KT: How did you get into photography? When/what was your first encounter with photography?
MP: I bought a cheap Japanese SLR 35mm camera in 1966, the year I dropped out of high school. I really wanted to be a full-time surfer and so the sort of photography I was interested in was sports oriented. Big Wednesday at Bells Beach, how good does Kenny’s cut-back look through a telephoto lens. Surfing with my friends in the mid 60’s introduced us to the road trip. Sometimes we would begin a search for the perfect waves not far from Melbourne and then later find ourselves thousands of kilometres to the north having followed the Southern Ocean coast all the way to the Pacific Ocean in tropical Queensland. The surfer community also formed the first big youth counter culture in Australia. We were draft dodging (anyone interested in a little war in Vietnam?) dope smoking, Led Zeppelin- listening drop outs living ok and unmolested on social security dole payments. Mainstream Australia and its passé stereotypes were of little interest to us.
Today the road trip remains a strong facilitator of new production for me. The meaning of what I love about Australia is always invested in Highway Sleeping out, eating dinner on the dry creek bed, moving on the next morning. Constantly sampling the millions of square kilometres that constitute the Australian land mass. An Australia of the early 21st century, people, other animals, small broken towns, single-lane black top roads to infinity, solitary petrol stations, a snake on the road, various oceans (3), seas (2), desserts (14) countless primary forests, people everywhere, no people anywhere.
KT: You have published/edited 19 books in your 50 year long photographic journey including 3 books being recently published in 2016 – “Promises To Keep”, ” Max Pam par Bernard Plossu” and ” Autobiographies” What do you like about photography in a book format? What is the collaborative process between you and your publisher considering you have worked with a very wide range of publishers?
MP: For inspiration in design, layout and content I have always been heavily influenced by Asian traditions in bookmaking. The great museums of India are full of brilliantly illuminated books. It may be a small text and image book about the sex life of a Maharajah 300 years ago. The book is full of brilliant miniature paintings, almost photographic in their intensity. The pictures define sex, death and fashion, a similar obsession shared by the print media of today. In Japan the bookmaking tradition is exemplified by the wood block prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. This thousand year old artform is the force behind Japanese Manga comics, the new wave of Japanese animated films and the unique style of contemporary Japanese photography.
At art school I was always impressed by my painter friends who filled sketchbook after black bound sketchbook with studies of observed moments rendered in soft black pencil and charcoal. We would be in a pub somewhere socialising and out would come the book. These young artists could drink, converse, sketch, laugh, drink more, impress a potential lover, all of which was invested in those black books. By the end of semester six jump-cut months of their lives had been rendered in upwards of ten fat sketchbooks, full of life experience replayed in image and text. Part of the discipline they were taught in drawing 101 was the keeping of a visual diary. Students from photomedia were not really instructed to operate that way. The group of prints or the photo-essay was seen as an end in itself, the substance of what you produced semester on semester, a box, a portfolio of prints. From that period I co-opted the idea of the visual diary for my photowork, text-image books, the blank ivory pages thirsty for content. The act of photography, the formatting of the print for a discrete volume, the sequencing of pages and the reflexive texts and illustrations formed my earliest visual diaries.
Making a journal is also a good therapy. Travelling can be an intensely lonely experience. It can be tough. I can remember some very long nights with nothing but working on my little journal, alone in my hotel room to keep me sane. There is also time to burn when traveling alone, the whole evening and as much of the day that you wish to invest in the journal. I taught myself how to do watercolours on one particularly de-personalising ride through East Africa. Normally I will write about the experience of the day as a block of text and create a space for the appropriate photograph. From the very outset I found that writing describes the subtlety of emotions far better than painting orphotography. I’m designing the book in my head all the time. Just as each travel experience is different, so too are the journals.
The photographs are added after the journey, when I get home to the darkroom. The book makes the journey with me.
It’s important that the publisher you work with has a big print run and strong distribution. My book Supertourist was published by Editions Bessard, (Paris 2013). Pierre is an excellent publisher to work with in so many ways, very collaborative, smart, fun to hang out with and intensely committed to making beautifully designed books with strong content. Unfortunately his business plan was very small scale, probably of necessity. Supertourist only ran to five hundred copies and had zero distribution other than sales made online. The book had very low visibility, five hundred people own it, it had no public life whatsoever given that it was only ever sold online. For instance a life as a book store copy where perhaps hundreds of people will leaf through the book, connect with the book. Maybe ten people in one hundred will buy the book and take it home, which is crucial to the publisher, but those other ninety browsers are just as important to the photographer, to me. As a publishing event the book was there and gone so fast, the edition sold out in eight months and vanished into the private domain. There was never any talk of a second edition which was disappointing. I worked on that book for five years and I believe it’s one of my best works. This is the conundrum of working with a small publisher. It’s possible to establish a real partnership in the creation of the book, something much harder with a big publisher, like Steidl.
