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  • Writer's pictureAbigail Holcombe

Photography and the Post-Disaster Landscape: An Interview with Max Heller

Max Heller employs techniques such as burning and bleaching to physically manipulate photographs that capture sites he has visited. His work evokes questions about narrative, site, and place and what it might look like to navigate a post-disaster landscape. Max received his BFA from Lesley College of Art and Design and has recently completed his MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Abigail Holcombe: Your photographs have a dystopian or sci-fi quality to them which gets me thinking about narrative. Do the photographs have a narrative or sequential relationship or are they grouped based on geography, context, or something else?

Max Heller: My photos definitely tend to have a dystopian or sci-fi vibe about them. This particular installation is a selection of some of my favorites. I often think about how to break up the images into sections. Geography is one of those dividers. Northeast, Midwest, Southwest. I see these as potential chapters. Past, present, future. I grew up in the Northeast, currently reside in the Midwest, and after this I will be headed to the Southwest.

A lot of the terrain in my photos is vastly different. I try to be aware of these things when shooting grouping and sequencing. I want there to be some continuity and a sense of seamlessness in the world I am creating. I try to strip away all but the essential place or thing that I am interested in photographing. And yes, there is always narrative. Part autobiographical, part fiction. But mostly autobiographical. When I say fiction I mean the kind of things I imagine when I look at the photos, I don't think fiction is inherently part of this but I have a hard time separating where reality and internal projections about the work differ. Recently I have been thinking that a lot of my work has to do with fantasy and escapism.

In my installation I tried to pick images that were both ambiguous but also pointed toward specific things. My hope is that people will look at the photos and identify the prominent symbols and gestures. Radio dish, shadows, dirt piles, desert landscape, dome dwellings, scorched surfaces. It's not a puzzle, more like hieroglyphics.

AH: I noticed that the burned photographs face towards the hung pieces on the wall, the removal of the subject in the three polaroids leaves a haunting kind of void. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to burn the prints?

MH: A lot of my studio processes involve burning, corroding, bleaching, etc. There is often a tension between complete destruction or obliteration and putting the fire out at the last second, where something is preserved. These polaroids are duds, rejects. For whatever reason they didn't make the cut. Either too blurry, overexposed...whatever. And I am very aware of my inner photographer, striving for perfection. For some reason, messing up a polaroid is intensely personal, I am extremely hard on myself. The decision to burn them with a blow torch came as a response to my own frustration and failure.

The holes are like craters to me, fleshy wounds, the evidence of some devastating event. They remind me of when I was a kid and used to self harm, putting cigarettes out on myself. I suppose it is cathartic. To burn, to regain control. I titled these pieces Hot Spots (Hot as referring to radiation). I don't know if I’ll keep this title, but it fits into my world of climate turbulence and chemical meltdowns. On a different note, the holes, circles and dots are like eyes to me. Enchanting, cycloptic portals. For the installation I made the decision to face them together, creating a tunnel or hallway-like voyeuristic effect.

Sydney Vize: There’s an openness to the photos and the installation as a whole - the visibly pictured places and objects are almost as mysterious as the ones that have been altered in the burnt photos. Do you have a specific sequence in mind for how a viewer will move through the two groups of photos? Non-burned ones first?

MH: At this time I have no preferred way I would like a viewer to move through the installation. In the future perhaps it could be interesting to separate them even further, or to put them on the wall interspersed with the others. Shelves was another idea I had. One thing I will say about the current layout is that when I am there, I do feel like I am inside - in that the burnt images face the wall and enclose me in their stare. It feels like a hallway or a tunnel.

Emmaly Crimmel: I'm curious about the moments between each photograph. How important is the invisible journey connecting each image for your making and your viewer's experience?

MH: I think the invisible journey is very important. I have thought about making maps or drawings. Maybe it is something that needs to be written about. As I think more and more about my practice, I wonder which is more important: the sites or the journey. But then a lot of it is in the in-between as well. Spontaneous photo stops along the roadside become sites of their own. It's also possible that the two are one in the same, that location, site and place are all about something internal. While I like the idea of the weary traveler, the wandering vagabond, the truth is that most of these photos are taken during car trips to see family. These are migratory patterns. The pictures are just metaphors. I am a creature looking for a home.

SV: You’re not giving viewers a ton of language to bounce off of in your installation, with no titles listed. Do you have language that you personally associate with each photo, even if you don’t want that to be present in the installation?

MH: This is a good question. Yes, there are a lot of words that I personally associate with these photos: astronomy, radio, radar, signals, codes, frequencies, waves, needle in the hay, solve for x. Other interests include geology and earth sciences and natural cycles. I also think a lot about the human brain, technology, the existence of the soul, and what happens after we die. At this stage in the game there are a lot of ideas and words churning around in my head. I’m not one to slap a title on an artwork just because it works. It has to be perfect. As far as titling individual photos goes, I rarely ever do. Especially if they are part of a series.

EC: In this body of work (and others you have shown), there seems to be an ongoing confrontation between the need to be still enough to make a photograph and the temptation to continue searching for a different or new moment. What external or internal indicators do you detect that cue you to take a photo within a specified moment?

MH: I have begun to notice a pattern, things I repeatedly photograph. Certain motifs have appeared, though not in my installation. Things like old muscle cars, astronomical or communication equipment, certain plants and greenhouses, military, infrastructure, detritus. I was thinking recently that a lot of what I look for is evidence of something that supports my narrative, my world building (even if I don't entirely know what that world is yet). Evidence is an important word. I think I am looking for and photographing evidence of some fictional disaster. Other things fall into a different category - life support, I’ll call it. For example greenhouses and dome dwellings. These are things that we are using to sustain ourselves in the “post-disaster” landscape.

SV: You’ve spoken previously about creating a book of photos, is that something that you are still hoping to do? Do you think this project would lend itself to a book?

MH: Yes, I am still working on a book and I’m in no rush to finish. I am sitting on a massive archive of photos and I think it could take years. The polaroids would go pretty nicely in a book, though right now I still don't think I have enough of them to edit down to 25-30 winners.

I think I’m almost at a place where I have caught up with my own production of making images. Now is the hard part, I have to figure out what goes where. One big challenge for me is creating those boundaries. Naturally I want to separate everything by format, color, geography, and chronology. This is a way to stay sane, but once I begin playing around and mixing things up it's a whole new world of possibilities.

EC: Within each image the objects or spaces suggest a signal that beckons outwards; ripples in a pool, sustenance, radio towers, mounds of dirt indicating a practical future use. Is there something that you want this grouping of images to signal or call out for?

MH: Yes, I think you are onto something with this question. I think the most important image is the radio telescope. I am fascinated with its structural form but more so with what it does. These devices scan endless skies for muffled patterns and signals, trying to detect evidence of our creation, of our cosmic origin - that we are not alone. I want to relate this searching, these photographs to my search for meaning, hope, fulfillment and my pondering of existence. A passing cloud, a mound of dirt. Dissipation, displacement. Desert and oasis. I don't think this work makes sense on paper anyway. Truthfully I don't really understand how all these things fit together, I trust my gut and in that way I know that they do.

This interview was formatted and edited by Abigail Holcombe, Sydney Vize and Emmaly Crimmel who are all graduate students working towards an MFA degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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