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Max Waldman

From the Introduction to WALDMAN ON THEATER

by Clive Barnes (1971)

A photograph is the interpretation of a moment in time. For that split-split-shutter second the scene stops and faces the camera. The shutter descends, as amiably impartial as a guillotine. The instant is petrified, caught irrevocably in an image, capable of enlargement, subject to distortion, and mildly prone to technological rape which is rape of the nastiest kind.

A photograph is a transaction. There is the man wielding the camera, and there is the object of his lens. Between the two passes the image, and the image - even if it is a snapshot, which it usually proves to be - is, on the most stringent terms, art. A man and his camera focused on a Swiss alp, a Swiss chapel, or a Swiss cow are left very much on their own.

In such simple circumstances the photographer makes his own terms. Presumably he knows the technical rules, and now he is faced with the interpretation of what he wants to say. And alps, chapels, and cows do not talk back. The photographer as artist either snaps his snap - to be shown in some interminable recount of the deathly boring vacation that is destined to become a byword of horror among his dinner party acquaintanceship - or tries to impose his personality upon the subject. In the latter case the artist becomes a conscious artist, the object is both his canvas and subject, his camera is his brush, its shutter speeds and all those other snares and delusions, his technique.

But when the subject of the photograph is a person, the whole process becomes much more complicated. Here the artist is photographing two distinct things. He is photographing what he thinks of the person, but - much more significantly - he is photographing what the person thinks of himself. This is why the photograph, much more than the painted portrait, is totally revealing. No phrase that a photographer can use on his subject is more useless than "Act natural." We all act very unnatural, trying to hide our faults "You ought to see my other profile"), pulling in our bellies, vainly attempting not to squint ("l never have been very photogenic"), trying with all our vainglorious vanity at least, the very least, to look interesting. So we collaborate - in either our glorification or destruction. We go to our portrait fate with the very smile we wish to project on posterity. The photographer notes the smile, and with a grim grimace records it on his own terms.

Max Waldman is a great, rather eccentric photographer. He is one of the very few great photographers I have ever encountered, although I have met many undeservedly better known. There is a special quality to Waldman's work. Everything has to be done on his terms. You have here a selection of his theater photographs. Now these are far from being literal theater photographs. To a large extent they are Waldman's criticism and interpretation of the theater. Waldman - and I think I am right here - does not use his camera to record but to comment. Personally I don't think he gives a damn how Charlie Brown plays Hamlet. He is a somewhat arrogant man, and I suspect that his main interest is in how he sees Charlie Brown playing Hamlet. I like this approach. I can no more see the photographer as a simple recorder of the theater than I can see the drama critic as a simple - or perhaps none too simple - reporter. The first time I saw Max's pictures, a collection of photographs of our mutual friend Marcel Marceau, I knew we had a lot in common in our critical method. I also knew that Max was a critic.

The theater is a fugitive art. Here today, on twofors tomorrow, and gone the day after. What can be preserved? The text, obviously. Often printed and always preserved, the precious words of the playwrights always find a place in posterity. It would probably be just about practicable to gather the texts of most - say three-quarters - of the plays given in New York in this century (Heaven forbid that any one should want to). Yet these would give us little idea how these plays were played.

In some instances you can get production photographs - scenes of the sets, and the leading actors frozenly posed in some Alaska of non-expression, each face bearing the scar of a self-conscious smile or scowl, each grouping bearing witness to concern or anguish, or else comedians caught openmouthed, in frigid hilarity. No, production photographs are less than great helps - even though the leading man never squints in them, and the leading lady looks like seven-eighths of a million.

You might think that reviews - especially a selection of them - might give this special flavor. But honestly, no. With the very best critics you always get a decent insight into the play, and often a reasonable description of the way the actors went about their work. The effect is that you can see the play quite clearly, but to visualize the actors is still enormously difficult. Théophile Gautier is regarded as one of the greatest descriptive dance critics of all time. And yet I get a great deal less from his writing on how the Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni actually danced than I can from the three or four contemporary prints of Taglioni on my walls at home.

These lithographs do not pretend to represent Taglioni; rather they interpret Taglioni. The elusive Taglioni smile, the rather reserved carriage of her arms, the febrile nervousness of her entire dancing are absolutely caught in a few lovingly hand colored lithographs. These speak volumes - and indeed volumes could not speak so well. This is what I feel about Waldman's work.

Waldman does not precisely record - or if he does, he does not record precisely. For one thing, his photographs of anything are almost instantly recognizable. He likes coarse grains and sudden lights. His pictures are dappled with drama, and he loves those black and white tints of flesh that are photography's particular contribution to the study of the human body. (Personally I have yet to be convinced that color photography is an art form but then I still have lingering doubts about the validity of talkies.)

