Max Waldman focused his medium, photography, on the nude, the actor, and the dancer, with a palette of texture, form, and light. He photographed a vision that remains in our mind after his images are no longer before our eyes. Many influences contributed to his visionary world. Images at once dramatic, melancholic, despairing, and tormented, are rooted in his favorite artists; Bosch, Goya, Daumier, and Rembrandt. Yet these images take life from the Renaissance, Shakespeare, and the classical music he loved.
In the mid-’60s, Max Waldman gave up working as a commercial photographer. Friends Morris Carnovsky, Marcel Marceau, and Zero Mostel became his first subjects. Waldman moved into a cramped studio on 17th Street in Manhattan, which he described as “a thimble of space, 15 feet by 18 feet with a ceiling ten feet high, lights and white walls”. In this space, he started on his quest to photograph “only what I wanted.”
To describe Max Waldman as theatrical gives us insight into his choices of theater and dance pieces. His attraction to avant-garde theater, to the depiction of the darker side of life, is easily seen in the 1966 photographs of Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The play, about a French asylum and the madness within, was a perfect vehicle for him. His style, grainy texture, dramatic light, and dark shadows enhance the moment. The space surrounding the figures becomes as important an element as the figures themselves. Our eyes are riveted to the images before us.
The Marat/Sade photographs established his reputation as an imaginative interpreter of theater and led to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Peter C. Bunnell in July 1967. Besides Max Waldman’s photographs, the works of Frederick Evans, Edward Weston, Clarence White, and Minor White were exhibited. Waldman was delighted with the company. He felt that finally, his artistic approach was being recognized. Bunnell described Waldman’s images as sensuous, evocative, and darkly veiled interpretations of the essence and gesture of theater.
Max Waldman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1919 to Romanian parents. At the age of eight, his father died; unable to support five children, his mother put them into an orphanage.
In the late 1930s, Max was part of the Civil Conservation Corps, where he first started photographing. He later went to Buffalo State Teacher’s College and the Albright Art School. He also attended the Art Students League, where he studied sculpting. In 1947, he traveled to Dade County, Florida, where he photographed the Color Town photo essay.
He became a successful commercial photographer specializing in industrial, fashion, and commercial photography. Books were very important to him, especially art history, aesthetics, and Shakespeare. Oliver Darling describes his friend as mostly self-taught, a very determined person who was a perfectionist and a great lover of theater and classical music.
Waldman haunted the avant-garde theater with Darling in the 1960s and developing friendships with people like Rosemary Harris, Eli Wallach, Ann Jackson, Zero Mostel, and Harold Pinter. His first published book of photographs, ZERO BY MOSTEL, in l965, began as a collaboration between Darling and Waldman. “Max was to do the photographs, I the captions. After seeing the photographs, I told Max’ they don’t need my captions, they stand by themselves”.
With the publication of WALDMAN ON THEATER in 1971, his reputation was established. Morris Waldman, his brother, tells of “everyone “coming to his studio; but despite his renown, it was a struggle to keep going from day to day. In fact, it would not have been possible to survive without Morris’ financial support.
In 1970, Natalia Makarova, prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, defected from Russia. LIFE Magazine asked Waldman to photograph her. This started his romance with the dance world. His haunting images of Makarova as The Dying Swan capture her classical beauty. We see a bird in flight descending into an abyss; we see movement and quietude, the last flurrying, the poignant moment. Clive Barnes, describing Max Waldman’s photographs, wrote, “Makarova’s Dying Swan takes place before or eyes - one can almost hear the music - still pictures are creating movement in our brains.”
Waldman’s attitude towards photographing dance and theater was different. In the latter, he was able to control, direct the actors, but of the former, he said, “I can’t control the exact movement of the dancers in midair; hopefully, a happy accident will occur.” He may not have been able to control the movement but witness his photograph of Judith Jamison in CRY; the movement is stopped and ongoing; the shapes are calligraphic lines in space, the mood perfectly captures regal mother. The entwined bodies of Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins in Afternoon of a Faun and the romantic tragedy of Gelsey Kirkland and Ivan Nagy in Romeo and Juliet all give testimony to Waldman’s artistry. Dance finally provided him with financial independence. People wanted photographs of dancers. The dancers wanted to be immortalized by Waldman, and they happily came down to his studio, costume in hand, ready to dance for their audience of one. In 1977, Max Waldman gave a lecture at the International Center of Photography in which he compared his images to the classics in art, relating his thoughts and theories on art. That he owed a debt to others, he readily acknowledged; their inspiration gave sustenance to his beautiful photographs of torment and passion - still images of movement. Frances Alenikoff said of Waldman, “His genius transmutes the poetic essence of one art form into that of another - making the fleeting moments seem timeless.” At the conclusion of his presentation, Waldman remarked, “What you see here are just the ramblings of my own mind. I don’t know where it all comes from but let me quote a passage by Galileo in THE ASSAYER that I have always loved”:
Talking about sound and the nature of things, Galileo wrote, ‘Therefore I should not be denied pardon if I cannot determine precisely the manner in which comets are produced, especially as I never boasted that I could, knowing that it may occur in some way far beyond our power to imagine. The difficulty of understanding how the cicada’s song is formed even when we have it singing to us right in our hands is more than enough to excuse us for not knowing how has a comet is formed at such immense distance. My primary purpose is to set forth those questions which have appeared to us, to throw doubt upon the opinions previously held, and to propose some new considerations.’
To explore theater, dance, and the nude in a new light, as Galileo explored the nature of the universe was Max Waldman’s legacy to us. He died March 1, 1981, at the age of 61.
Written by Lucille Tortora Curator; Fine Arts Museum of Long Island