Max Vadukul was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1961, to Indian parents whose families were part of the Gujarati diaspora of the early twentieth century that settled in what was then British East Africa. When he was nine, in the turmoil that followed Kenya’s independence, he moved to England, where he grew up in a working-class borough of north London. During grammar school, Vadukul picked up a camera sitting around the house—his father worked for Zeiss, the German lens maker—and from then on his goal was to become a photographer. At the age of 22, he was discovered by Yohji Yamamoto, who hired him to shoot several of the designer’s prestigious ad campaigns. It was still the era when magazines had the power to launch the career of the next great talent, and the self-taught Vadukul now joined the ranks of the legends he’d revered growing up by having his work regularly featured in French and Italian Vogue alongside David Bailey, Paolo Roversi, Deborah Turbeville, Barry Lategan, and Helmut Newton. Vadukul’s body of work, which now spans thirty-eight years, also includes significant creative chapters at Rolling Stone, Esquire, Égoïste, W, Town & Country, and The New Yorker, where, in 1996, he replaced Richard Avedon to become only the second staff photographer in the magazine’s history.
Vadukul’s signature style of black-and-white portraiture, which combines kinetic spontaneity with the skill of a master craftsman, has been widely recognized for its originality and iconic power. In 2000, he published a celebrated book, “Max: Photographs by Max Vadukul.” His work has also been the subject of several solo and group shows, including: "Beyond Words: Photography
in The New Yorker,” at the Howard Greenberg Gallery (2011); "Yohji's Women," at the Wapping Project Bankside (2011); and "Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to the Present," at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2009). He currently lives and works in Milan. Recently honored at the Taormina Fashion Festival, Vadukul is preparing his next exhibition at the Al Safa Art and Design Library of Dubai.
ESSAY BY JAY FIELDEN
Of the heavyweight photographers who wielded a camera back when magazine shoots were epic,
advertising contracts were fat, supermodels were new, fashion was less about money than creativity,
and film had to be developed in a darkroom, Max Vadukul is one of the few who somehow
protected his talent from being spoiled by too much good fortune. It might have been tempting, for
instance, having put a lasting imprint on one of the more difficult specialties of his chosen métier—
the black-and-white portrait—to do just what he’d always done, especially since he could do it with
one arm tied behind his back. He’d racked up the accolades (“You’re not an echo, you’re a voice,”
Avedon told him); the hallowed ad gigs (Yohji Yamamoto, Romeo Gigli, Armani); the most coveted of
magazine covers (French and Italian Vogue, Rolling Stone, Égoïste). Along the way, he married the
highly-regarded stylist Nicoletta Santoro, and they had children, twins. Some days, in the evening,
sitting in his garden, he took stock of it all, while smoking one of his favorite cigars, a Hoyo No. 2.
But Vadukul has never been one to tarry.
He was, in some ways, born on the move—a Hindu boy between homes. The first was Nairobi, a
way point between the India of his indentured ancestors and the London of his growing up. Then,
as the self-taught photographer on the rise, it was Paris for a little while, followed by New York for a
lot longer, and now, having logged a career of thirty-eight years to date, Milan. His wandering feet
carried him from point to point, an immigrant and an artist on the hunt for his own voice. But it’s
been the engine of his propulsive creativity that has continually pointed the compass of his fine
aquiline nose—the perch of a pair of heavy-framed specs—in the direction of new territory he’s not
Photojournalism, the fashion world, glossy magazines, the sui generis New Yorker—these are not
heights often scaled by people whose skin is a different shade than white. But Vadukul has used
the experience from the times in his life when he felt ostracized for his Gujarati heritage—Manoj
was his name until his classmates in grammar school decided it would be more fitting to call him
Max—to channel the evil of prejudice into a refusal of the idea that the answer is for everyone to be
the same. The struggle of the artist is, after all, to be different. What that means at a young age is
having to resist the temptation to emulate others; what it means later is having to resist the temptation
to emulate yourself.
Vadukul’s vast body of work is an arc of fresh and forward discovery, in which image after
image somehow maintains the palpable sense of a split-second moment when yet another highstakes
concept of creative daredevilry gambles with failure to become a victory. In other words, for
someone who knows that outdoing the world that doubted him means first outdoing himself, Vadukul’s
newest project is just the kind of insane idea that, to him, makes perfect sense.
