Max Shearburn

Posted on: January 15th, 2008 by: Zack Seckler

Written by Lloyd Wise
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor

Final image

The ad agency, Clemenger BBDO, hired photographer Max Shearburn to help them promote New Zealand’s policy of providing free, universal healthcare. Their concept was quite simple—an image of nude bodies arranged to form the shape of the island nation. The bodies were intended to represent people injured at home each year. It may be difficult to remember the intended symbolism in Shearburn’s dimly lit, subtly toned photo because the picture is so darn sexy. In the Gisborne region, the curve of a woman’s hip sits snug against a man’s muscular chest; somewhere slightly north of Auckland we find the elongated curve of a voluptuous brown leg. Here, the sensual tangle of multi-ethnic arms; calves, chests and torsos might seem—to an American’s eyes, at least—more like high-class erotica than health-care marketing.

Indeed, Shearburn found it difficult to transition from New Zealand to an American audience when he moved here two years ago. Ad agencies in the United States, who reach a variegated and often highly conservative audience, were hesitant to hire him, as he cut his teeth working in the smaller, socially liberal, New Zealand. Photographing editorial content at first, he then broke into shooting some of the largest and most highly sought after ad campaigns in New Zealand. Shearburn became a master of infusing his images with a spare, moody—almost meditative—ambiance.

Overhead viewFor logistical reasons, the shot was done in three takes: one for the top island, one for the bottom island and the baby, who represents Stewart Island. To fit everyone in the frame (these are adult bodies, 5-7 feet tall each) he needed to shoot from relatively high in the air. To get the space to do that, his team secured an indoor sports arena, blacking out the floor and windows with black builder’s paper. The scene was lit by two 12X12 foot screens with six heads apiece, the light softened with two 12×12 foot bounce. Strapping himself and his Sinar P 4 x 5 camera with a Sinar 135mm lens and Fuji Velvia film to the rafters (so as not to drop his equipment on the talent below), he directed the models with a loud hailer from above while they were clothed. When the shape was close to correct, he had them disrobe and assume the position.

Shearburn is adamant that his interest in his subjects stretches beyond their superficial appearance. In a fantastic description of an artist’s own creative process, he says, “Basically, I explore the things I’m interested in by scratching away at it until I’ve pulled all the flesh off the skeleton. Digging around in the marrow, if that makes sense.” It does. What could be a more effective way to capture “depth of life, or resonance, or understanding” in healthcare advertising than this: an honest, unapologetic celebration of hot, healthy, and totally naked bods?

Shearburn was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:

F STOP: How did you get your start as a photographer, Max?

Shearburn: My father was a fairly avid photographer in the ‘30s in the Netherlands. I got my first camera, a really old bakelite Voigtlander, when I was eleven and messed around with it for a bunch of years. I spent a year in South America in my late teens and then came back to New Zealand and chose to focus on photography. I put a portfolio together and was accepted to what was, at the time, the top course in New Zealand.

F STOP: How long did you shoot in New Zealand?

Shearburn: I’ve been shooting since the mid 90s. Commercial work started to kick in about five or six years ago.

F STOP: What were you doing before then?

Shearburn: I was shooting editorial. I worked for a car magazine for a few years.

F STOP: You’ve been in New York for two years. Tell me about working in New Zealand, what was the market like?

Shearburn: The market was smaller, but advertising is creative. A photographer has the latitude to be a little edgier. If you’re any good you can clean up down there. I won advertising photographer of the year and a few other awards. There are only a handful of photographers working at a top level.

F STOP: Why do you think there are a lot of good creative briefs in New Zealand?

Shearburn: In the United States people are incredibly conscious about what they put out in the public domain. They are careful not to offend because there are so many people with different interests. New Zealand is much smaller and is a rougher, younger country. It’s more liberal than the United States. The sensitivities in New Zealand aren’t quite as finely tuned as the US.

F STOP: What is it like transitioning into the US Market?

Shearburn: I did a variety of work in New Zealand because the country is small. My product –landscapes, portraits, etc–was too wide-ranging when I arrived in the States. My body of work was probably too general for the market here. My work in New Zealand covered a various subject matter that were predominantly quite dark. That was a hurdle for me.

