Max Hirshfeld: Shining a Light on the Arts with the Leica S-System
Max Hirshfeld is recognized as a master at revealing the warmth and humanity of his subjects. Hirshfeld was born in North Carolina in 1951 and grew up in Decatur, Alabama. He moved to Washington, DC to study photography at George Washington University, graduating in 1973. Hirshfeld’s editorial work has been published in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, People, Time, Vanity Fair, and other national publications. His advertising work has been showcased in campaigns for such companies as Amtrak, Ford Motor Company, IBM, KPMG, US Airways and the US Mint, among others.
In the spring of 2013, Hirshfeld commenced his “ILLUMINARIES” series, which highlights key players in the Washington, DC arts and cultural scene. The project serves as an important record of the extraordinary figures contributing to the advancement of Washington arts as he details below.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography?
A: As an over-sensitized, visual learner I have grown to rely on my instincts in combination with my experience. I am a minimalist at heart and when I edit my work or what my approach is as I am shooting, I feel the most comfortable. Photographic maturity for me is the almost visceral rush I get when what shows up on the screen matches or exceeds what was in my mind; or the pure joy of capturing an image that would vanish if I didn’t grab it from my gut. It’s not about chasing trends or reinventing the wheel as much as it is about navigating the world with a clear mind and a seasoned eye.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: When I read about the S-System and saw the early results I knew that this was a camera I wanted to work with. My personal projects have always included a series of challenges that I present myself with. ILLUMINARIES (the series I shot in April with the S2) combined a small, portable set in a too-small, pop-up studio where I photographed more than 40 individuals over a four-week period. Add in a camera I had never held and the looming deadline of a June 1 exhibition and my plate was full. I like to think that there are times when if I push myself the results are deeper and richer and proof that the good ideas need to be grabbed. It’s a little bit like when Billie Jean King said “pressure is a privilege.”
Q: You noted you were motivated to work with the Leica S- System based on what you read about it and the results you saw, but using a camera you had never tried before on such an intense assignment as your ILLUMINARIES portrait series must have been a baptism of fire. Can you give us some sense of what it was like, and what features of the camera, aside from its outstanding image quality, that you found most useful for this daunting assignment?
A: One of my ground rules for personal projects is to challenge myself by undertaking something that pushes my comfort zone. Otherwise, what’s the reason? Where’s the benefit? If I am going to fail I want to go down in flames (no pun intended). The demands of maintaining a competitive photography business over the years meant moving from 35 mm to medium-format and then to large-format all while gaining mastery of each but really pining for the joy and freedom of 35. When I fully embraced shooting digitally in 2006 I was in a sense returning to my roots and so by extension, the S introduced me to the power of medium-format digital while offering me all the joy of holding and shooting 35-style.
Q: Which S-System lens or lenses did you employ for this portfolio, what apertures did you typically use, and can you say something about the characteristics of these lenses?
A: Leica’s reputation gave me great comfort and though I was undertaking a complex task I had no doubt that the camera would at least match my expectations if not exceed them … and I was not disappointed. I used the 120 mm f/2.5 and shot with one S2 body and when I saw the first few tests enlarged on the monitor I was hooked. My subjects were photographed wearing dark clothes while standing in a small, dark set. I knew going in that the autofocus would be challenged so a majority of the final files I ended up choosing for my exhibition were focused manually. I understand that the new S has a predictive autofocus feature that should be a real blessing in a setting like this.
Q: One of the primary reasons this series succeeds in making a compelling visual statement is the lighting, which clearly delineates each subject and separates him/her from the background. Can you tell us how you lit these portraits and did you deliberately choose a uniform lighting setup and more-or-less standardized background to create a unity that underlies their diversity?
A: The concept behind ILLUMINARIES came together with my inclusion in a group show at HEMPHILL, the gallery in Washington that represents my fine art work. Sort of a tail-wagging-the-dog process, having a deadline to meet and gallery walls to fill meant I could make what was a long-germinating idea become reality. Based on the limited space I was able to work in and the tight schedule, it was mandatory to keep things simple. The background was comprised of three, upholstered, hollow-core doors hinged together with wheels mounted on the bottom. I chose a deep neutral color with a matte surface to function as a controlled yet flexible ‘cocoon’ so that the faces of my subjects could pop. I wanted the lighting to be simple yet compelling so I chose to use a 74” Elinchrom Octabank as fill and a 50° Profoto Magnum reflector as key all powered by a 2400W/s Profoto power pack. The images were shot at 1/125 of a second at f/11 with the ISO set for 320. But the real beauty of this stationary lighting setup was that as I moved around my subjects and they moved in synch with my instructions, the light shifted and changed on their faces.
