By Timothy R Lowery
I was honored to be the APA/DC Member of the Month for May 2013. . .and one of the responsibilities of being featured is you are asked to photograph and interview the next featured member of the month. Accordingly, I was asked to photograph and interview local photography legend Max Hirshfeld.
I had known of Max Hirshfeld’s photography for quite some time, but it was not until a few weeks ago that I had the opportunity to meet the man himself. I received an invitation from the Hemphill Gallery to attend the opening reception of their new exhibit Artist-Citizen, Washington DC. And as fate would have it, one of the featured artists was Max Hirshfeld. When I arrived at the gallery for the reception the first thing I saw immediately upon entering the space was an entire wall of thirty-three stunning portraits taken by Max. He called the exhibited project ILLUMINARIES, as it featured portraits of key players in the Washington DC art scene. I was totally mesmerized by the wall of stunning portraits. I stood there and tried to take in all the subtle nuances of each portrait. . .until finally I had to step to the side to allow others to take in the beauty of the exhibited art. Later in the evening, I had the pleasure of meeting Max and speaking with him for a few minutes about his work. As impressed as I was with Max’s ILLUMINARIES project, the warmth, sense of humor and down-to-earth nature of the man behind the project equally impressed me.
Over thirty years of advertising and editorial photography in the studio and on location coupled with his vibrant yet emotional personal work has made Max one of the best photographers working today. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, GQ, Time, Forbes and Vanity Fair and in advertising campaigns for Amtrak, Johnson & Johnson, Ikea and The US Mint.
I am honored to share the following interview with APA/DC July Member of the Month, Max Hirshfeld.
Portraits and Interview by Timothy R Lowery
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Timothy R Lowery: Were there influences that steered you in the direction of photography from an early age?
Max Hirshfeld: Most certainly my father. He gave me a camera in high school, helped me buy my first Nikon and, with my mother, built a home full of books and music.
What inspires you to take photographs?
I take picture because I have to. Pictures present themselves to me all the time so I used to feel almost guilty if I didn’t try to grab them. It’s only recently that I have learned that absorbing images is sometimes enough and that “mental lightbox” informs and aids me when I do actually push the shutter.
What was your very first professional photography job?
I was the staff photographer at The National Zoo before I turned 24.
How would you describe the evolution of your work?
During my final year in college (GWU 1973) I became enthralled with shooting 4×5 B&W images, mostly abandoned buildings and alley images…lots of texture with no soul. But at the zoo I had to embrace shooting 35mm color transparencies as well as run the darkroom. So I really came to loving photography from two distinct places. When I went out on my own in 1979 I took whatever jobs came along and quickly discovered my passion for shooting people. It wasn’t long before I moved into medium and large format work in a series of studios while still shooting 35 on the street. The advent of digital shooting has in many ways allowed me to circle back to a more organic, spontaneous way of working.
When you plan a photo shoot, do you structure everything or do you leave room for improvisation?
The best planning for a shoot is something akin to the old maxim in carpentry of measuring twice and cutting once. I feel pretty strongly about a buttoned up approach on the technical and crew side while maintaining a very relaxed atmosphere while on set. Knowing my gear, depending on dedicated and smart team members and never considering any assignment as a ‘throw-away’ allows me the most flexibility and the ability to improvise. I like to make it look easy while being in complete control; I love the adrenaline rush when I shoot, knowing the details are covered actually allows me the most freedom to create and be as fully in the moment as possible. And with the wide berth that shooting digitally affords one, taking risks is an added bonus that comes with its own comfort level.
When you receive a new assignment, or you are working on a new project, what is your typical workflow process. . .from pre-production to post-production?
My number one workflow start is a thank you to the person who has hired me. From there it seems to roll out in the following way: planning session with my producer, confirming crew, scouting a location (or hiring someone if its out of town), developing a shot list which hopefully dovetails with the lighting plan I should be devising when the job is confirmed, creating a calendar from which I can work backward filling in any holes regarding rental gear, location permits, wardrobe details, travel arrangements. Then…hopefully, we shoot. Double backup on site, download soon after wrap, archive raw files, build web galleries, initiate post-production if shoot requires outside digital services and confirm delivery schedule with client.
What significant changes in the photography industry have you seen during your career as a professional photographer that 1) excite you, and 2) concern you?
The advent of digital capture still excites me the most…the advent of digital capture still concerns me the most because it has never been easier to take a picture and never harder to stand out from the crowd.
If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your photography career and have a conversation with your younger self, what advice would you give?
I would tell myself to shoot more than I ever thought necessary but to also slow down, to remember that life is short, but art is long.
Finally, your ILLUMINARIES project is beautifully featured on one entire wall of the Artist-Citizen, Washington DC exhibit currently on display at the Hemphill Gallery through July 27th. Could you tell us about your inspiration for the project?
ILLUMINARIES was inspired by two things. First, by Irving Penn and two specific bodies of work: Worlds In A Small Room and the series of portraits of leaders in the art and cultural worlds in New York that was shot in his studio against a simple, two-flat set. The second inspiration was actually a combination of two weather-beaten adages: ‘shoot what you know’ and the best stories are usually in your own back yard. Like all of us I’ve watched Washington explode with restaurants, theaters, retail opportunities, apartment buildings, a certified nightlife, traffic and more. So being a student of popular culture and a fan of social media, I crafted a series of portraits that might begin to tell that story by focusing on some of the key players who give DC a healthy chunk of home-grown soul.
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