File 01 | Max Pinckers

Text by Charlotte Cotton.
First published in IMA Magazine Vol. 5, Japan, Autumn 2013.

For this issue of IMA magazine and forthcoming issues, I am going to be introducing you to contemporary art photographers who are making new proposals for the field in imaginative and unique ways. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being part of the jury for the Levallois Photography Award in Paris and the stand-out artist for all of us in attendance was the young Belgian photographer Max Pinckers who presented his series The Fourth Wall, an intense and dream-like series of photographs staged in Mumbai. What draws me to this work is in part what I suspect Pinckers has consciously set up as the invitation of the work, which is for the viewer to situate themselves within the psychological space of the images. On the face of it, Pinckers’ photographs of staged and beautifully lit scenarios on streets and within evocative interiors in Mumbai are the photographic offspring of American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers photographs made in Los Angeles in the first few years of the 1990s. DiCorcia’s series was a radical gesture for its time and still permeates through the discourses of documentary photography within the context of art. Pickers’ training at the School of Arts in Ghent, Belgium, was essentially as a documentary photographer but, like diCorcia before him, he consciously takes the problematic of photography as neither a neutral or unbiased form of documentation into creative account. DiCorcia would choose his locations on and around Santa Monica Blvd, set up his lights and the frame of his large-format camera and then cast male sex workers as the protagonist of his luscious and powerful scenes with the titles of each picture stating basic information about his subjects and also what diCorcia paid the Hustler to be photographed. Hustlers has been influential because of its explicit strategy of combining documentary photographic conventions of a photographer observing and responding to a social reality, with a high degree of preconception and orchestration of a scene for his camera and the viewer.

The Fourth Wall is Max Pinckers’s strategy for guiding the viewer into the spirit of life in Mumbai. Typically, a city of such hardship for many has been conveyed by photographers through observations of communities whose very existence – such as sex workers and child labourers – symbolise the social and economic condition. Pinckers sets himself a very different challenge, perhaps one that is even more empathetic, which is to visualise how human beings creatively survive and escape such difficult realities. Over the course of his final year undertaking an MFA at the School of Arts in Ghent, Pinckers and Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras (who acted as his assistant for lighting and research) went to India, initially for a three-month period, returning for a further two months to complete the project ahead of his graduation. Pinckers went to Mumbai with the idea of creating a photographic project about the Hindi (Bollywood) film industry and the extent to which its narratives are embedded in everyday life in urban India. A few years earlier, while travelling in India, Pinckers had been a paid ‘extra’ on Bollywood film sets, like many young Western tourists who are scouted on the streets of Mumbai and this was when he realised that, ‘Bollywood strongly defines the culture [of India]’. Most of the photographs that made it into The Fourth Wall book (which Pinckers considers the primary form of the project) were made on his second two-month stay in Mumbai by which point almost all the photographs that he made on actual film sets or depicting working actors had been edited out. Pinckers acknowledges that The Fourth Wall works in its, ‘very fine balance’ between the cinematic and the real in order that it can tell a story of magical realist power, of unexplained wonders and drama that are rendered from actual lives and experiences.

The intelligence of Pinckers’s The Fourth Wall is also born out in the ways in which he has disseminated the work. The book is printed on newspaper stock and subtly evokes both the character of the Hindi films that Pinckers’s subjects play out as-well-as the low-fi production values of contemporary photography books. As Pinckers acknowledges, ‘that’s the way that I want people to see the project and right now it is the most democratic form for photography, which is what photography is supposed to be’. For his gallery installations, Pinckers has selected a small number of the photographs, which are shown as large, free –standing, unique lightboxes. So far, Pinckers has only exhibited the images where light sources emanate from the depicted scenes and use the physical characteristics of the lightbox form to full effect, drawing us in and onto the cinematic stage of Mumbai.