Expressive Qualities of Light
INTERVIEW BY SEAN 'O TOOLE
The differences and distinctions between painting and photography, obvious as some of these might be, have been remarked upon often in writing. Still, looking at the work of Pretoria-based photographer Martin Osner, one is reminded that when it comes to depicting visual experience, whether through paint or with light, the two disciplines – painting and photography – nonetheless share certain attributes. Perhaps the most important of these is the act of looking, the action of experiencing and interpreting the objective world through the retina. Looking is something that precedes doing. This is important.
Although he is not a painter, Osner sees and experiences the world in ways that are, if you’ll excuse the
expression, painterly. The way in which he speaks about his photographic vision reminds, in particular, of
Henri Matisse. “What I am after, above all, is an expression,” the French painter wrote in his famous 1908
treatise, Notes of a Painter. “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of
expressing it.” Osner adopts a similar attitude in his approach to photography. Whether photographing
botanical subjects or recording the Highveld landscapes he grew up with, Osner, like Matisse, ensures
that the whole arrangement of his photograph is expressive.
Like Matisse, Osner is also a stickler for composition. Precise and often laboured, this habit manifests itself at various intervals in his portfolio. It is visible in the compositional clarity of his studio-lit abstractions, groupings of photographs cryptically titled Oeuvre and Panache; again you can see it in his botanical studies,
including the madly colourful Vibrant Pallet series; even in his modernist study of pedestrians, On the Move. But, at the end of the day, Osner is not a painter, even if he prefers to see like one. He is a photographer with a defined sense of purpose.
What prompted the idea of pursuing an exhibition career?
I teach at the National College of Photography and have over the last few years focused on teaching the fine art component. I have to put a lot of research and practice into these classes; it is a necessary part of being qualified to present a workshop or a lecture. Through my research I discovered a world that really started to appeal to me; there was a realness in the work I was looking at, a solid foundation. This appealed to me, also the longevity of the photographs. It offered something very different from the world of commercial photography, which is all about the idea, the brief, the immediate present. I would like my work to be more mature than just this.
It couldn’t have been easy slowing down on your commercial photography to pursue a more speculative fine art career?
I think people have seasons in life. Sometimes the money versus the love needs to be weighed up. At a stage, I really enjoyed commercial photography, the vibe, the pressure, being able to deliver to the client's expectations and beyond. The decision was actually very easy. On a day I realised that the season was here. Done.
In your view, what were some of the positive lessons commercial photography taught you as a photographer?
There are lots. Commercial photography demands that you work to a high standard in order to even compete. Of all the insights I learnt, lighting was certainly the biggest. Anyone can pick up a camera and shoot, but to master lighting is one of the biggest lessons a photographer must learn. It has taken 15 years of practical experience to get to an acceptable standard. Lighting still plays a really big part of my art photography.
Were there any particularly memorable jobs from your commercial career that stand out?
I remember one; it was technically very difficult and involved staging a chemical spill. I wanted to shoot it on the highway over a weekend but couldn’t get permission to close it for six hours. Eventually, we had to stage it in a factory. The set was about 200sq/m, which had to be lit. It had to be shot at dusk and involved cinema-style lighting. It was around that time I became good friends with Koos van der Lende, a renowned landscape photographer who also came from a commercial background. He is probably one of the finest lighting photographers around and assisted me on that job.
How many days of preparation did that take before you finally pushed the shutter button?
Two weeks for one image. It is perhaps an extreme example, but it is through commissions like this that you learn.
Turning to your fine art photography, I’d like to begin by looking at two bodies of work, Abandoned and Extremity. The former is perhaps grittier than some of your other work, and yet it still retains some of the essential features of your photography. What prompted your interest in photographing these rather dark landscape studies?
It was probably the result of spending too much time in the studio. Last year I had two exhibitions, back-to-back: one at the Voir Gallery in Pretoria, and shortly thereafter another at Imaging Hub, in Waterkloof. I spent a lot of time in the studio in the lead up to these shows, completing my abstract studies. Abandoned, for instance, was born out of a frustration of me wanting to photograph outdoors. I also wanted to shoot in a less controlled environment; abstract imagery demands controlled lighting. The same goes for the Extremity series.
Where did you photograph the broody landscape with the immense storm clouds?
I had been eyeing that picture for a number of years. It is an abandoned marina in the Free State. The lighting was just never quite right when I visited, but I kept on eyeing it. Around Christmas last year, I visited it again with my family. Two days before the 25th, I was given an early Christmas present. At about three in the afternoon, the weather suddenly changed. I had a sense something was bound to happen – and it did. I got three shots and that was it. It is times like these that bring the most fulfilment.
So it is a straight shot?
What camera did you use?
For me, the format or type of camera is really irrelevant; I will use whatever is available to get the feel I am looking for. I decided to use my wife’s compact digital camera for this shot. Sounds strange coming from someone who has everything from an expensive 8 x 10 sheet film camera, Hasselblads, and a number of other medium format cameras. To shoot the picture using something so simplistic, almost broke something inside of me. Immediately after I had taken the shot I got the idea for a series based on the concept of abandonment. I recalled some places I had been eyeing out, one in the Free State, the shot of the old car, another of a caravan I’d seen near Thabazimbi. That one is also a straight image but it is a double exposure. I made two exposures, one for the car and one for the sky and then worked the two together.
When you say something broke inside, was it a good or bad thing?