If I had done Supertourist with Steidl the book would have had a very long half life out there in the world and in the libraries. But it would not have looked as good. I did one book with Steidl, Indian Ocean Journals. There is a youtube film out there called how to make a book with Gerhard Steidl. In the film Steidl is talking with the photographer he is publishing, at some point in the conversation there is a discussion about the relevance of the mid tones. The photographer voices his concern about keeping these tones relevant. Steidl responds with ‘fuck the mid tones” which is exactly what he did with Indian Ocean Journals. The book is way too contrasty because he deep sixed the mid tones. Our original arrangement was that the book would be printed in four colours so as to pick up the nuance in the change of tones in the pages that reproduced journal pages. Steidl reneged on this just before print production on the book.
He called me and announced that it would be a duotone book. There was no room to object or negotiate. If I didn’t like it I could take the book elsewhere. The book had been elsewhere. Aperture in NYC had the original book model but were hesitant to publish it without finding a co-publisher to share the financial risk. I heard later from an Aperture insider of the time that the group who made the call on which book to go with were keen to publish India Ocean Journals. It was Michael E. Hoffman, a former student of Minor White, who became Aperture Foundation’s publisher and executive director in 1965 who didn’t like the economics of doing the book, apparently he thought it would bankrupt them. When Steidl called me in 1999 and asked me if I had any book projects on the burner I pulled it from limbo in NYC and it was published in 2000. A much better result despite the purged mid tones.
KT: Your photography comprises of break taking spontaneity that includes human innocence, crazy travels, beautification of weird objects and calmness of sufism. How do you select your subjects? How do you manage to get so intimate with your subjects?
MP: In early 1971 I discovered the work of Diane Arbus in the Art School library. It was a truly revelatory moment for me. Up to that point in time I had been working in photography for 5 years. I had a really good grasp on how the medium functioned technically. But I still had no idea at all about what photography meant. About its power to stop the world spinning long enough to reveal the exquisitely complex nature of the path we are all on from one moment to the next. Before this epiphany in the library I did not know how photography functioned. And immediately after that magic immersion in the work of Arbus, I understood how seriously great photography worked. I knew there was a way forward for me. I was totally taken by the raw forensic style of her work and the loaded quality of her subject matter, all perfectly balanced in square format. I knew I had to trade in my Spotmatic for a Hasselblad as soon as I had the funds. I had to have that connection with Diane, one of the truly great artists of the 20th century.
Right away I discovered this new camera offered me the test site for my own search for identity. I was in love with the lover of my roommate. She was majoring in fashion at the same art school. The beautiful Georgina, she was the first real portrait for me, it happened very quickly, that serve and return thing you get when you meet someone and what passes between you is a silent agreement. That mobility and negotiation used on my first good photo is still unfolding for me today.
It was only afterwards, after quite a few years I realized that a lot of photojournalists worked with a mask in front of their faces, with their cameras, obscuring the top half of the face and I came to recognize that the machine supplies the aggression, the often unnecessary separation of the photojournalist working that way. For me, the way the process spins, is about eye contact, it’s about a silent agreement. I look at somebody, I smile, I like what they are doing. They look at me. I’m different, they’re different, it’s a collaboration. We don’t say a word yet it is a collaboration. I’ve got the camera, I’m ready, they’re ready, we play our game, we play our role, and there’s this lovely exchange and you can do it with a waist-level camera like a Hasselblad. You’re not hiding behind anything.
My relationship with people, good friends, chance meetings with brief acquaintances, total strangers I may encounter while I’m out on a ride with my camera always begins with eye contact. There is a moment, eyes connect, what happens in those short, intense and silent connections is one of the great unmapped aspects of the human condition. The contingencies people bring to eye contact are so loaded with potential, we read each other, we draw conclusions, we act or switch off, invite or repel. Eye contact with a stranger is super intense. If I’m photographing, normally I’m working with complete strangers, I encounter them in the unstructured freestyle theatre of the street. Ostensibly I’m collecting people, stashing them away on a roll of film.
I would often find myself in streetscapes, roads, doorways, landscapes that were lit in a certain way or constructed in a manner as to give them a certain look, a certain unique stage. I would stay there, in that moment on the stage and wait for the human element to randomly intervene. To walk into the viewfinder and give it all meaning. This was an early play in my photography, to play the waiting game. This game never required much patience in India, of one point four billion people 999 million would stand and pose for the waiting camera with pleasure.
My enduring connection to things, objects, artefacts grew from the comfort and pleasure derived from toys as a child. A model kit of a World War 2 Nazi Air Force fighter plane could keep me occupied for weeks on end. This toy from that era is a perfect example of one of the first flat packaged consumables on the market in the second half of the twentieth century. Like a complex Ikea product it came with a set of detailed and inexplicably vague assembly instructions. The act of assembly with its components of extruded plastic, fixed in place with a clear gel glue that made you high was an early introduction to Narcosis & Sculpture 101.
