A Man of Rock: An Interview with Max Ellis

The following interview with Elephant Gun member Max Ellis is the second in a series of interviews with the collective's members. This week, Elephant Gun's Kathryn Flowers interviews Max on photography, club hopping, and the creative process.

Max © Max Ellis

Max © Max Ellis

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KF: When I first saw your work, I was really taken back to another period in my life, when I was doing theatre full-time and living the lifestyle that you often give the viewer a glimpse into. Performance art (in all its forms) is such a great industry when it comes to pushing the envelope, which I think you capture particularly well. What is it you like about shooting this particular subject?

ME: The main reason I got into the performance side of things was to give me something to do while my wife Katherine was on stage. Prior to carrying 20 lbs. of camera equipment, I used to be in charge of her handbag during the performance. Also, I don't like dance music so 5 hours in a club with nothing to do several nights a month was also getting to me.

Now things have moved on quite away from there and I luxuriate in my special position that being married to one of the world’s most talented and flamboyant house music vocalists affords. I have a unique perspective on the whole pre-performance, show, and after-party and I try to record my impression of the whole atmosphere. The stress, the backstage grime, the contrast of the extreme glamour of the onstage and then the descent into mayhem as the drink flows on into the early morning. 

I especially love visiting countries that are way off any tourist map, sometimes visiting places in eastern Europe that very few Westerners ever see - documenting the whole trip and adding my own slant as events unfold. I've come to the realisation that the performance, although outstanding, is rarely the most interesting part of the gig.

 


"THE PERFORMANCE, ALTHOUGH OUTSTANDING, IS RARELY THE MOST INTERESTING PART OF THE GIG."


© Max Ellis

© Max Ellis

KF: Dance music isn't your thing, but I get the feeling you do like music. What was the last album you bought?

ME: I am a man of rock, and I've moved back to vinyl this year. At one point I looked in my iTunes and realised I'd spent over a £1000 on MP3's, which basically have no value and no physical thrill. They're also much too easy to buy. There’s loads of stuff I've bought I've only heard once, and some never! So picking out a vinyl LP takes more thought and you actually get this amazing, beautiful package through the post and can paw over the sleeve notes, look at the cover, inner sleeve, etc., and then just putting it on the turntable is a thrill! 

The last few things I bought were the new albums by Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, The Thermals, Bad Religion, Black Sabbath, Clutch, Pissed Jeans, zz top and a best of by Black Flag. I probably still buy too many records.


KF: How did you fall into the creative profession? I read in your bio that you were an engineer originally, which seems drastically different.

ME: My father’s an artist and an architect and my mother is a painter, but I never actually thought you could create images for a living so I left school at 17 and did the first job that came up. This was in ‘78-‘79 and I was hanging out with some pretty messed up punks at a very dodgy pub called the Buccaneer and ended up going out with a girl whose mum was the registrar at Brighton’s Art College. I got made redundant and she suggested I do a foundation course in art and design. I realised it would be easier than working, and I actually got a grant so the government paid for me to hang out at art school for 5 years. During this time I formed a couple of bands and got drunk a lot. 

© Max Ellis

© Max Ellis

KF: As an artist, you've really spanned a lot of disciplines - illustration, photography, videography - and applied it in a number of different industries. Who and/or what inspires your work?

ME: That’s a tricky question as I've had so many creative careers. I've been a professional image maker since I left college, (studying illustration and photography) in the late 80's. I spent ten years painting for books and magazines evolving from cartoony surreal to very loose expressionistic images. In the latter years, I was very much inspired by the paintings of the German expressionists. In the early 90's, I was working on a painting for an EMI record cover when halfway through they decided they wanted to produce a computer generated image. I of course lied and told them I could do that, no problem. A couple of good friends bought me the equipment I needed and I spent 3 months in a partially renovated farm house working out how to do it.

I then produced digital art for the next ten years, most of which was based on montaging digital samples and textures to build images. I didn't really ever have any influences - just moved from A to B and ended up with C, C being the evolution from illustration to more pure photography really inspired by being uncomfortable holding a handbag.

As far as inspiration goes, generally just take pictures and am inspired by the world around me. I’d say the only actual photographer thats been a major influence on me would be Craig Stecyk and his documentation of the Dog Town years in SoCal. As a teenager I worshiped his gutsy mono images and loved the danger and excitement he brought into my English suburban life. 

