Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Notes on Max Pam, photographer

Max Pam (b. 1949, Melbourne, Australia) is my favourite photographer no one's heard of. I came across an exhibition of his randomly whilst living in Sydney in 1999: Signature Works – 25th Anniversary Exhibition was showing at the Australian Centre for Photography. I was blown away by the exhibition and some of Pam's books on display, including the award-winning Going East, which looks at his Asia photos over a twenty year period. I'd arrived in Sydney after spending six months in SE Asia; Pam's extraordinary black and white travel photos resonated with me.

With a spirit of adventure, Pam had set off for India, aged 19, having never left home before. Influenced by 19th century British photographers and travellers John Thomson and Samuel Bourne, who were some of the first photographers to record China and India respectively, Pam spent the next two decades photographing the continent with a medium format camera, from vistas of the Himalayas to intimate portraits of prostitutes in Manila.

Shooting with a wide angle lens and a long exposure (up to five seconds), many of Pam's photos are 'street portraits' – outdoor, posed shots of people who he builds a rapport with, maybe two or three individuals, with all manner of life going on around them – and often at least one blurred element, usually a person moving. For Pam, aside from the connection to the 19th century pioneers (who didn't have fast exposures for their cameras), the blurring represents "that power that is swirling all around... it's that energy that is inherent in everyone." (Pam never takes candid photos, going so far as to call them 'stolen' photos and an aggressive act.) But it's hard to pin Pam down. He also takes wonderful shots of nudes, and pictures of hands holding strange objects. In his books, he's interested in the juxtapostion of the double page spread.

Like Stephen Gill, Alec Soth, Martin Parr (who has published three volumes on the subject; Pam's Going East features in volume two) and many other contemporary photographers, the photo book is paramount to Pam. Drawing inspiration from traditional Indian illuminated manuscripts, and admiring of the sketchbooks the painting students filled in whilst he was at art college in the 1960s, Pam has produced many photo books which contain journals, found objects, drawings, maps and collage. In this respect, they are similar to the work of Peter Beard, the photographer once described as 'half-Tarzan, half-Byron', who died a couple of weeks ago. His extraordinary collage books contain extracts from his diaries and journals which contain all manner of found objects and photos, densely multi-layered, from blood and calligraphy to paintings and pressed flowers. The Journals of Dan Eldon – the English photojournalist stoned to death in Mogadishu in 1993, aged 22 – published as The Journey is the Destination, also contains a delightful and intimate mix of collage, painting, found objects, writing and photography.

All three photographers – Max Pam, Peter Beard and Dan Eldon – blur the line between photographer and artist, their diaries and journals are living, chaotic and creative accounts of their lives, with photography being just one element in the multi-layered mishmash of writing, painting, graphic design, collage and found object.

Pam has published twenty books in a career spanning fifty years. He now teaches photomedia in Perth.

Visual Instincts was an Australian TV series and book, edited by Max Pam, published in 1989 which explored five contemporary Australian photographers: Emmanuel Angelicas, Jon Lewis, Fiona Hall, Grant Mudford and Max Pam. The series can be found free to watch on Kanopy, which I mentioned recently.

There is a Max Pam on Instagram but there's only a few shots of book spreads on there. Anyway, a missed opportunity – he should have gone for the username InstaPam.

There's an interesting interview with Pam at The Kitab, an Indian website which explores the photo book.


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