Once the plane was complete I flew it on endless missions up and down the hallway, shooting up everything on the carpet below, emitting the weird sound effects of destruction from my mouth. After tiring of this the pyrotechnics took over: Blowing the plane up by taping an exploding firework to its belly and flinging it into the sky above the backyard with the fuse lit, or nuking it to a burnt and melted blob with a hairspray and cigarette lighter flamethrower. Arson & Performance 101.
An important element in my own private thrall of the world of toys was the divine sense of play made available by truly connecting to toys. Traditional gender roles could be suspended in this trance fantasist world. I would play with a plastic vaporiser Mk 2 space gun as readily as with my sisters asexual dolls. The totemic power of the toys to alter the space/time continuum was pretty compelling stuff. This sense of play was the perfect counterfoil to the episodic and lurid negativity of the mundane world a child has to both contend with and endure.
KT: You certainly have a very deep-rooted connection to the Indian Sub-continent which is quite visible in your different bodies of works. What was your fascination with this part of the world? What seduced you to take your famous extra-ordinary journey from Calcutta to London in a Volkswagen Beetle in 1970’s, photographing all along which also ended up becoming your first journal?
MP: After eighteen months of art school and London I left. I’m not totally sure why. I’ve tried since to imagine an alternative personal history, one where I stayed on in London. It was such a great period for me, the river city, my wonderful friends an evolution that led away from childhood finaly gathering pace. Yet I had to go. India was calling me back. It was a powerful and consistent call. Eventually the idea displaced any notion of going the full three year course at school. Remaining at college for another 18 months would get me a diploma but it wouldn’t make me a better photographer. I was convinced that what I needed, what I was hungry for was waiting for me to make the connection in India. Was it just a photo thing, a location to enact the art form.? Even then I knew it was a much bigger experience than just the mere act of photography. Specifically I needed to make sense of exactly what happened to me on that first journey there in 1970. Driving through the Sub-continent in the VW bug with the astrophysicist Aidan Sudbury. Back then I didn’t have a visual language to describe the shimmering power of planet India, spinning to it’s own unique tune. The experience also featured the fascinating moons in orbit: West Pakistan, East Pakistan, Nepal, Ceylon, Bhutan and Sikkim. Typically on this new planet everything was different. The significance of which lay in how the inhabitants conducted themselves. The most mundane activities taking on a magical quality as I bore witness to them. There was so much diversity of experiential choice. The most quixotically dense street life imaginable. That was where I needed to be. Back on main street India. This time I felt I would know how to decode those mysteries. Framing the play of that life in the context of my newly acquired discovery of how photography worked. This time I knew I was going to photograph that intangible magic. I made my choice to hitchhike from London to India in September 1971.
The highway ahead rolled on for 10,000 kilometres west to east. This road with no name is one of the most ancient pathways of civilization and was still unpredictably wild in 1971, but that is another story in itself.
Of course the process of travel is much more than the pursuit of a mere self-indulgent reactive tourism. I have a powerful, non-nostalgic, interest in History. Travel can challenge my established time-space continuum. Many cultures are fully working time machines. India is perhaps the best example. On arriving in a big city, in the 1970’s and 80’s I was confronted by a metropolitan apparatus that was low-tech, old school and often designed and configured for the 19th century. On leaving the metropolis for the countryside you venture back in time, where virtually every aspect of this four thousand year old culture is available for experience. Once in the late 1970’s I arrived at a 10th century walled city. There were no hotels to stay at however the local Maharajah agreed to house me, for a few rupees, in the ancestral palace. There was no electricity, the streets were devoid of any kind of vehicular traffic other than the local population dressed as they would have been a century earlier. The circus like atmosphere of the narrow flag stoned lanes was mix of people, donkeys, camels, tribes of red arsed monkeys, peacocks and holy cows all making way for the occasional sword carrying, mounted aristocrat. That walled city in the desert is called Jaisalmer, now it’s a tourist theme park, the time machine has moved somewhere else and today its harder to locate. That I tracked it down and found it in 2015, still there, operating in India, is very re assuring.
KT: In one of your previous interviews you quoted about an incident dating 1992, “I would’ve joined Magnum if the people in the London office had been even half human”. John Vink, a celebrated photojournalist with Magnum Photos recently quit, after being part of the agency for over 20 years as external funding lead him to sign a contract which he thought shall curtail the incredible freedom he enjoyed in his work. Would you have regretted joining the agency looking at the present corporatized scenario? How do you think the business of photography is evolving these days?
