Last night I attended a memorial service for my friend, the photographer John Max who passed away a few weeks ago. It was held at Club Espanol de Québec, on blvd. Saint-Laurent in Montreal and the Montreal photographer scene was all in attendance. We chatted and reminisced about John and then we watched part of a documentary about him and some people gave speeches about their recollections. I was mildly amused at this point because all of John’s friends who were giving the speeches delivered them in French. Wherever John was at this point, he would not be able to understand any of it because he did not speak a word of French. I thought of standing up and speaking a few words on my own, but unfortunately my shyness and fear of speaking in public prevented this so I thought I would do it here.
I first met John Max about 53 years ago when I was a young teenager of about 15. He was a friend of my older brother Henry who had just graduated from l’école des beaux arts in Montreal and was just getting started as one of Québec’s premier artists. The Montreal Museum had organized this show of young Québec bright prospects so my parents dragged me to the vernissage (opening). My brother introduced me to John who was wearing a green, well-worn canvas coat with two Nikon rangefinders dangling from his neck. To my surprise, he actually spoke to me and engaged me in conversation. I asked him why he had the cameras around his neck and he answered that he wanted to be ready in case an opportunity arose. Being a sort of dumb-assed 15 year old, I thought this was really cool. What was really amazing, was that here was a friend of my older brother who was actually talking to me. Over the next few years we would run into each other from time to time. I remember one time that I was with Henry and he had to pick up a catalog at John’s apartment on Dorchester. We went up three flights of stairs, and entered his kitchen. Henry introduced me to his wife Anna and as I was shaking hands, I could not help but notice that the kitchen was consumed by around 10 5-tier high olive drab military style filing cabinets. There was very little room for anything else except a small table where we sat around and drank tea from his very familiar green thermos bottle. Things never really change. Over the next few years we would meet and occasionally at vernissages or when I would run into him at Henry’s studio.
When I was around 17 or 18, I had discovered downtown Montreal and together with my friend Harvey, we would spend as much time as we could hanging out, exploring the scene, going to movies and eating hambergers at Mr. Steer and all that sort of stuff that teenagers usually do when they are “breaking out”. One afternoon we were walking down Ste. Catherine Street and we passed this beggar playing a hand-cranked organ in front of Simpson’s department store. He was a regular fixture there for years as he would crank his organ with his left hand and hold up his right arm which was missing a hand to show the passers-by that he was handicapped and in need of cash. About 30 feet down from him, between the crowds and the building, crouching down and shooting ferociously was John in his green canvas jacket, cameras dangling from his neck with his very familiar bald head. He was work’n!
“Hey look at that guy taking pictures of the organ grinder!” said Harvey in a very excited tone. “He is really cool.” At this age one thinks of growing up to be an accountant, a doctor, a salesman—anything but what we were looking at. Anybody who earned a living doing what John did was cool—really, really cool.(In fact anything that happened outside of our home environment was cool.)
“Oh, that’s John Max. he is a friend of Henry’s. Would you like to meet him?” That was a rhetorical question. I could see Harvey was chomping’ at the bit.
So there in the middle of Ste, Catherine Street and a busy Saturday afternoon, we stopped and I said hello to John, and introduced him to Harvey. He stopped shooting, stood up and we talked for a few minutes. Harvey was asking him all sort of questions and at the end, the last question was why he was taking pictures of the beggar.
“It’s not the beggar.” he replied. “I am more interested in the people walking by and pretending not to notice him or ignoring him altogether.”
I took another look over at the beggar and the people walking by and it clicked. I think that was the first time a dumb-assed 17 year old understood that there was more to taking pictures than the obvious and that often, it is far more interesting to look beneath the surface where the real story is being told.