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Book Review: Max Pam: Autobiographies


Book Review Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam Reviewed by Blake Andrews Photographically Max Pam is still a chimera, blending travelogue, street, portraits, typologies, and nudes into a bewitching stew, along with notes, drawings, and assorted ephemera.
Max Pam: Autobiographies. 
By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017. 
 
Max Pam: Autobiographies.
Reviewed by Blake Andrews.

Max Pam: Autobiographies.
Photographs by Max Pam.
La Fábrica, Madrid, Spain, 2017. 200 pp., 200 color illustrations, 8¾x11¾x1".

The wonderfully named Max Pam is now in his late sixties and has been making photographs throughout Asia and Africa for the better part of five decades. He's poured the photos into monographs, producing over a dozen of them with a variety of publishers.

One might think that someone with such a lengthy track record would've developed an identifiable style by now. But no. Photographically Max Pam is still a chimera, blending travelogue, street, portraits, typologies, and nudes into a bewitching stew, along with notes, drawings, and assorted ephemera. Not only is it hard to assign his photographs any specific genre — is it documentary, conceptual, photojournalism, activistism? — it's hard to discern much about the man behind them apart from a restless spirit of adventure. He is a globetrotter in the 19th-century explorer mold and seems to have incorporated his various destinations into a mélange of expression. Foreign locations have subjugated any sense of personal identity.

Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017.

For those trying to decode Max Pam, the new book Autobiographies offers a bit of help. Not much, mind you, but some. The material samples from various Pam carnets de voyage from the early seventies to the present. Each project —shown roughly chronologically— takes up a few spreads in the book before quickly giving way to the next. This continues for more than 250 pages. By the finish we've seen over forty sides of Pam. Yet the cumulative effect tends toward schizophrenia over cohesion. That may well be by design. Who is the real Max Pam? Readers are left with scant ideas except that he's gregarious and multifaceted. Sometimes close with the camera, sometimes far, sometimes candid, other times posed. Color, monochrome, watercolor, neat, sloppy…? Does Max Pam contradict himself? Very well, he contradicts himself. He is large, he contains multitudes. Note, the title is Autobiographies, not Autobiography.

Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017.

The root materials of Autobiographies are the decades of journals Pam has kept as a prolific life chronicler since the age of roughly 20. Photographs provide some of the raw material for these diaries, but that's only one component. They are supplemented in creative ways with Pam's handwriting, drawings, colorizing, paintings, and diagrams. These diary entries — mostly written while traveling — are displayed in a shifting variety of formats throughout the book. Sometimes it's just a journal page reproduced as is. Another page might pull the camera back to capture a complete section of journal in a staged tableau. Other entries are cropped, combined, and scattered with photographs shown on their own. Underlying and confusing the whole effort is the fact that the original journal pages are themselves collaged together from disparate materials. Toss in a few Xeroxed magazine articles and a graphic novel about Aborigine culture into the mix, and the overall effect is a blender-style book of enormous variety and surprise, with each spread carefully considered. Pam: "For me a book is, in terms of a viewing experience, only as good as each double page makes it."

Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017.

This style of book does have antecedents. Ed Templeton's Deformer comes to mind. Exploration-minded readers may recall Don Eldon's The Journey Is The Destination or Peter Beard's The End Of The Game. Like Autobiographies, these monographs collaged a hazy photographic identity from the detritus of diaristic impressionism. They spoke in loose terms rather than exact description, the language of scrapbook over formal archive. The post-cubist impact of all these books was to convey a hazy impression of the author while leaving many tantalizing questions unanswered.

Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017.

So what does Autobiographies tell us about Max Pam? Apart from being a prolific observer and a talented freehand artist, the primary fact is that Pam's a traveler. If the opening spread of cancelled Australian passports doesn't make that clear, the bewildering mix of locations to follow does. Although it's not pictured here, one can imagine the clichéd suitcase plastered with souvenir stickers. A short passage in the book drawn from the Pam project "Forty Five Postcards Home" is a near caricature of the globetrotting adventurer, each card shipped from its own exotic locale. Reading the salutations we learn he has family back home in Australia, yet their portrayal in the book puts them at a strange remove. Indeed, even when photographing his own country, Australia, it seems to be as a jet-lagged distant observer. Max Pam himself pops up in several of the photographs, but in such a shifting mix of ages and situations that it's hard to get a clear understanding of what he might look like now. In any case the book quells any such wonderings by closing out with a long non-photographic sequence of straight journal entries.

Max Pam: Autobiographies. By Max Pam. La Fábrica, 2017.

Autobiographies comes at the reader like a fire hose, a shifting, unceasing blast of varied material from every conceivable media. The reader may not easily digest all that's happening, but will not be bored. The book's production and finish are generally excellent, with clean facsimiles bound in tidy green and yellow hardback. All in all it's an intriguing glimpse into the life of a talented and prolific photographer. — Blake Andrews

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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