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Anatomy in Art

Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Home | Pre 20th Century | Post 20th Century

b. 1955

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            On a day off school as a child, Max Aguilera-Hellweg found himself rummaging through his parents closet trying to find some money as to buy candy with, instead, Max found his father’s photo albums. His father was an aerial photographer in the war, he found reconnaissance photographs of bombing missions in the Pacific along with pictures of evil looking ‘japs’ and nudes of busty movie stars. After exhausting his father’s photo supply he graduated to looking at history books. Here he found photographs of gangsters, natural disasters, the depression and war. Max was mesmerized by the power of photography to reveal the unknown.

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            In junior high he took photography and earned himself an “A” on his first assignment, now he knew what he was going to be. Before the end of his senior year Max took a night class at the UCLA, he was introduced to the photography of Diane Arbus and Bill Owens and his view of the world was changed forever.

            At seventeen Max landed an apprenticeship at Rolling Stone. He did the darkroom work and was made assistant to Annie Lebovitz. A year and a half later he had done several features including an assignment to cover a body building competition where he took a photograph of Arnold Schwarzeneggar which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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            Arnold Schwarzeneggar landed Max his next job working at Muscle Magazine in LA. Max saved enough money to travel the world and photograph his experience, when he arrived home he had dreams of becoming a film director. He wrote and directed a few short films and was awarded an Independent Filmmakers Grant from the American Film Institute in 1981. Still Max continued to work as a photographer and his cliental grew enormously over the next few years. Some of them include Fortune, Time, Esquire, Rolling Stone, GEO, Stern, Discover, Scientific American, Details, Connoisseur, Newsweek, The Washington Post Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Texas Monthly, New York and The New Yorker.

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            Max has used photography to learn about himself and about the world, as a photojournalist he has seen and experienced all dreams and nightmares imaginable. He has spent time with girl gangs in LA and hung out with street orphans in Guatemala who sniff glue to forget that they are hungry. He has encountered brothels in Bangkok where twelve year old girls had been sold off by their parents and then in the same week has found himself crawling through tunnels with illegal ‘aliens’ entering the US. Max spent an hour alone in a cell with an 18 year old mass murderer in Phoenix, and set foot in the White House to photograph a vice-president suffering a crisis of confidence from the electorate.

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            Not all of Max’s assignments have been as dramatic as those mentioned above, he has also been hired to photograph the dull and mundane, to make something out of nothing. As a result Max developed a passionate curiosity about anything and everything.

            The next and most intriguing chapter of Max’s life is best experienced through his own words. This is taken from Max’s short autobiographical career narrative and is perhaps the most inspiring and fascinating life story I have ever had the pleasure of discovering….

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            “In 1989 I was assigned to photograph a woman neurosurgeon for Savvy Magazine. Savvy wanted portraits and photographs of the surgeon at work in the operating room. When I walked into the OR for the first time, the surgeon was placing a "C" clamp on a man’s skull and hanging him from a hook in the ceiling. Thus allowing her clear access, the operation was to be performed at eye level, offering a direct view, rare for most procedures. A patient suffering from a sudden onset of paralysis was to have the backside of five vertebrae removed. His eyes were taped shut, a microphone placed on his heart, such that his heartbeat was broadcast so the whole room could hear. Over the next six hours, splayed back, pried open, the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi in the grip of stainless steel teeth, the ivory, the vertebrae were removed. The heartbeat slowed but never wavered, the cardinal glow of oxygenated blood always reminding me there was a man in there. The last bone removed, the surgeon stepped aside and said "Here, take a picture of this." Before me, an arms length away, milky white, the thick strand of nervous tissue extending from cortex to coccyx, splitting off in multitudinous fibres to every reach of the body—hot and cold, pleasure, pain, the spinal cord lay revealed. I saw the painting above my grandmother's fireplace. The one of Jesus, his heart bleeding, wrapped in thorns, engulfed in flames. The spinal cord had never seen light, wasn’t meant to see light, and at this moment was bathed in light. I realized I was in the presence of the most intimate, most vulnerable, most inviolate thing I had ever seen. Confronted with such perfection, I must confess, my first impulse was to spit—to defile it in some way, bring it down to my level. I didn’t of course, but I felt I was in the presence of something so precious, so powerful, so pure, I paled in comparison. I realized at once, if one wanted to ask the important questions of life, that this was the place, this was ground zero.

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Using my entrée as a photographer, I began to work on a surgical atlas. I had to get back, I had to be there; I had to experience it again and again. A portrait photographer by trade, I set out to photograph the soul, to define with my camera the exact nature of being. Over the next eight years, I photographed over one hundred surgical procedures at Columbia, Cook County, Cornell, Hopkins, NYU, Stanford, UCSF, and Yale. Centimetre by centimetre I mapped the body, asking simple questions: If the face is taken off, if we are not our face, then who are we? If I were the patient and had my leg amputated, would I still be me? Are we in our hearts? Our minds? Our sexual organs? Where is it, in fact, that we exist? But in my quest to find the soul, I met a ten-year-old with macrophage killing disorder, a three-year-old with Munchausen by proxy, an eight-year-old with 95% of her body charred by a 4th of July barbecue that had been brought indoors on account of rain. I had encountered congenital mutation, acquired disease, the ravages we inflict on our bodies ourselves; I came face to face with medical science, the perplexing and complex issues that doctors confront day after day. I dreamed of crossing the line from documentarian to participant, to have a direct and beneficial effect on people’s lives. I had a need to know and understand what I’d been privileged to see. I had new questions, a renewed purpose, that could only be answered by becoming a physician.”

In January 1995 at the age of 39, Max Aguilera-Hellweg began pre-med undergraduate studies at Columbia University.


The Sacred Heart, An Atlas of the Body Seen through Invasive Surgery, Photographs and text, 1997, Bulfinch Press, Little Brown & Company, Boston