During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Max Stern

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

 

Pictured: Max Stern

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Pictured: Jamaica Pond

When litigation lawyer and photographer Max Stern looks through the lens of his camera, he is capturing what he calls “evidence”; the suggestion that something has taken place or is yet to happen. He describes it in this way: “When I am doing my art, I start with a given reality; that differs from other artists who start from what’s in their mind.  How I present that reality and what I can communicate about it is very similar in creativity to my job as a trial lawyer”. When I am trying a criminal case, I am always thinking about “the theme I want to present, what evidence I want the jury to see and what conclusions I want them to take away”. “Like a photograph, I crop the case that I am presenting. What do I want them to see or not see? What do I want to emphasize or deemphasize? I want my audience to see what I find most interesting.” Max has been a Co|So artist since 2007 and is on the Co|So Board of Governors. “My friends introduced me to the organization, and I was honored to be accepted”. I see Co|So “as a vital resource for artists who need a distinguished platform to showcase their work and connect with other artists”.

During the pandemic, Max has been working remotely for his law firm and this has presented challenges because the courts are not open. He and his wife have also been busy homeschooling their 8 year-old grand daughter. More time at home has allowed Max time to pursue his passion: photography; and for the first time ever, to capture not just the singular moments but images over a span of time. Each day since early March he has walked and photographed Jamaica Pond and the abutting portions of the Emerald Necklace with the goal of creating an album of images. “It is remarkable to see the progression of time during the pandemic each day that I walk the same paths”.

 

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Pictured: Jamaica Pond

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Pictured: Jamaica Pond

Max has to be versatile with his art because of his entirely different day job. “I do my art when I can do it, wherever I may happen to be. Therefore my subjects are more tied to the moment than intentional. If I see something I like, I capture it. I photograph all kinds of reality—constructed, natural, or human". This allows Max to be uninhibited in his approach.  My job as a litigator requires “intense concentration and can be stressful at times”. While photography requires “the same kind of intensity”, I can engage with it “without the stress and this allows me to really enjoy it”.

Max reflects with a smile on a project he enjoyed working on with renowned oil painter and friend Robert Freeman in 2018. “I took Robert to New Orleans on Super Sunday and we were able to capture the Mardi Gras Indians, a group unique to the area, melding African American and Native American Rituals”. The people in these tribes will spend a long time creating their elaborate clothing for this one time event. Both artists were able to capture the passion of these performers while complementing each other’s art in the process, with Max’s photography creating “context” for the flamboyant energy depicted in Robert’s paintings. “I used a digital Fujifilm camera with a feature that allowed me to hold the camera low to the ground and shoot upwards, making the blue sky the background”. Max says of Robert’s paintings.

 “He took the reality that I captured and brought it to a new level of abstraction”. These works were featured in a well-received exhibition at the Adelson Galleries, Boston.

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Pictured: Man with Pistol Headdress

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Pictured: Man in Blue Suit

Max uses his digital camera to capture his images and admits that “the IPhone takes great photographs, and it’s much easier than my large Nikon and small Fujifilm camera.” What I enjoy about digital photography is the ability to see the image right away and make adjustments at the moment.

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Pictured: Atchafalaya Swamp

As a kid, I started out taking photos on film and processing it in the dark room in our basement. I later went to capturing the images on slides. The resulting Cibachrome prints I made were saturated with color and the quality was unique, but they were very expensive. I used film for years until I realized there was so much more I could do with digital images on the computer."

While in law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969, Max was allowed to take an elective photography course where he learned quite a bit. He later took a Photoshop course at night (New England School of Photography) to learn how to manipulate digital images. These two courses were his only formal training. “My desire to pursue photography came after the success of my first solo exhibition in a Boston frame shop”. Max took a series of images of the 120-year-old elevated “Orange Line” that was being ripped down. “I said to myself somebody has to record this”. It was a gorgeous retro structure that was once part of the old electric Boston Elevated Railway at Washington Street. This show began my photography career, as I received a lot of positive feedback and it gave me the confidence to do more.

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Pictured: Washington Street El, Orange Line series

Max’s advice to young artists: Photography is an “iterative process”. “Keep at it. At each point, you can see what you produce and how people respond to it; it imprints on your brain and moves you along, and you just grow” each step of the way. When I look at a subject I photographed 10 years ago, I see new ways that I would capture the same object now.