 

KF: As a kid growing up, how did you spend your free time?

ME: Drawing, looking at insects, and skateboarding.

© Max Ellis

© Max Ellis

KF: Has your photography ever gotten you in a dicey situation? It seems like a club could be the perfect place for that.

ME: Katherine had a gig in one of the Moscow super clubs, I think it was called Dyagilev. I'd talked The Sunday Times into doing a piece about one of these hyper-elite establishments that has a very draconian door policy called 'face control.’ Basically you don't get in unless you are beautiful or super rich. Ordinary tables were 20,000 euros and the booths were 50,000 euros, reserved for the likes of Shakira and Bruce Willis, who were both in town.

Anyway, I talked to the promoter and he said I was fine to take photos in and around the club, but to avoid shooting in VIP. So I got lots of images of the rather uptight clientele and the stressed out back stage panic, all of which were OK but I still needed to get some more edgy stuff. There were strippers in cages in the VIP and I figured it would be fine if I was photographing the girls, and hoped if I used a wide enough lens I'd manage to get some of the peripheral celebs with their own private AK-47 toting security forces.

I got approximately two shots off before a huge bouncer literally picked me up and carried me out of VIP. I was wearing a vest carrying an expensive looking camera had no money and can't speak Russian apart from "I love you all,” which sort of sounds like 'yellow-blue-bus'. I tried this a few times (it worked on the ladies on the train) and then really started to panic as we approached the back exit of the club where I could actually see the snow falling. Gesticulating wildly and shouting for the promoter I was finally dumped on the floor, thankfully still inside the club. 

Interestingly enough, the club was burned down in an attack by a rival club the next weekend, and Katherine was in another venue that was actually pepper-bombed in retaliation some weeks later. 

 

KF: Do you have a favorite image you've shot? I know that's a hard question, but I can think of a few of my own that I'm attached to.

ME: Sometimes it’s a series of images that really capture an evening. Sometimes a single shot sums up a whole lifetime. There was an old body builder at my gym, Ricky, a real monster of a man who used to shuffle around in ragged training clothes. I was after him for a good while before I got the opportunity to talk him into letting me get some images of him. He was a bit suspicious at first, and one of the first photographs I took of him really captures this I think. He died at the beginning of the year and I was able to give the family my large collection of images of him training alone and with his son and my favourite image was on the coffin, as he was cremated in the old training clothes he loved.


"SOMETIMES IT'S A SERIES OF IMAGES THAT REALLY CAPTURE AN EVENING. SOMETIMES A SINGLE SHOT SUMS UP A WHOLE LIFETIME."

 


Ricky © Max Ellis

Ricky © Max Ellis

KF: Your current project, "Warsaw," is around what we were talking about earlier, these Eastern European shots of clubs your wife, Katherine, performs at. What can we expect from you going forward? Are you working on any new series?

ME: It’s really an ongoing project. I enjoy documenting each event, not just the gig, as you know, but all the peripheral activity. I'll just keep on doing that, because I feel it’s something important that needs to be done.

 

KF: You mentioned Craig Stecyk's stuff, I want to loop back to that. He's interesting, because he's really an artist whose worked with a lot of different media, which seems like a similarity the two of you share. Are you working on any interesting non-photography projects right now, or is that your primary focus for the moment?

ME: Funnily enough, I just got asked to paint a mural with some difficult kids at a special-ed school. I did a 30-foot climbing wall at my kids’ school, and one of the tutors saw it and got me in for a meeting Friday. It's funny how things come around.

 

KF: If you had to fight a narwhal or a walrus, which would you pick? Please note, the battle would take place in their respective native habitats.

ME: I would encourage the walrus to fight the narwhal to the death and get some great shots.

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Max's current project is 'Warsaw', showcasing international dance-club songstress Katherine 'Diva' Ellis. 'Warsaw' focuses on a 24-hour period in Warsaw, Poland. Max gives the insider's view of how The Diva manages her breathless schedule while simultaneously cultivating and growing her cult-like following around the globe.

Warsaw' seems to testify to Ellis’s ability to capture decisive moments and juxtapositions in color and black and white. If you look long enough, we're convinced you can actually hear a few of his images. To view 'Warsaw', and more of Max's work, click here.

Max Ellis' photography kit includes the Nikon D4