F STOP: Do you think the U.S. market is less open to darker subject matter?

Shearburn: The US market is more conservative and homogeneous. It’s often safe and family orientated. That’s the lowest common denominator. Obviously, there are photographers and campaigns in the United States that are edgier.

F STOP: Do you like doing the edgy work more?

Shearburn: Yes.

F STOP: Why did you decide to move to New York?

Shearburn: I’m in New York because it’s an incredibly stimulating place. There are still good campaigns being done here, but it takes a little longer to sift through the common denominator and find unique work.

F STOP: The subject matter of your work varies considerably. You have everything from huge mountain tops and rock climbers to intricate portraiture. How did you get such an eclectic mix in your portfolio?An image from Rotman’s portfolio

Shearburn: I explore every subject that I am interested in. That’s primarily why my work is so varied. I prefer to explore rather than pursue one thing and change my mind about it ten years down the road. New Zealand’s small market allowed me to do a range of different work.

F STOP: Having done a wide range of work, have you found a certain subject or style that you really love?

Shearburn: I’ve been more focused on portraiture lately, but I am still a generalist. I’m more interested in a vision than in subject matter. Fundamentally I am interested in people and the impact space has upon them. How that impacts the environment and so on and so forth. The scope of my images is going to be broad given the nature of my focus. I’m working on fine tuning my vision which is fundamentally about resonance, experience and the absolute marrow of human existence. Basically, I explore the things I’m interested in by scratching away at it until I’ve pulled all the flesh off the skeleton. Digging around in the marrow. I try to capture the depth of life, or resonance, or understanding.

F STOP: How are you trying to capture that?

Shearburn: I’ve been shooting most of my own work on 8 x 10 for awhile. The intimate resolution of 8 x 10 gives the viewer a visceral experience. When an image in an exhibition is really large you interact with its physicality beyond it as an image. It’s a difference between looking at a painting in a gallery and seeing it as an image in a book. There’s a difference between the actual image itself and then the image as something physical.

F STOP: Let’s discuss our featured image.

Shearburn: Clemenger BBDO, an ad agency in New Zealand, commissioned the shoot. We have free health care in New Zealand and the image was representing the number of people who injure themselves in the home, etc. They put together a pretty solid, hard-hitting campaign. The bodies are in the shape of New Zealand.

F STOP: How did you go about the shoot? Was it a big production effort?

Shearburn: It was a big production effort for a relatively short shoot. It was shot in three pieces. There was the top island, the bottom island and the baby by itself. The logistics were difficult. We found and cast people who were willing to get naked for very little money. We needed a high roof for the shoot, so we had to hire out an indoor city sports arena. We blacked it out and made a floor with black builder’s paper.

F STOP: So how do you find the people?

Shearburn: We used a talent scout. It was a dubious mix of people. I don’t know how she got them, maybe the local swingers group or something like that. We weren’t paying enough money per person to get the finest caliber. Although there were a few attractive people on the shoot. When we shot the piece I was stretched out with my camera in the rafters of the arena. We got a slide projection of the silhouette of the country and with a bit of trial and error we got it to the right size for the number of people and show outlines of both islands. We spent a lot of time with people clothed getting there positions right. I was barking instructions from above. The lighting was simple. It was a big set up because of the size; We had four, 12 x 12 foot screens. We had a degree of hard light, but it was soft enough to spread nicely. So we had two 12 foot screens, with six heads apiece on one side. The other side we had two 12X12 reflectors that were a little bit more toppy.

F STOP: It sounds like an interesting set.

Shearburn: People would hang out in their clothes or robes until they needed to be in the G-strings for the shot. I was yelling out for women to cover up their tits. It was hilarious The Agency’s production manager was whispering in my ear about the girls he liked. So I had to balance my snickering up in the rafters with him with also being extremely direct and professional in my dealings with the naked people: It was a delicate balance. The retouching job was simple because of the black background. It was just a matter of placing the two things and removing the g-strings in post.An image from Rotman’s portfolio

F STOP: Did you shoot the baby with the same lines and from the same height?

Shearburn: Yes.

F STOP: The same camera position?

