Columns / Insights

Listen to Your Eyes

Max Wanger
How did you get started in photography? My earliest memory of being fascinated with photography is around seven years old. I lost myself behind the lens, imagining I was seeing a world that no one else could. That’s what excites me about photography to this day. Since then, my interest has grown from hobby to freelance to full-time.

What are the invaluable resources you used to build up your career in the early days? Blogs. And a really smart girlfriend. I shot a mock wedding when I was just starting out to see if I even liked doing wedding photography—my sister was the bride and her boyfriend’s best friend was the groom. I photographed them at a park. Then, my wife, Margaux—who was my girlfriend at the time—sent the images to a bunch of blogs that fit our style and aesthetic. Once it landed on select blogs like A Cup of Jo, Oh Joy! and Snippet & Ink, others started to pick it up, and it spread. That’s when we learned about the power of the blogosphere! Within a few weeks of posting the pictures online, we were booked for weddings for the entire year in a matter of weeks. We were thrown in the fire and learned on the go. It was exciting and fun, but it was also crazy and super challenging. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Blogs and the use of social media—Instagram in particular—are important for new photographers. You don’t realize how many eyes see your work on social media platforms and on blogs. It’s important to get your work out there—and often.

How did you start transitioning into the the world of commercial/advertising photography? While I always envisioned myself doing commercial and advertising work one day, I didn’t know how to get started. My wedding photography opened the door for me to the commercial and advertising worlds. My agent Dara Siegel saw my work on a blog and thought it would translate well commercially. So she brought me on as a kind of test, and I’ve been with her now for over five years. I was fortunate enough to land an agent who has taught me so much about the business, but again, everybody is different. There are a number of ways to break into the advertising world—I know photographers who hustle and are quite successful doing it on their own. You just have to have the drive and persistence.

How have you used personal projects to gain attention from commercial brands? It’s amazing how doors start to open when you’re clear about what you want and passionate about what you’re doing. One of the first test shoots I did was an attempt to get more into children’s photography. I came up with a simple, whimsical idea to do a fun spin on hide-and-seek and worked with a talented crew of stylists, a prop designer and child models to put it all together. I created a promo of ten 5x5 cards—each one printed with a photograph from the shoot—and purchased wooden boxes from the wonderful photo goods company Artifact Uprising to hold them. I sent them out to a bunch of agencies, art directors and art buyers. It caught the eye of an art buyer at Nordstrom, and I was hired soon after. Nordstrom has since become a wonderful, loyal client.

Some people really like it, and some people don’t get it. But that’s OK. It’s what you want because that’s when you know you’re developing your own voice.


How does wedding photography compare to the world of commercial/advertising photography? For weddings, I’ve just done what I thought looked best. I’ve always been drawn to simplicity, and less is more. I want wedding images to be playful, romantic and offbeat—like art or ads in a magazine. I’m lucky to have clients who trust me to make the images I believe in. I take a similar approach to advertising work, as I always try to convey how I see the world through my photographs. But in advertising, you’re hired based on your portfolio. You hope your work stands out enough to warrant an opportunity. Staying true to yourself is key because you want to be hired for whatever it is that you do well.

What challenges are you tackling at this stage in your career? Initially, my biggest challenge was trying to stand out. I never wanted to fit in—I wanted to create my own voice. And I did create it, especially for wedding photography. I got in the business at the right time, when there were only a handful of photographers who were doing things differently and well.

Negative space and playful compositions helped me stand out from the beginning and still continue to be a big part of my work. Some people really like it, and some people don’t get it. But that’s OK. It’s what you want because that’s when you know you’re developing your own voice. If you appeal to people who get your sensibility, then it’s a good fit. And when it’s a good fit, your work is that much better. 

One of my biggest challenges now is pushing myself to do and create more. My wife and I have a three-year-old boy, Dash, and it’s tough to find a balance between work and life, especially when you have a growing family. We’ve gotten better at it over time.

How do you stay true to your style while pushing your work to evolve? Minimalism and negative space make up key components of my aesthetic. But as much as possible, I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone. The iPhone is an amazing vehicle for experimentation—having a camera on me at all times reminds me to always be aware of my environment and all the possibilities of capturing images a little differently.

Which photographers inspire you? Rodney Smith for his compositions. Tim Walker for his whimsy. Jesse Chamberlin for the way she sees the world.

Do you have any advice for people just starting out in photography? Practice, practice, practice. Don’t be afraid to fail. Break the rules. Color outside the lines. Listen to your eyes.

I learned early on not to worry about what other people do or say. I have to trust my instincts and my heart, which I still remind myself to this day.

Born and raised by reformed hippies, Max Wanger was educated in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Berkeley, and the here and there of Tokyo. He is a lover of lazy Sundays, mismatched socks, negative space, green tea and last—but certainly first—his wife, Margaux, and their little boy, Dash. Clients include Nordstrom, Target, Toyota, adidas and Condé Nast Traveler.     

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