Max Vadukul was born to Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, later moving with his family to Northern London at age 9. A self-taught photographer, he ran away at just 16 to escape an arranged marriage and learn everything he could about life behind the camera. Eventually, after being discovered by famed Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto in 1984, he became sought after in his signature “art reportage” style which he has taken to the genres of portraiture, documentary, and fashion photography–Vadukul refers to himself not as a fashion photographer, but “fashion adjacent”– at publications like The New Yorker (where he was the second ever staff photographer, after Richard Avedon), Vogue, Vogue Paris, Vogue Italia, W, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Egoiste, Town & Country, and countless others. The first Indian photographer to do images for the covers of both Vogue and Vogue Paris, Vadukul has also photographed campaigns for the likes of Chloé, Armani, and Comme des Garçons, to name a few. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about his career, the beauty of having detractors, the changing world of fashion photography, and more.
How did you get people to look at your work, and get it in front of people you wanted to see it?
I was struggling in England to get noticed. I was simply told my work was too aggressive, and that was by Grace Coddington. In those days, [editors] would see you, instead of the email going to the junk mail. They would be honest too and tell you, your work is great, but we don’t see the model here or we don’t see the fashion, we don’t see what you can do with a girl. And they said well, you’ll have to go somewhere else. My mindset is very simple, always work where you’re loved. Don’t sit around trying to convince people who don’t want you around. It’s just not worth it. By this point I understood the English gusto, the taste, was not in my favor. I just thought well, I’ve done my round now and from what I understand fashion is a way you can make a living so we tried to do that, combine that with a bit of documentary work. I got to Paris and it was really straightforward. They would simply look at the work and say you’re wrong for us, but we know somebody who will like you. They sent me down to Yohji Yamamoto and Marc Ascoli, and the rest is history. Their kind of confidence and trust is ridiculous. You’re standing there on the day and they’re telling you quite literally, you’re gonna shoot our next campaign right now. What do you wanna do? I said, well, I wanna shoot the girls like birds landing on pavement in New York. Within a week we were in New York casting the girls and we shot amazing work. That I did for 27 years with Yohji on and off.
How did you develop your aesthetic as a photographer, which has been called “art reportage”?
It was a comment made by Carla Sozzani [of Galleria Carla Sozzani in Milan]. Many years later I’ve been reflecting on it, and it’s absolutely right. My strength and approach is in reportage. Jodi Peckman [Creative Director] at Rolling Stone magazine says Max, you’re actually a way better documentary photographer than documentary photographers, the way you go after the subject. I think that’s because the basis of photography for me has always been reportage, street photography. If you just go deep inside of yourself and you find that story that’s you. But with so much outside influence, so much information, #TMI, too much information, you’re never gonna find this thing. When I had been finally at a stage where I really felt I had something that was talking back to me in the pictures and I was hitting every time, the medium was black and white for me and that can work for you and against you. If you had a detractor, they’d always say, oh but he’s only doing black and white. It’s good to have detractors because that means you’re doing well. If you don’t have detractors, you don’t have opposition, then there’s nothing going on. The bigger the opposition, the better it is. I think that that style of what has been called art reportage, it’s not something I think about, but it’s when somebody I respect like Carla has been able to define in her introductions to my photography, that’s when I thought yes, this is very good.
How have you refined your work since you first began?
Technology is fundamental in these matters because every time you have a new piece of technology it changes a lot of the approach and even the result. Because I’ve worked with film for many years I’ve been able to keep my photography private for a long time. When I’ve released the material, it’s always been a pleasant surprise for everybody. The refinement is not something I think about. I don’t go, “Well, how am I going to make this better?” It’s natural. If I can’t play, I can’t play. If I know it, I know right away if I’ve lost it. Since most of what I’ve done successfully has been with feeling, if you lose feeling, sometimes it happens, you know? Sometimes you just feel absolutely lost in hell. There’s no way you can find the communication working for you. Then sometimes you’re very lucky. I just did a four-day shoot in Paris with Egoiste. That’s a legendary masterpiece of a book and working with an editor like Nicole Wisniak, she pushes you to find your voice. She’s absolutely not happy until she sees your signature. The refinement process is very much like a musician. The way I’ve approached everything has never been a study, it’s through experience. Sometimes experience you have to pay for and it’s very costly.
What do you think are some current positive and negative facets of the fashion photography world? How do you handle them?
I think that what has changed fundamentally is the power of the photographer. The work of the photographer in fashion before was very essential. They had control of the film, the processing, the chemistry, they were very involved in it. The editing process, you got one or two selects. Now you get the hard drive with everything in it. And the editors don’t look at the clothes the same way I would say certain women do, feel the fabric, understand the culture, have a deep culture about it. Most of them I have to deal with are quite into the Instagram thing. The selfie. They love their little likes. The more likes they get, the better it is. It’s got nothing to do with creating a vision. The character, the woman that’s been created. There are some cases where of course good work is created, but not the way it used to be. A good editor, a good photographer used to be able to go onstage and talk about how a story was built. It’s tough telling a story today. The budgets are also very minuscule now. You don’t get three week shoots, two week shoots. How about one week? To do 14 pages? No, today you do 14 shots in one day and you better give everything in right away. But fortunately I don’t have to deal with that. I think overall it’s got to the point where to create the kind of photography I would like is quite straightforward. I would be asked, who’s the girl you want, who’s your makeup, put it together, here’s some money, go and do your shoot. The editor used to put the stuff together, the clothes, she’d match it to your photography, not this is the credit, this is the shoe, this is the advertiser, we must have that. That’s where the message is, so you’re not really getting a page that shows what you might have imagined, you’re just doing an ad but you’re not getting paid an ad. It’s an ad! And it’s really terrible when they say it’s an editorial when it’s not.
Given those changes today, do you still pursue and enjoy doing fashion photography?
Fashion is essential. I love fashion because it’s beautiful to look at a person well put together. It’s a state of mind. It absolutely describes how you feel, how you think. There are projects which are very nice to shoot, like I just did Jessica Alba for DL1961 and that’s a signature shoot, black and white, they didn’t want anything else, just do your thing. The best art directors just leave you alone unless something goes really well off the target. When you have a brand that has a very strong philosophy in fashion direction, that’s the only message that has to be communicated. I function very well in a fashion environment if I have a story that can communicate my DNA–I like emotion, movement, drama, and I like it really to hold the gaze. I wouldn’t say that editorial photography is destroyed or anything like that, but it is not a good moment. But the show has to go on, right? I think fashion is definitely a very powerful medium. It’s essential for us to look at those photos of the characters that we’re looking at because it’s evidence of us. Right now you’ve got a lot of this gender talk going on now so that’s now okay to transmit. All of this would have just been taboo before. Size, race, all of that thing is very okay. If you don’t, you’re going to be in trouble. All of those things have made tremendous progress. But I do believe the crux of everything is just about a good photographer who really has secrets like we all should have. Not everything should be shared.