18×18” square, printed on uncoated text stock
Photographer: Max S. Gerber
How difficult was it to edit down to 81 images of the 700 you shot?
Actually, I stopped counting after 700, so I’m guessing I’m near 800 by now. But yes, the editing and selection was difficult. From the beginning the important thing for me was that it not seem to be about any one picture, or about any one individual. That goes for putting the promo together and also for the project as a whole. Anyone I come across under the right circumstances – that is, the light and environment – I’ll ask if I can take a photo of them, over time it became rather democratic.
The promo poster is a 9×9 grid of 81 portraits in total. Since I caption each individual image with the person’s first name and occupation only, when trying to get an edit that represents an overview of the larger project, who the people are mattered to me a lot. To edit them I just went through and picked out the shots that either had special meaning to me because of my relationships with the people in the photos, or I chose people who just had remarkable faces. Unfortunately that didn’t narrow it down altogether too much. Nearly everyone’s face is fascinating, depending on what you’re looking for. I think my initial edit had something around 150 images, and then was further narrowed down from there. I built it like a jigsaw puzzle. It was a lot of shuffling things around at first, but then I worked out of anchor points. The corners were important. The middle edges were important. The center of the poster was important.
When approaching the layout of the grid I wanted mostly to make sure that no one area drew too much attention. This thing is not about any one person. You should be able to look at it and focus on something – someone – different each time. Also, to be honest, I’m very aware of the potential to be messing with things indefinitely. At a certain point you have to just call it done and move on with your life. With any promo I’m absolutely certain I’m agonizing over details far more than anyone who will actually receive it.
How did you decide what images were edited into each row? Was there a mix you were looking for?
Yes, definitely. I wanted a good mix of male and female, and a good mix of different visual types of people and different occupations. I have everything from students and laborers, kids to CEOs, actors and even a Nobel prize winner. Like I said, the primary goal was to make it so that no one person, regardless of who they are or what they do, took precedence over another. Of course, everyone’s eye settles somewhere at first and I’m always interested to see which pictures stand out to people. It’s always different.
In laying out each row I just had to attempt not to cluster similar types. For example, I like that the Nobel prize winner is sandwiched between a PA and a security guard. It’s an equalizer.
How long had you been working on this series and is it still ongoing?
I took the first picture that could arguably be said to be part of the series in the early summer of 2012. I was introduced to instagram by Charlie Hess, an art director here in LA, and did the standard thing that people did at the beginning of instagram – pictures of my wife, my cat, my lunch, etc. It was great fun and taking snapshots was very liberating at first. After I took the first real portrait using this processing method, I looked at it in the overall instagram grid of what I was doing previously and thought it might be cool to try to get a whole row to match up. So I did a couple more and liked it. Then, of course, I thought it would look cooler if I could get the whole screen of thumbnails to match, and it kind of took off from there. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to continue for so long and I didn’t expect people to respond to it. At the time I was doing a lot of corporate photography that I wasn’t very invested in personally. The instagram portraits became something I could do for myself under my own parameters that reminded me what I love about portrait photography.
The project is definitely still ongoing. After 50 portraits I found myself actively looking for people every day. After 100 I started to get a good idea of what types of things would work – what environments, what light, what clothing, what type of people. After 200 portraits I started to appreciate the sheer scope of the people I’d encounter. I assume that one day I’ll stop doing these portraits – that I’ll either get bored of them, or the various apps I use to process them will cease to be supported. Every time I consider moving on to something else, though, I find someone with such a remarkable face that I’m sucked right back in.
I heard your filters are proprietary, do you have plans to develop and license this?
Ha! I suppose it says a lot about my business acumen that this has never occurred to me before.
Short answer: No. Long answer: No, because focusing on the how distracts from the why. From the beginning the most common question I heard was “Hey, man, what filter is that?” and right away that distracted from the point for me. When I look at all the portraits together it’s not the commonality of processing that’s interesting to me, it’s the commonality of people. The specific parameters of the style I chose to spit them out into the world hopefully makes them seem nifty enough to look at closer, and democratizes them. Everyone treated the same way – same crop, same process, similar light. Everyone as a group.
All the photos are shot and edited fully in the iPhone. I think if people knew how straightforward it really was they’d be disappointed. In truth it’s not one filter, it’s a combination of things through a handful of different apps. It’s just a process I stumbled upon accidentally and sort of liked enough to try again. Photography seems to suffer somewhat from being an inherently technical medium. Everyone looks for the trick rather than for the intent. Tricks come and go, and ultimately trends fade and shift and blend into each other. But I totally get it. I understand that feeling of seeing a picture and being struck by the wizardry of it and wanting to know how it’s done. That’s part of the wonder that a technically based medium affords. It’s great, when it doesn’t overtake the intention of the photo. I see this from photo students a lot. They figure out Photoshop, or they learn to crank the clarity slider all the way up to 100, or they figure out how to use edge lights. All. The. Time. Rather than taking pictures that have emotional meaning or strive for connection they instead have . . . a look. That said, I completely understant. There’s a lot of noise out there and it’s incredibly difficult to get noticed in this business. Having a look gets you in the door, but then there’s got to be something else.