The catalyst for what has become “The Witness” was a call from Che Kurrien, the editor of GQ
India, who, for the tenth anniversary of the magazine, gave Vadukul broad discretion in how he might
approach a topic as big and controversial as climate change. Now sixty-one, Vadukul is infectiously
upbeat, even though he closely follows just about every topic currently causing mankind to hurl
four-letter words at each other. “I’m not a climate activist,” he says, explaining his take on the unbridgeable
divide between the Greta Thunbergs of the world and, say, the spokesperson for ExxonMobil.
“I document human behavior, and what I wanted to do was take something ugly like garbage and
make it beautiful, so people would look at it closely, and then think, maybe it’s not just ‘they’ who
need to change their behavior but me, too.” The Italian phrase for human pollution—inquinamento
umano—was an example of the irony he was after. “It’s a beautiful phrase for a very ugly reality.”
In the past, Vadukul—whose shoots Sting has described as “Dadaist performance art”—has
for humorous, tragicomic, or absurd effect inserted foils into his photographs from time to time: a
spitting llama, an armadillo, an alligator wrestler. In this instance, the seriousness of the subject
called for something more ambiguously present, a device, say, that, like the convex mirror in Jan
van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Wedding,” would, among other things, turn the gaze of the artist back on the
viewer. After some weeks of hunting, Vadukul’s prop stylist located a shop in Essex, England, that
made inflatable orbs coated with reflective paint. Vadukul ordered six of them with a five-foot radius,
and shipped them to India.
The GQ shoot took him to Mumbai, where he tracked down locations that would frame India’s
predicament as the world’s second most populated country, and one of its most polluted, a place
where seventy per cent of the surface water is unfit for consumption, and, even with a national ban
that outlaws many types of single-use plastic items, is responsible for depositing some ninety per
cent of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. From this trip, came images of marigolds dumped on the
road—a mountain of them, being gathered up by hand to be hauled away as garbage; ghosty
sheets of illegal plastic, the polyethylene empire of a Jabba the Hutt like character too ashamed to
show his face; and a vast landfill, some two-hundred-feet high, full of plastic bottles that—in warning
to those addicted to Evian who might be tempted to pass judgment—could very well be the
jetsam of the West, many of whose countries have often paid India to take their trash.
“For that first picture with the sphere, I stood there, thinking, ‘Shit, is this going to be a disaster?’ ”
Vadukul says. But back in Milan, seeing the material he came away with—its depth of compassion,
panoramic majesty, and objective, documentary tone—he felt the shots revealed fundamental
truths about human behavior and the current state of the planet that, as works of art, couldn’t be
dismissed as easily as the polarized bickering of climate czars, child activists, politicians, deniers,
and virtue signalers.
Yet, the story wasn’t complete. There was more to get on record with his camera, the pollution
of overpopulation and the drawbacks that have coincided with India’s great economic success.
The country has a massive appetite for concrete, which, as an industry, makes up 4-8% of global
CO2 emissions, and an long-ingrained struggle to properly dispose of its waste water and sewage.
Within a few months, Vadukul went back, traveling to Pune and Kolkata, where, among other epic
images, he captured the hypnotic masterpiece on the front of this book, an impromptu snap with
multi-layers of meaning. “It’s lunchtime for the taxi driver—the toxic ambassador—with the fake
leopard interior,” Vadukul says. “Behind him is the perfect zero carbon machine—a man pulling his
own wagon, and beyond that are people’s cars. Three layers of human transportation.”
There is also, once again, the sphere—the witness, Vadukul himself reflected in its iris. A boy has
fallen to his knees before it, as if the shiny object were, in this instance, an angry god, spreading the
heavy enlightenment of culpability, which few appear to have the conscience to accept.
Mirrors have strange properties. We speak of them as if they, like us, have the capacity to see. As
the wicked queen knows, they cannot lie. And, of course, what they reflect is shown backward, in
reverse. Turn back, Vadukul’s sphere seems to be saying to us in each of these twenty photographs,
turn back, before it’s too late.