Issue 9 Childhood Winter 2002/03

Model Child: An Interview with Max Berger

Joseph R. Wolin and Max Berger

In 1998, Max Berger starred in his fifth-grade production of The Sound of Music. His mother took pictures of the performance. This would have been unremarkable save for the fact that Max’s mother is New York-based photographer Barbara Pollack, and this was merely the latest in a series of works that take Max as their inspiration.

Pollack’s signature photographic style—all blurred movement, disorienting lack of focus, and saturated, almost lurid color—seems to embody an uneasy relationship to the world. Her vision is myopic, verging on miasmic. That vision has developed over the course of the last decade and a half or so, as has Max.

The Family of Men, an installation from 1999, portrayed a pre-school Max and his father, Joel, as a suffocating family unit. Dance Party (2001) captured the awkward interaction of his middle-school dance. Pollack has also made Max the subject of her videos. We see him as a small boy hounded by his camera-wielding mother in Game Boy (1996/2001), as an adolescent intent on video-game murder in Perfect Dark (2001), and as a teenager, dissing Britney Spears with his friends, in Stronger (2002).

Max, who just turned 15 years old, was interviewed at his home in Greenwich Village on 30 September 2002.

So, The Sound of Music was four years ago. What grade were you in?

Fifth grade. It was the leaving-school school play, graduation school play.

Because you went to middle school after?

Yes.

And you were the star?

I was the guy star.

And did you know that your mother was going to photograph you when you were in the play?

Well, I thought she was going to take some pictures, which were like pictures that you put in a family photo album and say, “Oh, he was so cute,” not the kind-of blurry pictures.

Do you think the pictures are a good representation of what you experienced being in the play?

Well, I don’t think any pictures of the play would actually show what the play is really like. It doesn’t capture the nervousness of the kids. It just shows a still of the play. If you saw one still of a movie could you really know what the entire movie was about?

No, but I think that the way your mother takes pictures gives you a feeling of being nervous in a school play, a lot more than a regular, in-focus photograph would.

Well, yeah, I guess that’s true. It’s just that a normal still wouldn’t really show nervousness, but since she has the blurriness in there: blurriness, sweating. The truth is, the lights in The Sound of Music were really, really hot. And during the parts where we had to be really close up to the hot light, people would be melting. The makeup would be drooling down their faces. The last scene, we’re all singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” and we’re all kneeling in the light in front, like the lights they use for portraits in photographs. Imagine that right up in your face. And we’re all really sweaty, and really melting. We’re all done, and then, then you get to take your bow. Bowing is nice. I like the bowing. ‘Cause then you’re done.

When your mother comes to your school and does a series like The Sound of Music or Dance Party, what happens?

Well, at the time she photographed Dance Party, some people would point around and say, “Hey, Max, is that your mom?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I’ve got no clue what she’s doing here.” And then I’d go up to her and ask, “Mom, what are you doing here?” And then she’d answer, “Oh, I’m just taking photographs for this project. Just pretend I’m not there.” And then she’d continue taking pictures of me. And then I’d say, “Well, if it’s supposed to be a project of the dance, why don’t you take pictures of other people at the dance besides me and my friends? Why don’t you leave me and my friends alone?” So then, of course, she would take lots and lots of pictures of other people. But then when it came down to eliminating the pictures, it usually ended up being the ones of me and my friends.

And when you saw those pictures what did you think of them?

I thought they were pretty cool. I mean, I like the way how all the light and hectic-ness of the party all goes into the pictures, like the glowsticks and the lighting effects and all those dust and smokescreen and all that stuff gets all blurred into one. But you still see the people.

Do you think in general your mother’s pictures represent your life?

Oh, yeah. When I see the pictures, I think about a lot of stuff in my life. Because also it seems to me there’s one show per era of my life. So, her first show, Family of Men, that’s before I was in school. And the next show, The Sound of Music, that’s elementary school. And when I see those pictures, I remember all my friends and all the people I knew from elementary school. Then there’s Dance Party. It shows all the hectic-ness of middle school. Then I see all my friends from middle school. And I only assume that maybe sometime there’ll be a show on high school, probably.

Do you remember when you first became aware that your mother was taking pictures of you?

Oh, that goes way back when. Maybe four years old, I pieced it all together. I figured out that she had this system where I would always crawl out my crib and I would open the door to get into my parents’ room. And then when I opened the door, immediately a flash of light would go off in my eyes. Like she knew I was going to be there. And then later, my mom would be taking me to these things, which later I learned were called “openings,” and there would be pictures of me about to open a door, with a flash in my eye!

And did you think that was unusual?

Well, I didn’t think it was that unusual. I thought it was just normal pictures.

Why is it, you think, that you inspire your mother so much?

Because she created me. I came from her. She went through nine months of pain and suffering, so…

That was fifteen years ago. But you’re still a compelling subject for her. Why do you think that is?

Because. What would she rather take pictures of than her own son?

Max Berger, son of Barbara Pollack and Joel Berger, is a freshman at Brooklyn Tech High School. In 1998, he received a national photography award from the Boys and Girls Club of America. His next project, “Max’s 15th Birthday Party,” will be presented at Participant, Inc. in January 2003.

Joseph R. Wolin is a curator and critic in New York. His most recent project, “Royal Art Lodge: Volume 1,” curated with Wayne Baerwaldt, will open at the Drawing Center in New York in January 2003 and travel to the Power Plant in Toronto and De Vleeshal in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

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