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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Max Thorek

Other: Dr Max Thorek 
Dates:  1880, 10 March - 1960, 25 January
Born:  Hungary
Died:  US, ND, Fargo
Active:  US
A medical doctor as well as a pictorial photographer from Chicago.

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Approved biography for Max Thorek
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Dr. Max Thorek was in the handful of top American pictorialists during the 1930s and 1940s. He exhibited, wrote, and lectured extensively and excelled at making figure studies with the paper negative process.
Professionally, he was a world-renowned surgeon in Chicago.
Thorek was born in a Hungarian village on March 10, 1880. He attended school in Budapest and then immigrated with his parents to the United States at about age twenty. In 1904, he obtained U.S. citizenship, as well as his medical degree from Rush Medical College of the University of Chicago. As a general practitioner, he opened an office in the Chicago slum where he and his parents had originally lived. Four years later, he cofounded the American Hospital (now the Thorek Hospital and Medical Center), pledging to serve patients according to their need, not their ability to pay. Over time, he wrote more than three hundred articles and five books, significantly expanding knowledge in the field of surgery. For his various achievements, he was made an officer of the French Foreign Legion and was awarded the Distinguished Citizen’s Medal by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In about 1925, Thorek somehow found the time to begin making creative photographs. He considered the photographic salon the high court of pictorialism and soon was exhibiting extensively. For the seasons of 1937-38 and 1938-39, the American Annual of Photography listed him as the world’s most prolific exhibitor. By mid-century—near the end of his career—he had shown almost four thousand prints in 1,087 salons.
Thorek was indefatigable, involving himself with numerous photographic organizations. In 1930, he was elected president of Chicago’s Fort Dearborn Camera Club, a position he held for three consecutive terms. Four years later, he was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of America (PSA) and served as its first president. Early in his career, he was awarded fellowships status in England’s Royal Photographic Society (FRPS). In 1930, he helped promote the important Chicago International Photography Salon by sponsoring gold, silver, and bronze medals.
Thorek was an acknowledged master of paper negatives, the most widely used manipulative technique between the world wars. He considered the camera-generated negative mere raw material in the making of creative photographs, and he freely used pencil, crayons, and even stove polish to hand alter his imagery. Rarely venturing outdoors, he preferred working in the studio, where he could direct his models and fabricate his scenes. In this setting, he photographed primarily figure studies and portraits, both generic and specific. He made flamboyant use of the female form in creating tableaux and allegories, often with such spare titles as Despair.
Thorek enjoyed collecting, and he acquired large holdings of both autographs and photographs. While his autograph collection included such notables as Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, the French inventor of photography, his print collection focused on the work of living photographers. Among the pictorialists whose pictures he acquired were Anne W. Brigman, Louis Fleckenstein, and Alexander Leventon. In addition, he owned at least four photographs by the Belgian modernist Pierre Dubreuil and five by the Chicago illustrative photographer Harry K. Shigeta. In 1935, Thorek presented his collection of about 150 pictures to what is now the Museum of Science and Industry (though it recently divested itself of the material). Five years later, the Brooklyn Museum acquired examples of Thorek’s own work for its permanent collection.
Pictorialists around the country felt Thorek’s influence. He lectured, demonstrated, and critiqued at camera clubs and judged international photographic salons. In addition, he wrote articles for the photographic press covering such topics as the nude, salons, and the paper negative. He explored all these subjects in depth in his two books, Creative Camera Art (1937) and Camera Art as a Means of Self-Expression (1947). The first chapter of Creative Camera Art clarified his crusading attitude about photography as an art form. Then he went on to rant against purist photography and modern art, despite the fact that the volume’s cover design clearly reflected machine-age thinking.
Strangely, Thorek referred only briefly to his extensive photographic exploits in his 1943 autobiography, A Surgeon’s World. He died of a heart attack on January 25, 1960, in Chicago. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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