5:00AM into the early morning summer first light and take the bus back to my place. This went on for a week and we must have printed well over 500 contact sheets. I think my passion for taking photographs originated in John’s basement that summer. (read more)
I first came aware of John Max and his work a few weeks ago when I watched the excellent documentary John Max. A Portrait by Canadian filmmaker Michel Lamothe. Something about this documentary made a deep impression on me. It wasn’t quite the usual “portrait of an artist” for at least two reasons.
First, although John Max’s talent is recognized by fellow photographers like Gabor Szilasi and Robert Frank (see bellow), his work remains virtually unknown in Canada or elsewhere.
Second, the documentary is as much about John Max’s work than it is about the fact that, for the second half of his life, he refused –consciously or not– to produce art. John Max is known for at least two things: for the famous Open Passport Series and for the fact that he didn’t produce anything near the same scale afterward. He’s the photographer who wouldn’t develop his films (as David Saxe pointed out in the email he sent me¹). In the documentary, he’s seen taking pictures with a small consumer camera while one of his friends wonders if there’s any film in it.
There’s no reason to romanticize or idealize this aspect of his life (it wasn’t always easy on his entourage) but I can’t help to find it fascinating (if not disturbing). It reminds me of one of my favorite characters from American literature: Bartleby, the scrivener who “would prefer not to” do anything. Many analyses were and are still written about Herman Melville’s short story. Among them, I found this excerpt from philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Bartleby, or On Contingency” somehow comforting:
Potentiality, however, is the hardest thing to consider. For if potentiality were always only the potential to do or to be something, we would never experience it as such; it would exist only in the actuality in which it is realized, as the Megarians maintained. An experience of potentiality as such is possible only if potentiality is always also potential not to (do or think something) (…)” (“Bartleby, or On Contingency” in Potentialities, tr. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 250)
I found it hard to find good resources online about John Max. According to the Montreal Gazette (see bellow), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is planning a retrospective of John Max’s career. Hopefully, it will give his work a little bit more visibility. In the meantime, here’s what I was able to gather on the Internet:
“John Max – I have known him thru his work – later as a friend living the solitary life of a man believing – accepting his faith and to continue. You are the link (from the end of 2nd W. War) to Contemporary Canadian Photography. To me OPEN PASSPORT is an enduring witness – a silent voice in the vast empty Canadian Space. It is the work of a most passionate and honest human being that happens to be a photographer.” (Robert Frank, November 2002, New York city)
Q: Comment avec-vous fait connaissance avec John Max?
R: Je l’ai connu lorsque j’étais étudiant en cinéma au collège Loyola (aujourd’hui l’Université Concordia). Je ne l’ai pas eu comme professeur, mais Charles Gagnon, qui nous enseignait, nous parlait de lui avec chaleur. Quelques années plus tôt, il avait réalisé sa célèbre exposition Open Passeport et il était comme un héros pour nous. Puis, il est parti quelques années au Japon. À son retour, il a fait une exposition à la galerie Dazibao la même année que moi. Il m’a donné un coup de main et nous sommes devenus amis. Il a commencé à me photographier et m’a inclus dans sa liste de gens qu’il photographiait sans arrêt.
“There is a sense of union which exists between the photographer and subject. There are moments when it becomes spiritual, and I feel John progressively inhabited this realm to the point where his camera, film, enlarger, and darkroom became incidental. To seek refuge in this magical moment was to keep at bay, the tension and sense of obligation to exhibit. Thus, it became this very instant in time, which he was unable to share with others.”
John Max, who achieved renown in the 1960s and ’70s for the “inner fire” of his black and white photographs, died Thursday night at the Montreal General Hospital.
Max, who suffered from lung cancer, was taken to hospital Thursday evening from the Centre Sri Aurobindo on St. Denis St., where he lived for the past eight years. He was 74.
John Max was born in Montreal in 1936 to parents of Ukrainian origin who had arrived in Canada in the 1920s. He studied painting with Arthur Lismer and music at the McGill Conservatory of Music before discovering photography in the late 1950s through Lutz Dille, whose work, strongly influenced by Europeans such as Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Doisneau, brought the subjectivity of the photographer to the fore. Max discovered in this approach something that corresponded with his own vision of the human condition. From that point on, he devoted himself to photography, self-taught at first, and then completing his training with Guy Borremans and Nathan Lyons.
Au mur de la galerie, sur une ou deux rangées — horizontales ou verticales— les images se succèdent, serrées les unes contre les autres, pour former des blocs compacts. Au premier abord, on est frappé par la très grande diversité des scènes, envahi d’une surabondance d’impressions. Aucune logique apparente ne semble réunir ces images dans une séquence narrative comportant un début et une fin. Il s’agit de situations de la vie quotidienne, banales, insignifiantes, de portraits en gros plan, de paysages, de scènes du monde du spectacle — le cirque, les coulisses—, de nus. Celui qui connaît John Max y reconnaîtra l’univers personnel du photographe, les membres de sa famille— mère, femme, enfant— ,ses amis les plus proches. Mais ici, l’absence de titres, de dates, d’indications de lieu, nous laisse au dépourvu face aux images, sans références, sans point d’appui. C’est donc moins à un récit autobiographique et descriptif auquel Max convie le spectateur qu’à une expérience directe et intime de l’image, à une sorte de conversation feutrée au terme de laquelle se découvre une dramaturgie qui cherche à rendre visible, par le détail anodin, l’intimité d’un sujet.
¹ [UPDATE – May 9, 2011] In a subsequent email exchange, David Saxe brought a precision about those rolls of undeveloped films: “Its not that he wouldn’t develop his photos. He couldn’t develop his photos.” He pointed me to a post he published on his blog in 2005 where he further explains his view of the situation:
John is one of the best photographers I have ever known. Unfortunately he also is immersed in the worse case of creative block that I have ever seen or heard of. His career peaked in the early 70′s with his exhibition titled Open Passport in Ottawa and Montreal. He then went to Japan for a few years. He returned with 2500 rolls of unexposed film. Somewhere in the midst of processing this huge volume, his work stopped. “I want to finish developing my film, making my contacts and exhibit the prints” he told me in 1983. “I just have to straighten out my shit first. I have a lot of loose ends to tie up. I have to organize my life before I can develop my film.” Apparently that never happened because he still has 1500 rolls of film rotting somewhere undeveloped. It really a sad tragedy becasue I have three prints that he managed to make from this series before he became distracted, and they are magnificent.
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