MP: My first book Going East (1992) really established my career with it’s appearance on the bookshelves. Marval printed six thousand books and had a very good global distribution network, so this book really did travel the world and find it’s way into book stores in the most unlikely places, except for Australia, you had to look hard to find the book there. In that period we were living in London. My wife Janno was doing research at the School of tropical Medicine at the University of London. I tried to connect with the photo editors of various magazines in London as back then they still paid really well for photo features. The blow back I received from them was consistently negative. I got it eventually, they wanted high viz Sebastiao Salgado melodramas not my boring take on the third world. After Going East was published that changed a bit for me. People did take notice, after the book won the Prix du Livre de Photographique at Arles That year the Observer magazine picked it up, an 8-page spread from the book.
It was around this time that I was asked to join Magnum. It’s a process, the director can’t just say he wants Max Pam in Magnum, it’s a collective, all the photographers have their say, vote on it. At about the same time, the Métis photo agency was created in Paris and had some really interesting photographers on it’s list and they asked me to work with them. Francois Hebel, the president of Magnum Paris said “go see them, they are the guys you will be working with”. I took my portfolio case to the Magnum office in Brixton. The room was filled with computer screens, the staff all had beepers on their belts. This was the brief epoch of the bleeper. A totemic badge of status, a bungee cord of accountability that mobile phones soon enough converted to handcuffs. I met Chris Boot who ran the place and he unloaded me on the English photographer, Chris Steel-Perkins. Chris flipped through my portfolio case and he closed it up and said: “it’s not about anything” i.e. where are the Salgadoesque melodrama narratives. The thing, the big issue about your own work is you cannot defend it, people get it or they don’t. So I said “Yes you are right, it’s not about anything”. Chris started banging on about the necessity of bringing clients to the agency. What clients?, I didn’t do clients. So that was Magnum, I definitely wanted to sign with Métis, toughing it out with the delusional fundamentalists at Magnum London just didn’t make any sense to me.
Magnum represented an overheated self-regard that existed at the core of the genre photos they sold to the world. It swung on the idea of the photo-journalist as an agent from the ministry of truth. Delivering moral absolutes to a world with an unbelievably labile take morality. None of that foolishness existed at Metis.
To be fair to Magnum they did change eventually. This happened only because people like Martin Parr who joined Magnum the same year I was invited, hung in there dodging the shitstorm of negativity that evidently came his way. Today a photographer such as Antoine D’Agata is part of Magnum, has real influence over its direction, but he joined in 2006, long after their culture wars were fought. Metis existed for about 15 years but never thrived because it’s business plan was compromised when the group of 6 photographers who set it up ceded 51% control of the business to their financial backer, a lawyer. Magnum has endured because it has had a business plan that flexed to the new world of online media while at the same time protecting its core business and its brand.
Few photographers I know manage to monetize their photographic production beyond prostituting themselves. Celeb photographers do all right. Some fashion photographers make substantive money. Some photographers in the high end gallerist, dealer, collector market make a reasonable living. Finaly there is someone like Martin Parr who very intelligently manages both his photo production and his wonderful grasp of the significance of the medium. Key to the process is his understanding where it fits in contemporary culture and how to commodify that panoramic understanding into units of revenue.
I was lucky never to have had to compromise my work for the obvious cash flow reasons most photographers face when pursuing their own agenda. To begin with I married well. My wife Dr Jann Marshall has always been the financial mainstay of the family. Eventually, with the arrival of our children, I did a post grad degree in design and taught photomedia at an Australian university for the past 20 years. This university was the perfect employer for someone like me.
KT: With your original autobiographical expression where you include photography with writings, collages, paintings etc., what do you do you want to achieve with your photography in the end?
Today the predominant function of the book is qualified and refined by continuously using the device of the hand made book/ journal to extend and make sense of my image bank which runs quite deep. The change ups thru these past fifty years are registered in each book that I put together some of which were eventually published. This career has been on a long slow burn fuelled by curiosity about the human condition, experience and how these fundamental issues become distorted and interpreted by the subjective/objective collision of the cultures I passed thru and lived in. These photo ensembles work with the horror, beauty and contingency of the fantastic traction otherness exerts. Muted or sensitised by shifts in emotion, body chemistry and its flexing seasonal spikes that are as unpredictable as they are endless. It took me years to ride this lovely dragon in a way that made any sense at all other than the raw best thought addiction I had to that kind of life. An addicts life that despite its sweet and dodgy framework, validates and confirms the ride if you get the balance right. These decades of visual enquiry are ultimately only underwritten by what you take away from the process. To expect more is to be almost delusional. This artform and how it is valorised is about as comprehensible as alchemy.
This respect for books and all they represent is central to where I want photo related outcomes to take me. The photo book has absolutely defined the way I evolved as a photographer. The quest for inspiration, the hunger for new ways of seeing is always potentially there, in a photobook by some wonderfully original artist. It waits on the bookshelf of a library, a bookstore, a private collection of a friend. An unopened letter written and waiting for my or your random appearance.