Body Parts and Robot Children: Science as Film Noir

Max Aguilera-Hellweg's insatiable curiosity and eye for drama set him on a path to photography—via acting, filmmaking, and medicine.  

Max Aguilera-Hellweg approaches photography with the mind of an abstract mathematician and the heart of an artist. His futuristic photographs play at the edge of science and imperfection. As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we spoke with Hellweg-Aguilera to find out what makes him tick.

What was the first picture that mattered to you?

The first photograph that mattered to me was one that I found in the gutter, on the edge of the sidewalk on the street in Chetumal, Mexico. This was back in 1973, when I had just graduated from high school, and I was already serious about photography.

It was the bottom half of a photograph of a couple, just from the waist down—a wedding photograph or one taken at some formal event.

The woman was wearing what looked like a 1960s-era prom dress embossed with a floral print—clean and not a stitch out of place. Her shoes were patent leather, low-heeled, pointed at the toe, white and shiny, without a mark or scratch.

The man wore black trousers that were dirty and a few inches too big for him at the waist. He didn’t wear a belt. The shoes looked well-worn, not shiny, not polished. Altogether the wrinkles in the pants, and the shoes, gave nuance to the man’s character—a sadness, a life lived that even a dry cleaner could not erase.

The couple stood side by side. Though I could not see their hands, I imagined he held hers, or she held his, in some embrace. It was formal, not romantic.

This photo without faces, without eyes, was a complete portrait in itself. Now, when I photograph someone, I look at their shoes, I look at the wrinkles in their clothes, or lack thereof. I look for the details that reveal to me who they are.

Body part specimens are seen in a laboratory in Berlin, Germany.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

To be honest, I’ve seriously wanted to, pondered, and desired to be many things throughout my life.

Once I walked into an acting class by chance and was mesmerized by what I saw. I enrolled right away, thinking it would help me with people, with my shyness, with taking better portraits—help me to understand human emotion. It wasn’t long after that that I wanted to become an actor myself. I studied acting for six years.

I was 21 when I decided to make movies. But as soon as I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker, I learned two things: Filmmakers were storytellers, and I didn’t know what a story was. So I started reading books. The second thing was that filmmakers had something to say. I didn’t have anything to say, and I didn’t know how to get to have anything to say. I decided to put that to rest.

I decided to become a doctor at 35 because I didn’t want to turn 50 and say to myself, I wish I’d become a doctor. I went on to do an internship and residency in internal medicine. I never thought I’d leave—not in a million years—but I did, and returned to photography. It was a tremendous experience and journey–there are things you learn about life, things about yourself, your patients and their familes, when you have MD after your name that I can never forget.

Today, I can use everything I learned. I have got something I want to say and I am ready to make films.

Who is your greatest influence?

I have many from different disciplines but from photography I would say Ralph Gibson, Diane Arbus, and Guy Bourdin.

From Ralph Gibson, I learned about light, how photography is math, the subtraction of light and other elements to see what is important, that every element, every inch in the frame, is important.

From Diane Arbus, I learned the difference between taking a photograph and having to take a photograph because you have no other choice; in other words, the difference between choosing a subject to photograph because it's popular, or because it will make you well known, or because it's just strange versus having to photograph a subject because you are driven, it's what you need to do to breathe, to function, to relate to the world.

The thing I got from Guy Bourdin was how to craft my own cinematic skills. His photographs are like scenes from a movie. I had always wanted to make films, but I learned to create a movie in a single frame.

Kirk Odom was convicted of rape after an expert testified that a hair on the victim’s nightgown matched his. Odom spent more than 22 years in prison and eight on parole before DNA tests proved his innocence and fingered the real culprit.

What fuels your passion for photography?

I started taking pictures when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I didn’t realize then how lucky I would be [to have] picked up a camera and looked through a lens—where photography would take me. The experiences are what I'm after. The photographs are almost second thought, but it’s my curiosity that drives me. It is insatiable and never ending.

What is the perfect photograph?

Photography to me is mathematics, and mathematics is perfect. Photographs are equations—there are a variety of calculations going on in making one: distance to subject, DOF [depth of field], shutter speed to aperture, budgeting a shoot, light and shadow, framing and geometry.

But what I really like are the more complex equations—even chaos theory, even abstract thought as regards numbers, like absolute zero. Sometimes the most perfect photograph has the most exquisite imperfections. I took a class with Larry Clark when I was in my early 20s, and he sounded stoned, and it was great, and he showed photographs from Tulsa that had not been developed properly, had not sat in the fixer long enough and had stains on them. I loved those prints. There was something about them that was so real, so Larry Clark. They were gorgeous.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

Exposed film or, now, the equivalent—the card, or hard drive, with the shot images on them.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

If you've never shot film and developed it in the darkroom, do it. There's something about shooting and developing your own film, then trying to make a print with whatever is on your negative, or whatever is not there. The hard work of it, the muscles your hands and eyes develop along the way, then going back out and shooting again and again and back to the darkroom again and again. It will shape how you see light, how you capture it. You will know what you can and can’t do and how to tame it, see it, use it, and make it your own.

In our series "Through the Lens," we get to know the photographers behind some of the unforgettable images showcased on National Geographic.

Max Aguilera-Hellweg’s work is featured in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Check out more of his work here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.