I came across photo feature of Michael Martin on a website and got curious about his imagination and process of image-making. These travel images belong to his recent series ‘Public Spaces’ and to paraphrase “all the world’s a stage…” his photography is a backdrop where the beauty and strangeness of our lives and world are present in all their humor and pathos. Michael’s photography succeeds in what he wants “the viewer to rediscover one of the oldest and most rewarding pleasures of photography – the patient study of details too small, too incidental, or too overwhelming to have been noticed at the moment of exposure.”
Please tell us about yourself and your relationship with photography:
I am an artist and educator living in San Jose, California. I teach photography and digital imaging at a small digital arts and animation college. While I teach photography to animators and game designers who use photography as a basic communication tool for their craft, my work lies more in the fine art realm.
During the last several years, I have been primarily interested in what could best be termed public spaces. That is ironic, because like many photographers, I am rather shy and do not feel comfortable interacting with people, particularly in social spaces. It makes sense then to use the camera to stand between my subjects and me. I use the camera to investigate a detached, disembodied slice of time. They are travel pictures yet they do not identify the place by cultural or historical details as much as use their particulars to investigate a detached, disembodied slice of time. The detachment makes the familiar strange to us. The photos scrutinize the way we live our lives and the places we create. Another point of view is that the pictures merely record a myriad of social ills, the loosening of community ties, the mass embrace of consumerism, the manic pursuit of leisure and tourism, and the phantasmagoria of the middle class.
To me, the pictures are a carefully honed collection of aesthetic devices that are used not just to define a social point or to underline a cultural statement, but for their own sake, in celebration of photography’s spectacle as a two-dimensional image acting as a mirror to the way we all live. They also attempt to prove that while photography has the ability to evoke the unique person who resides in each human body, it is equally capable of recording everything and revealing nothing.
You have been shooting very different kind of images… from street to landscapes to atmospheric urban photography. What do you like shooting most? What are the elements and characteristics of a place, architecture or an environment that affects and influences you most?
I think the answer above answers this question. But I most often look for people in public spaces, and often landscapes will present themselves. I am looking for those instances when the subject projects a sense of familiarity and estrangement. I am attracted to odd juxtapositions, whether or not it is people or landscapes.
I recently participated in a storytelling workshop with National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig, and I was delighted when he said that he looks into my pictures and thinks, “What the F##k?”, so I continue to look for those “what the f##k” subjects.
Tell us about your methods or critical approaches of shooting. How much of your work is carefully planned vs. instantaneous?
I always carry a camera with me, so I am nearly always shooting. I take lots of notes and use my phone to geotag potential locations. When I travel, I usually research local events and locations on Flickr and Google maps. I would say that at this point, I work intentionally, but always keep an eye open for those strange situations that surprise and excite me. I avoid spectacle or dramatization, so the images are somber or frugal in feel. I have been trying to slow down and work more deliberately, and pay attention to the edges. If you’re careful with the edges, the middle takes care of itself.
When I look at my images, I see the common threads. I tend to work reductively, trying to make pictures that are visually spare but conceptually complex. I suppose my work could be generally considered street photography, but my subject matter is more often suburban or rural subject matter. Perhaps social landscape would be an appropriate description.
I use a Canon 5D Mark II and normal to wide angle lenses because I like wider shots as it brings the viewer into the frame. I love the full frame sensor and the resulting image quality. My favorite lens is the 50mm ƒ1.2L. I also always carry my Fuji x100s rangefinder with a fixed 35mm equivalent fixed lens. It’s incredibly fun to use and produces sharp results with accurate color. I teach Photoshop in my classes, but use Lightroom for my work.
I have always loved photographic prints. My grandmother was the family photo collector, and I used to pour over the old albums for hours and hours. I like the feel and smell of the old paper, and the deckled edge of the photographs. They’re important personal and cultural relics. One of the old albums holds the first photograph I ever shot. I look after those albums now.
Photographic education has changed dramatically over the last decade. Students can access photographers, trends, and genres at a click, and they can learn composition and design much quicker by shooting digitally. The print is no longer the final output, and the darkroom/lab experience has been superseded by software. Students make and consume hundreds of images (mostly bad) every day, so education now is really learning to recognize and access good photographs.
Digital media has democratized photography, particularly through platforms like Flickr and Instagram, and that democratization has put many commercial and studio photographers out of business. I will be fascinating to see how photo sharing and social media will continue to transform photography over the next decade. There are increasing opportunities for photographers to share and exhibit their work, but fewer brick and mortar galleries that can offer an income. So, as always, you don’t go into the arts for a stable career, you do it for passion.
My work has been shown in galleries across the country, and recently published in ‘It’s Nice, That’ and ‘Dodho’ magazines. It is also scheduled to be featured in the San Francisco Chronicle’s photography blog, ‘The Take’.
What are your future plans/projects, ambitions, inspirations etc.? Do you ever think about (self)publishing your photobook? Do photobooks matter to you?
I recently started a series of portraits of my students. I have made their headshots for years to use in an assignment, so I occasionally run across a batch. Demographics and fashions change over the years but the faces don’t. I see this as a long-term project that would run concurrently with my other projects.
It is exciting to witness the self-publishing revolution that has shaken the photobook world in the last few years. It has created something of a renaissance of photobooks, not just as an alternative to a physical or online exhibition, but as the intended outcome of a project. Some images are probably best understood through the tactile, intimate experience of paging through a book. Editing and sequencing for a book is very challenging - you have to think more about the size and sequencing of the images. Your favorite images sometimes don’t translate to the book format.
Please share your favorite stuff: photographers, quotes, films books, music etc.
I appreciate heritage of what I do – Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, but I also like the objective and clinical eye of Stephen Shore and, more recently, the Dusseldorf School. Martin Parr’s social critique through humor is an important influence. Alec Soth has a similar approach, but with a quieter Midwestern humor. I appreciate the visceral, instinctive approach of Magnum photographers Matt Black and Jacob Aue Sobol because I can’t see like they do.
Shoot a lot. You won’t recognize your own style until you’ve shot for years. Try lots of genres. Experiment. Henri Cartier-Bresson said “your first 10,000 exposures are your worst”, and I think that still holds. It’s no different than learning to draw or dance. Be curious. Be a student of the arts, not just photography.