I got to know John Max as a young teenager growing up in Montreal. He was a friend of my older brother Henry and I would see him from time to time at my home, at gallery openings, and around the streets, downtown in the early 1960’s. Since I was only 17 or 18 at the time, most of my brother’s friend’s barely acknowledged me but John was different. He always took time to chat, ask my about what I thought —he was really interested in me. My recollections of John from those days were a bald head, a green canvas coat with lots of pockets, and a Nikon rangefinder camera dangling from the strap around his neck.
As I grew older and started hanging around downtown, I would occasionally run into him on the street, taking photographs or in used bookstores where he liked to browse. At that time, I was always surprised that he would take the time to talk to “Henry’s kid brother” but that’s the way he was. He was truly a gentle soul.
One year, I think it was in 1967 or around there, I was subletting an apartment from my brother who was in England for a year and John rang the door bell. He did not know Henry was away but he came in anyways and we spent a couple of hours drinking coffee and talking. At that time I wasn’t sure about being a photographer and was into it in a sort of half-assed way. I showed him some prints, but in his direct blunt manner he told me that they were uninteresting, poorly printed, and I had a long way to go. He then told me that he was going to be preparing for an upcoming show and he could use some help and would I be interested in helping him print his contact sheets. For the next week, I would show up at his place in Ville St. Michele at 9:00 PM. We would have drink some tea, and then descend into his basement darkroom for the remainder of the night. Twenty pots of coffee later, I would emerge at 5:00AM into the early morning summer first light and take the bus back to my place. This went on for a week and we must have printed well over 500 contact sheets. I think my passion for taking photographs originated in John’s basement that summer.
At some point a few years later he went to Japan and I did not see him for a while but one night I ran into him as I was visiting my friend Sam. There he was, in the living room talking to some people in a very intense way. We said hello briefly and then he went back to talking to those people for a few hours. Sam and I lit up a joint a chatted about our stuff and the night went on. Eventually the people John was talking to left and he joined us. We talked—he asked about my brother, my parents etc. and told us about his adventures in Japan. At some point I told him that I was taking a lot of photographs but I felt I was never getting anywhere and that I was really disappointed in my work. He replied that he had just been hired to teach a class at The Saidye Bronfman Center and I was welcome to sit in. I jumped at the chance and the next week I attended my first “class”. His class consisted of making individual appointments with his students in one of the hallways of the building where we would sit on two metal chairs in the corner and he would go over contact sheets and criticize their work. Then we would all meet together and do story boards which consisted of taking pictures from magazines and posters and combining them into collages on a 30×40 inch board. We would then show our work to the class and we would discuss it. He rarely spoke at these sessions but I loved it. The class would end with John reading a page or two from some obscure philosophical text and that would be the theme for our next storyboard. This went on for three years.
This was the only “formal” education I ever had as a photographer but it changed the way I make, and look at photographs to this day. I have always been grateful to him for the countless hours he spent with me during those years. Since I was not an official student, I offered to pay him but he always gently refused. All he asked was the I keep a fish in our freezer, just in case he wanted to drop by for dinner but he never did.
Since I moved to the US twenty years ago, we rarely saw each other—perhaps about once every year or two but every now and then, the phone would ring and there would be his voice—“David? How are you. Its John”, and we would catch up for an hour or two.
I will miss him