Q: One of the most striking things about this portfolio is that the dark background and setting is virtually the same for all these images, and for the most part the shooting distance varies within a fairly narrow range, and yet the feelings and emotions evoked by these images runs the gamut, and is totally dependent upon the individual subject. Was this your intention, and what do you think it says about this fascinating collection of Washington, DC luminaries?
A: Most people can smell fear or uncertainty on the part of a photographer so I knew going in to this that my experience photographing people in a non-threatening and personable way would be helpful when working with subjects I had never met. Part of the comfort in undertaking this somewhat daunting shoot was being able to flex my photographic muscles while carrying the knowledge that my strengths would surface when called on and allow me to come back with goods good enough to satisfy me.
Q: Your portrait of Bill Paley could not be more classic and straightforward, and indeed those qualities seem to exemplify his personality. Was this your conscious intention and is this guy really a “what you see is what you get” straight shooter as you have depicted him?
A: Bill wanted to come away from his session with the simplest of requests: a good, clean portrait he could use across many platforms. So the edict to “Keep It Simple Stupid” really resonated with me when choosing this image of my good friend.
Q: Your powerful picture of Bill Newman certainly has a contemplative quality of a deep thinker who focuses on the big picture, a dreamer who has sufficient resolve to accomplish great things in the real world. What was going through your mind when you asked him to pose and before you pressed the shutter release?
A: My set for ILLUMINARIES had unexpected benefits that served a few subjects as more than just a background. For Bill Newman, a terrific artist and longtime professor at The Corcoran College of Art and Design, the padded and secured background gave him a solid wall to lean on and allowed a complicated, lifetime malady to take a backseat to a quiet moment of strength and recognition of his position in the community.
Q: The portrait of George Pelecanos in an open-pattern undershirt reveals his muscular arms and shoulders, his fists clenched, and gazing directly into the camera presents an image of assertiveness, but there is also a gentleness his character that belies his aggressive stance. Do you agree, and what exactly were you trying to convey with this intriguing image?
A: It was George’s idea to remove his shirt. His assertive posture and calm demeanor speak clearly about his sense of self-worth and his place as one of America’s top writers of detective fiction and television. This image really comes close to fulfilling my vision for the project.
Q: By far, the most unusual and surreal image in this portfolio is the hair-raising portrait of Septime Weber posed in midair, glaring directly at the camera with an expression that is at once frightening and amusing. It’s certainly a stopper that conveys an impish sense of the absurd. What’s going on here and why did you present him in this way, or was it his idea?
A: Septime is the creative director of The Washington Ballet and a seasoned choreographer. He is also a man who cannot sit still, so what better way to portray a dancer than in mid-leap? This was actually my assistant’s idea and Septime was more than game to jump, over and over and over. The padded but rigid walls of the ILLUMINARIES set made this effort almost effortless.
Q: What do you think you accomplished with the ILLUMINARIES series, and have you learned anything either technically or artistically from your experience in creating it that you plan to replicate in a future project?
A: Photography projects that depend on repetition run the risk of burning out on the core idea very quickly. But as with other portrait projects I see, the infinite variety of human expression goes a long way to bolster diversity and hold the interest of the viewer. I had the added luxury of working with people whose creative lives are very much lived in public proving how comfortable they are in front of the camera. I rely on my instincts when I bring a camera to my eye and knowing the tools I have chosen to work with are the cream of the industry adds an extra punch to the process. Not all series work or even make sense but the ones that have stuck in my head and not allowed me to release them are the ones that have the deepest strengths.
Q: How do you see you photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so and do you have any projects currently in the works that you can tell us about?
A: From my early years as staff photographer at The National Zoo through more than 25 years running a commercial studio, I have photographed a wide range of subjects. But spending my life in photography has given me the ability to know where my strengths lie and to market myself in those directions. In the business of photography people need something to remember you by so I continue to work very hard to be the photographer rather than a photographer. My efforts at the moment are focused on a book about my parents who survived Auschwitz, a long-term project that tells their story and features my photographs and words. I look forward to the book being published in 2015.
Thank you for your time, Max!
- Leica Internet Team
Connect with Max on his website.