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Vale Maxwell ‘Max’ Adams: 1920-2010

June 28, 2010: One of the photo industry’s last great ‘characters’, Max Adams, has died, at the age of 89, on June 22.

Maxwell Adams (pictured left) was born on August 15, 1920, and gave his name to the photo division of the 16mm Australian company, Maxwell Photo Optics, on its formation in 1959. Max had served the company in a number of roles, including State manager, Victoria. When 16mm Australia had accumulated too many agencies in the ’50s for any one company to support, Keith Russett, then managing director of the company, appointed Max Adams to be general manager. Max, being the showman he was, piped up, ‘Then it better be called Maxwell Photo Optics,’ which the subsidiary company was then named!

He retired prematurely, due to poor health, in 1980, handing over the reins to Grahame Stewart and Peter Saidey, both who pre-deceased him. In recent years he lived out his retirement in Ballina, and once expressed disappointment when he could no longer provide Meals on Wheels for ‘the old folks’. By then he was in his early ’80s.

Max Adams was a product of another era; larger than life, huge on relationships, and a devoted family man. He was married to Una for 65 years and combined with her in countless industry get-togethers around a piano, as together they proceeded through the Frank Sinatra Song Book, her on the piano, Max belting out the big numbers. His rendition of ‘My Way’ was legend, and was last heard by the industry in 1986, at his farewell function on the occasion of his 65th birthday, in the offices of Maxwell Optical Industries (the successor company to Maxwell Photo Optics, founded in 1983).

Max was the man who pioneered annual photography awards for the newspaper pictures viewed by millions of Australians each day. He founded the Australian Press Photographer of the Year Awards in 1969, following a lead from his counterpart organisation in the UK, Rank-Pullin Photographics’ Nikon division. The start of the Awards, that lasted 31 years until 2000 (when they merged with the Walkley journalism awards), coincided with the adoption of the new ‘small format’ 35mm cameras from Nikon, including the legendary Nikon F of 1969.

Until then press pictures had been taken either on the large Graflex Speed Graphics cameras or the more modern Mamiya RB-67 medium format cameras. The era ended with the introduction in 1999 of the Nikon D1, the first dedicated digital SLR adopted by the world’s media. Max was also instrumental in bringing together competing newspaper picture editors to provide professional judging, and also fought constantly for the rights of press photographers to have their by-lines appear next to their pictures, as did their editorial journalist counterparts.

Max took great pride that his name carried on in two subsequent photo distribution businesses, Maxwell Optical Industries (1983 – 2006), and the current Maxwell company, Maxwell International Australia, both under the direction of John Swainston.

He followed the developments of the industry for most of those 30 years of retirement, with regular press-cuttings arriving in Maxwell in-boxes when the company was named in the media. His interest in the development of press photography continued to the end.

In a last conversation with this writer just 8 weeks ago, I described a lecture I was to give on the development of photography over time, to the Northside Creative club. His parting words then, as after each of those calls over 30 years, was, ‘Good on yer, son!’ Indeed, he was one of the father’s of Australia’s photo industry. He will be sorely missed.

Max Adams is survived by daughter Vicky and son Miles, to whom are extended the photo industry’s sympathies.

– John Swainston,
Maxwell International Australia


  1. Chris Betteridge Chris Betteridge May 5, 2022

    I worked as a Technical Sales Representative at Maxwell Photo-Optics showroom in the State Shopping Block in Market Street, Sydney, in 1968 and note that the obituary article for Max Adams refers to a photo of Max but it’s not there when you access the article from the internet. Is the image of Max available as I’d love to have a copy? I remember Max as an excellent boss who gave me great encouragement as a naive 21-year old. I learned so much in the relatively short time I worked for Maxwell’s and fondly remember my visits to Harry Scales’ in Druitt Lane. The staff discount also enabled me to start my collection of Nikon gear which I have continued to the present day. I was sad to hear of Max’s passing and that Grahame Stewart had predeceased him. Grahame used to regale us with grisly stories of post mortems at the Sydney Morgue when he was spruiking the virtues of the Medical Nikkor lens. What of David Wylie, the other Sales Rep in the office when I was there?

  2. John Swainston John Swainston May 6, 2022

    Nice to see your recollection of those early Maxwell days. Next year it’ll be 40 years since Maxwell Photo Optics closed and Maxwell Optical Industries started – May 13 1983. If I can get an email address from you through Inside Imaging’s management (Will?) Ill email you the pictures that originally appeared besides this piece. The one here got clipped out, I believe, when Photo Counter became Inside Imaging. Max wwas a a great inspiration and support to me and the subsequent management team. Graeme Stewart passed away after a long illness following several severe strokes, and colleague Peter Saidey died also, in 1988, after a long battle with blood cancer. They were both terrific colleagues and friends.

  3. Jeff Gardner Jeff Gardner August 1, 2023

    I had the great experience of working at Market St. with Max, Graeme & David from 1967 to 1968 prior to my going off to Vietnam as entertainer in October of 68′. I had met David Wylie when I was at Dixon’s Photographics in David Jones & David was at Jock Leate at Bankstown Square, he went to Maxwell’s as a rep and I soon followed as the showroom rep., Max was a great inspiration and it was a superb business. Like Neil Fletcher, I also began my photographic retail experience at Anthony Horderns camera Dept., Dixons Market St., John Border Liverpool St., Milverson at Waltons and finally at Paxtons Hornsby 1981.

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