The making of Max

Last week, at
GQ India’
s Men of the Year Awards in Mumbai, winners such as actor Radhika Apte (Woman of the Year) and stand-up comic Hari Kondabolu (Comedian of the Year) kept their acceptance speeches to less than three minutes. Photographer Max Vadukul, however, took more than seven minutes to accept his Lifetime Achievement award. “My son was very upset that I gave a speech so long,” he tells me later. “I thought I had messed it up.”

But for a man returning to work after a two-year hiatus, sparked by his brother’s battle with cancer, this was a big moment.

The New York-based photographer might not be as well-recognised in India as global contemporaries like Mario Testino, but he has many accolades to his name. And now, he has a story to share with India.

What’s in a name?

After receiving his award, Vadukul handed it back to presenter Shruti Hassan — remarking that it would make a good doorstopper — anddrew a piece of paper from his tuxedo. He then listed his achievements. The 57-year-old rose to fame in the ’80s when he shot the first of many advertising campaigns for Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, with whom he continued to work for decades. In the ’90s, he became one of the first staff photographers atThe New Yorkermagazine, working on 52 assignments a year for five years. Natalie Portman, Mick Jagger, Salman Rushdie — he has trained his lens on countless personalities. And now comes
Witness
, a special photo essay on climate change for
GQ India
, in celebration of the magazine’s upcoming 10th anniversary edition.

Halfway through his speech, he paused. “But now, I’m going to move on to something else,” he said. “The fabrication, the lie, the invention of Max.” Pause. “See, I’m not really Max. My real name is Mradukant Shantilal Vadukul. That is a Gujarati name.”

Moving on

Max was invented in England, when Vadukul was nine. “For those of you who have been in situations where your lives have been changed by things you can’t control, you know you either become a Max or you don’t exist,” he said. His family had just moved to England from Kenya, where his father worked as a travelling camera salesman. Vadukul was, by his own admission, “terrible at school”, so he left at 16, as did his younger brother Nitin (at 15). Both siblings pursued photography, with Nitin gaining critical acclaim for his dreamlike depictions of hip-hop artistes such as Jay-Z and Eminem. His brother’s death in March, he tells me, “really brought me to my knees. I stopped working for two years to take care of him. I wanted to give up, frankly. What’s the point?”

Before he died, Nitin, sensing his brother’s despair, asked him not to give up. “You gotta keep going,” he had said. “Try to do India — I think they’ll like you.”

Late this summer, Vadukul left to Jamaica, on holiday with his wife, whose own mother had died two months after Nitin. “We were grieving,” he says. “We didn’t like the business anymore. We didn’t want to be with anyone.”

While in Jamaica, he received an offer fromGQ India —a “carte blanche” to explore the theme of climate change. “I wanted a tectonic shift in my own work,” he says. “My brother had just died. There had to be a rebirth. I couldn’t approach this in the way I have done everything else. I wanted to deal with it like a fine art project,” he says, about his black and white photographs that attempt to bring beauty to everyday locales in Mumbai.

The way things were

Vadukul’s signature style reflects a penchant for black and white imagery and portraits. He describes his aesthetic as “art reportage”. Big-ticket advertising campaigns aside, he admits that his “passion has always been editorial”. His repertoire of iconic subjects includes Mother Teresa; Indian authors such as Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry, who he shot for
The New Yorker’s
India Fiction Issue of 1997; and a pensive Amy Winehouse reclining against white pillows on her bed, her right-hand inching down her shorts.

In previous interviews, Vadukul has famously said that his work as an auteur is like a dictatorship. “Democracy is the enemy of art,” he explains.

“The vision can get highly contaminated and diluted. Sensitivity is a big part of creating iconic images.” Imagine, for a moment, he says, an artist like Rembrandt painting while 10 to 20 people tell him how to do his job. “What would happen if the masters of the greatest paintings were ever subject to this tyranny? I may not be the first to say this, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind.”

He approaches his photoshoots like he would a blind date, he tells me, “with the curiosity of not wanting to know too much about the subject”.

Moving forward though, he knows that “the old career will disappear into something else.” He hopes that his recent work in India will help him launch a large-scale project about the impact of climate change on the country. “I am turning the lens on to something else. After The Rolling Stones and Sting, it’s now plastic landfills and garbage sites,” he laughs.

I am turning

the lens on to something else. After The Rolling Stones and Sting, it’s now plastic landfills and garbage sites

Max Vadukul

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