Of course I instantly exaggerate. Although as an artist Max goes very deep, as a critic he would hardly pretend to cover even a fraction of the waterfront. This is no comprehensive view of the theater - frankly it is those parts of the theater that have stirred Waldman into action, and also (I imagine, although I have no inside information on this) those parts willing to face the prospect of a Waldman stirred.

First, if you will, look at the portraits of Carnovsky and Mostel. I never had the pleasure of seeing Morris Carnovsky in either KING LEAR or THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, but through these portraits I think I can see it all. The slight overemphasis, the conscious concept of a great tradition, a certain old-fashioned love-it-or-leave-it grand mannerism all combine to give me an assessment, if you like, of Carnovsly in these roles. I know I would have admired him probably for all of the wrong reasons. But then so does Max.

Mostel I know. To be frank I admire him the happy other side of idolatry as, I suspect, Waldman does. I am familiar with Zero in that darkest of Blooms in ULYSSES IN NIGHTTOWN and, of course, as Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. That I shall never be able to forgive Max for not immortalizing him as Pseudolis in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is neither here nor there. What he has got of Mostel - the shyly evasive Dublin Jew with a taste for fantasy, and Tevye, the archetypal man with archetypal daughters and pogroms yet - is a brief and perfect candle forever held up to his genius. Show me these pictures of Carnovsky and Mostel in five hundred years' time, and I will be prepared to write reviews of their performances.

When Waldman gets to complete theater productions his sense of interpretation takes a more significant turn. Looking at most pictures of the theater, you are entitled to feel with a warm glow of confidence that what you are looking at is, at the very least, a frigid and unfeeling document of what actually, at some time or another, took place. Waldman can give you no such comfort. If Waldman wants to photograph a production, he does not go to the theater, cameras in hand, heart in mouth. No, he invites the production along to his studio. And once there, they try to reproduce the spirit of what Waldman thought he saw in the theater.

Waldman's theatrical tastes are here for all to see. He is a Dionysiac, although whether this is by emotional choice or merely because, aesthetically, Dionysus has always made a better photograph than Apollo, I would not know. But he has not photographed Neil Simon and he has photographed Richard Schechner - and everyone has the right to ponder the choices.

Peter Brooks production of Peter Weiss's MARAT/SADE was, in its way, a theatrical turning point. Not that it was more advanced in its techniques than Brooks earlier KING LEAR - in a sense the reverse was true - but in some special unmistakable way the MARAT/SADE impinged upon the public consciousness in a fashion that few theater pieces ever do. Look at the pictures Waldman has taken of this and I think you will be able to see why.

The production had a style of its own. Brook himself would be offended by this remark, he is a firm opponent of "style," feeling that the fixed attitude implied by a style is of necessity sterile. But this is not always true, and in MARAT/SADE the whole production possessed a specially homogenous look. And this look, more than any specific details or individualized portraits, is what Waldman has caught.

At times it might be suspected that Waldman's choices of subject matter are practically fortuitous. Why for example does he give us the Connecticut Shakespeareans in A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM? To be frank this one puzzles me. I can see much more reason in Charles Ludlam's fantasticated BLUEBEARD. I find it is the avant-garde theater where he makes his positive contribution.

It would be possible to dwell on the individual qualities of the pictures, but they are here for all to see. There are, however, one or two general points that I would like to stress. First there is the texture of the photographs: Waldman uses texture as a signature, as a recognition that the camera is his particular filter to the world. Unlike many photographers, and, indeed, unlike most theatrical photographers, Waldman is not unduly interested in naturalism.

Then I would ask you to look at the movement of the photographs. Most theater photographs are indecently frozen as if intended for use as exhibits in a police court. Waldman has this rare gift as a photographer, an on-going sense of movement. And then - and in most fields of photography I guess that this is what separates the men from the boys - he has an instinctive sense of characterization.

Max is never imposed upon by his subject, The subject offers, he takes, he criticizes, he transmutes. I hope you enjoy these pictures. They are, I think a document of the theater of our time, and they represent a very personal, silent view. Journalists have a traditional envy of photographers - usually we feel that no one should be so highly regarded for pointing a miracle of modern technology at some event and merely pressing a button. But Max can even restore a journalists regard for photography - as an art, as a form of criticism, and as a monument to an all too easily forgotten stage.

I forget, although I probably shouldn't, who it was who first called Max Beerbohm the "Incomparable Max." I think that in theater photography we have another incomparable Max. Waldman makes the image of the theater live on the insides of our brains. And this is no mean trick.


 

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