Shearburn: If you got onto it with a microscope, you might be able to see the two points of view. It was basically looking from a plate from above and another plate from above, and the just putting those two images side by side.

F STOP: Were you hanging from a harness?

Shearburn: I was fully strapped in but there were catwalks for lighting. My harness was precautionary. I ended up having the tripod rigorously strapped in to the thing. If it had fallen it would have brained a few people.

F STOP: Was it difficult getting the people to be close to each other since they weren’t professional models?

Shearburn: Their job was explained to them. The talent woman had two or three people working with her. When people didn’t understand the instructions, someone would walk over and move their arm. It works if you are clinical. As soon as you start getting human, or too polite, it starts getting weird.

F STOP: Was there any funny business between any of the people there? Did anybody meet? Exchange phone numbers?

Shearburn: I think a few of the guys were hoping they might meet their first girlfriend. There were some pretty strange people.

F STOP: This is a real departure from the images that you’ve done in the past. How do you think you were selected for this job?

Shearburn It’s not so different from the work that I do. The subject matter is fairly dark and there were logistical aspects. My proclivities are dark and I’ve done a bunch of logistical shoots in New Zealand.

F STOP: They hired you for the production aspect.

Shearburn: The production was fairly involved, but they also wanted a certain mood. That shot couldn’t have been glitzy and commercial. It required a level of understanding.

F STOP:. Tell me how you approach different subject matter and styles differently.

Shearburn: I consider three things. Which lighting will best suit my subject matter/perspective, what will aesthetically look best, and practicality. Practicality includes the constraints of the location, budget, format, etc. It’s important to me that work has an inner logic, a purpose behind the lighting.

F STOP: Do you plan everything out beforehand with your personal work?

Shearburn: It depends, the subject dictates the photograph. For example, if I am shooting prisons or one of my portrait projects in New Zealand I let the subject speak for itself and try to capture it the best way I can. With my composite photos I gather reference and research materials. There is rigorous sketching and cross referencing.

F STOP: Could you tell me a little bit about one of the projects you’re working on in your personal portrait series?

Shearburn: I’m working on a series of portraits of gang members in New Zealand. There are two significant, indigenous gangs in New Zealand. They are the bogey man of the media and the white middle class. I’m doing straight-up portraits of those guys. They’re heavy, heavy dudes who have all done prison time and awful things. I explore the notion of living on the edge of society and taking it to the most extreme. Gang culture is one of the most extreme cultures on the edge of everyday society. I find the violence and mythology that goes hand in hand with that particularly compelling.An image from Rotman’s portfolio

F STOP: Is that going to be for gallery exhibition?

Shearburn: Yes.

F STOP: And is it going to be location? Or studio?

Shearburn: Studio.

F STOP: How are you lighting it? What’s the look?

Shearburn: I try to get a degree of natural quality with my lighting, but I’m using hard lighting in this series. The lighting is dictated by the subject matter. I wanted a degree of regimentation in the images, because these gangs are incredibly hierarchical and organized. I want the viewer to connect with the person rather than the environment. I think environments make it easier for the viewer to judge the person that they’re looking at. They can say, ‘he’s poor, etc.’ Whereas if you decontextualize the subject the viewer needs to deal with them straight-up.

F STOP: You’ve done a lot of commercial work. Are you moving towards becoming more of a fine-art photographer?

Shearburn: Certainly. I enjoy my commercial work. I am proud and excited by the work I make, but I don’t love it as much as I love my own work! I feel I can express my vision most clearly through exhibiting and publishing. I’m not going to completely slip away from commercial work. It’s challenging and enjoyable. The more I develop my own vision, the more commercial work I get based on that, rather than the fact that I can do photographic plumbing.

F STOP: Tell me what inspires you as an artist?

Shearburn: Significance and power inspire me. I like to get at the viscera of the subject matter. We live in significant times. There are open wounds in the world that people are ignoring at their own peril. Within the next kind of decade things are going to change significantly, especially in the West. Often significant experiences that people have aren’t documented because they don’t sell. They are usually a hell of a lot more powerful than the stuff that gets paraded through the media. I’m interested in powerful subject matter and beauty.