Then again, maybe you’re right? Maybe I should reveal the trick and license it, perhaps that would free me to go on to the next thing. I think I’d miss doing it, though.
How did you select your subjects?
One of the nice things about the instagram portraits is that they’re truly not for anyone but myself. I didn’t start taking them with an eye toward making a promo, toward impressing an art director, toward pleasing a client, toward satisfying a subject. I just liked straightforward portraits, found a process that worked for me, and wanted to pay more attention to the people in my life. That’s really what it boils down to now, after so many. Photography has long been used as a tool for memory, and it’s been really wonderful having this record of all the people I encounter. I remember things better this way. I remember names. I remember where we were. I remember what we talked about. Without being vigilant for the next face I worry that sometimes the days would just blend into each other too much, if that makes any sense.
In terms of selecting subjects. . .well. . . first of all, any person that comes to my house during daylight hours is pretty much fair game, as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I’ve got so many pictures of handymen and contractors and cable installers and plumbers and such. My wife is very patient with me doubling back into a store or down a street to ask a stranger if I could take their picture while she waits. Someone on my feed recently commented “I love how you collect people”, and I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but maybe that’s what it is. Charlie Hess refers to it as my Family of Man, though that seems fairly lofty to me. I just like taking portraits with my phone. It’s great fun, even when other aspects of photography are not great fun.
How long did each portrait take, describe the process please.
I have a very low rate of refusal. Out of 800 or so subjects I think I’ve been turned down maybe 20-30 times. I consider that quite good. The actual process is very simple, and usually takes only around 30 seconds to a few minutes, depending on how chatty we’re all feeling. Some open shade or a good window, and a plain white wall, that’s it. I try to keep it as simple as possible so that the person can be the interesting thing. I don’t want it to be about the light or the environment.
We live in an age where people are hyper aware of the power of their image, of what it can be used for and how far it can travel away from them. People are cautious, and rightly so. Still, I think the fact that I’m shooting on my phone negates some of people’s suspicions. Certainly if I were walking around with a Canon and a 24-70mm lens trying to do the same thing I’d get shut down far more often. Everyone has an iPhone and everyone takes pictures with it all the time. It’s perceived as no big deal. I have a grid of about 30 of the photos on my phone’s lock screen and if someone asks why I want to take their picture I usually just show them my phone and say “Oh, I’ve done about 700 of these.” Which, of course, is not a reason at all, but that usually is all it takes. I think that because there are so many, and I tell potential subjects that there are so many, it both relieves them of the pressure and also gives them just enough attention that it’s incentive to proceed. That is, sure, it’s a little momentary ego boost, and then they can get lost in the crowd if they’re not thrilled with the result. At least, I think so. It probably also helps that i’m a short, scrawny man who seems vaguely non-threatening.
How did you take your portrait?
I took that on my birthday in 2012. Honestly I don’t know why I did a profile that day, maybe just to accent my out of control bedhead. In terms of using it on the reverse of the promo poster, that was a somewhat last minute decision. Initially I wanted to do a grid of silhouettes with captions to mimic the grid on the front of the poster. That proved to be too difficult in light of my limited Photoshop skills, low patience level and also because I was afraid it would bleed through too much once the final piece was printed. Ultimately in deciding to just put one larger photo and captions on the back it always seemed like it would be a self portrait. If I chose just one of the random 800 to make larger it would give that one person too much weight and it didn’t really make sense. Then again, now that i’m talking about it, it sure does seem egotistical to make my own head the biggest thing there, doesn’t it? I think I chose that one because I wanted it to be decidedly different from the main group. That profile makes me laugh, reminds me that I should get a haircut more often, and hopefully doesn’t seem too serious.
Has this promo been well received and gotten you some work?
I’ve printed 1000 pieces. I printed so many because separate even from photo editors and art directors/buyers/whatnot, I want to make sure that the people who actually like this series of pictures have the opportunity to get a poster. Therefore a lot of my first run of mailing was to non-potential-clients, some of whom I know personally, some not, who I just thought would enjoy having it. I plan to mail out approximately 600-800 or so. I’ve already sent out about 75 and gotten a pretty good response, mostly from people I already know. I’m in the process of addressing and sending out the remainder – which I’m doing by hand, therefore it’s taking a long time. Probably not the best plan, now that I think about it, but it feels so much better. Again, little details that nobody cares about except me. I still maintain that the survival rate of all of these promo pieces that photographers send out is so abysmally low that unless you’re doing something almost entirely for yourself because you want it to exist in the world as an object somewhere, then there’s really no point. I’m fully aware that 90% of them are destined for the trash. Life is an impermanent thing. I would be sending them out a whole lot faster, but at the moment I’ve been distracted by a week old infant. These portraits are at @msgphoto – The cutest newborn the world has ever seen is at @miloandclark.
What are you typically shooting these days?
Most recently portraiture. I’ve photographed Frank Gehry for El Semenal, the largest Sunday magazine in Spain. Earlier this week I photographed a trauma surgeon in a specially configured operating room partially funded by the DOD for a hospital research magazine here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately those publications haven’t yet gone to print so I can’t share the photos. Most of my clients have long publication cycles, but here are a couple of relatively recent things.