"My Life in Art"

Photographer Max Alper on “My Life in Art”

I have been a photographer and an educator my entire adult life. I have pursued both with the conviction of a religious zealot.

As a teenager in Pennsylvania, I discovered the exhilaration of photography when I received a 35mm camera as a gift. Soon afterward, I became a member of a local photography club which had access to a darkroom. My mind and life opened—I had entered another dimension of being—as I created images that seemed to appear magically on film. To me, the photographic reflections of the material world seemed more real than reality itself. So it is here, in this spiritual and aesthetic realm, that I have spent most of my life.

However, there were several forays into commercial activities that required balancing personal values with demands of clients. When I moved to New York City, I established a studio that specialized in headshots for actors and performers. They were wonderful to photograph; I admired their energy, humor, and unconventional attitudes. I also interacted with casting directors and theatrical agents in efforts to assist actors develop their marketing materials.

Later, I created a series of New York scenes, black-and-white prints, in the tradition of “street photographers.” The city’s inherent complexity, tension, and pageantry provided many opportunities to capture memorable images. I became acutely aware of Cartier-Bresson’s advice to seek the “decisive moment”—the desire to seize and shape a random event. The effort required patience and tenacity, but the results were extraordinarily satisfying.

While the actors’ headshots were controlled and formulaic, the city scenes were spontaneous and provocative. The constraints of the studio were surpassed by the chaos of the streets.

Propelled further toward stylistic liberation, I was profoundly affected by two events in my life. The first was the death of my mother. During my period of grief, friends and relatives related stories about near-death experiences (popularized by the media) of the spirit surging through a narrow passageway toward brilliant light. I also read again Dante’s The Divine Comedy and was deeply moved by the powerful descriptions of the soul’s journey. These concepts were burned into my subconscious and months later evolved into visual equivalents in my photographs.

A new series was born. This body of work portrays human figures who are approaching or passing through restricted space—corridors, windows, rooms, streets, and tunnels. The narrative movement is from a realm of shadows into bursts of light. The environments create metaphoric settings for a journey that ultimately releases an individual from the material world, represented by the strong geometric patterns in the photographs. These moody images are grounded in quasi-realism, but clarity of form is reduced into a haze of light and color. The series was first exhibited in New York City. 

The second event that affected my artistic style was my participation in a residency at the American Academy in Rome. The theatrical grandeur of the architecture, the sensuous Bernini statues, and the passionate people were all powerful influences on my psyche. Everything was emotionally charged, surging with the life force! I became a disciple (almost against my will), and soon my photography was transformed—more illusionistic, mysterious, and provoking strong feelings.

Experimentation continued with form, planar relationships, and luminosity. I developed a new series of distorted portraits (I refer to them as “fantasy faces”), independent of conventional visual syntax or preconceived commercial requirements. The photographs are “surfaces of personality” that can be attractive or grotesque, placid or agitated, lucid or mysterious. By diminishing the specificity of the faces or camouflaging them in some surprising way (through makeup, masks, or color tonalities), I was able to conceal aspects of their true character. The visual effect is further heightened by an unusual crop or a compelling camera angle.

Other techniques (which have become a permanent part of my technical repertoire) include deliberately defocusing the images by shooting through diffusion filters or distorted glass, by manipulating color gels on the lights or reflecting pinpoints of light off glass or mirrored surfaces, and by using delayed or double exposures. Appropriately, this series had its first exhibit in Rome.

I have truly been fortunate. The various series of photographs have received positive responses from gallery directors. Recent exhibitions in the Lehigh Valley and in Philadelphia have been successful. This year, I will surpass my 100th exhibit—an important time for celebration and reflection.

Throughout my life, I also spent many years as an educator. As a faculty member and arts administrator at New York University (where I received my PhD), I was responsible for programs in art, photography, writing, and filmmaking. My academic-related activities include serving on committees of several organizations, such as the National Endowment for the Humanities (Media Division) and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (Emmy Division). In addition, I have been a contributing editor of Arts Magazine (NY) and have written art reviews for The New Republic. One of my greatest pleasures was writing and narrating a radio series for WGBH-Boston. I also wrote two books (published by Macmillan) which included numerous photos that were created for the project. At NYU, I enjoyed congenial interaction with students and colleagues. Both the university and the city provided an abundance of intellectual stimulation and expansive cultural opportunities.

I cannot imagine a more fulfilling life than one devoted to the arts. Surely it is a glimpse of eternity on earth.

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