I think positively. There are defining moments in your photography, where you shoot something that just connects. Anyone looking through my portfolio will see that I have a varied subject choice and style, a lot of which is due to my teaching, where I practice and experiment with just about everything before I teach it. But this was a defining shot and a defining moment for me.
The Abandoned series recalls Obie Oberholzer. Any thoughts on this statement?
I liked his earlier work when he painted a lot with light and there was almost an overexpression of colour. But I have never tried to model my photography after anyone.
I want to jump back a bit, to your oblique angle, black and white series of pedestrians, On the Move. Where did you shoot the series?
I was in Cape Town. Late one afternoon, near the hotel where we were staying, I noticed a homeless guy walking up the street. I saw him again the next morning. He was always scouring the road for coins and cigarette butts. His bent posture caught my eye. I found a nearby building with an elevated view that brought the road-signs into play. I sat around waiting for him to walk into the composition. At the same time, I was fortunate to get a shot of people walking up past the No Entry sign. It took two days to get these shots.
From what you’ve just said, it’s clear that your photography is not a spur of the moment thing; you put a lot of conscious planning into each particular shot?
Yes. It probably stems from my commercial background. Generally, when I work, I will identify an area or an idea and work patiently towards getting the shot. I am prepared to work on an idea or a series of shots over a number of years if that’s what it takes. I won’t usually walk down a street, for instance, with a camera around my neck and fire away – although I sometimes do this if I feel I’m in a bit of a rut. Firstly, I consider anything and everything a possible subject. I also try wherever possible to shoot a body of work around an idea. As I said earlier, as a teacher I am ‘forced’ to master a variety of techniques and approaches before taking them to the classroom. I have shot quite a bit of documentary work in the past but have chosen not to include them in my portfolio for now. My current portfolio includes more than one series of social realism and I am pleased that this particular series, Road to Freedom, has generated positive responses from most of my representing galleries.
The picture of an old man and his dog. Was it just a momentary engagement or had you met the man before? What’s his name? And where is this community?
I would like to answer this question in a roundabout way. Road to Freedom was photographed at the end of last year. A few months before that, Janus Boshoff from Silvertone walked into my office with a Holga camera. I was aware of Lomography but it had not caught my fancy. After a lot of convincing, I agreed to give it a go and Janus organised a camera. Over the next few weeks, I wrestled with the ‘no control’ concept. It really tested my understanding and concept of photography, going completely against the grain of my understanding. After six weeks of struggling, I still hadn’t got anything meaningful and I shelved the camera out of frustration. What really got to me was that one of my students took the same camera on holiday and came back with some drop-dead beautiful images. Go figure. When shooting this series of the old man, more than likely because of Lomography, I approached it in a different way. Before I would have scouted for a subject, waited for the correct light and probably used a tripod to ensure sharpness. I didn’t do that here: I left my tripod and gadget bag at home taking only one camera and a lens; I even left my handheld light meter behind. I really didn’t worry about the light much and, in fact, didn’t even compose properly through the viewfinder – as you will know, the moment you bring the camera up to your eye, the subject becomes aware of you and the picture turns out quite static. Instead, predicting the shot, I pre-focused at about three meters, used a wider angle to increase the depth and shot from waist level while interacting with my subject. I hadn’t planned to photograph him; he walked out from a corner while I was busy shooting something else. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, his dog joined him. The man’s name is Paulus, his dog’s name is Meisiekind. He is a great person, full of energy and fun – he also doesn’t know how old he is. He is originally from Lesotho. The community in which he lives is off the beaten track on a back road between Brits and Thabazimbi.
Your work is not bound by specific themes or to defined subjects, something you yourself have spoken of. Yet, looking at your portfolio, it is possible to spot groupings, be it your expressionist depiction of botanical subjects, brooding vernacular landscapes or formalist experiments with abstraction. What I’m trying to suggest is that your eye is perhaps not as unbounded as you might suggest. Let’s look at some of these categories I mentioned. Where, for instance, did your interest in photographing botanical subjects come from?
I am the kind of person who is the eternal optimist in most things and I think when I bring that to bear on my photography, I try to express this in my subjects, to find the beauty in everything. When you look at the specific patterns you have in flowers and trees, there is such beauty in these things already. It makes it very difficult to achieve more than that in a photograph, or a painting for that matter. I think I am also naturally drawn to beautiful things with strong shapes, colours and textures.
Looked at differently, and perhaps slightly cynically I’ll admit, to what extent is the diversity of your portfolio representative of what you’re really interested in shooting, as opposed to what you think a buying market will enjoy?
It is an interesting question. Funny enough I don’t shoot for a market. This might sound strange, but I am not commercially driven by my art photography. I think the closest I come to that is working on a series or body of work, simply because I believe that if a collector or an interior decorator is interested, they would be able to do a lot more with a series. But first and foremost, I photograph because I love it because I enjoy working with the subjects and translating my accumulated skills into making photographs of them. Basically, I am excited by how the subjects translate once photographed. For me, this is really the key. I photograph with heart, doing what I want to do. After all, at the end of the day, your art is really a reflection of you… isn't it?
Your work sometimes leans towards abstraction. Even in images where the subject is obvious and clearly discernable, your use of colour tends to add an unexpected layer. Can you discuss your interest in abstraction and colour manipulation?
Art for me becomes interesting when the subject is removed from reality. The one problem I’ve had with photography as a medium is that it offers almost too much realism. Society’s main use for photography is to record reality. For me, I tend to treat the camera as a tool that allows me to bring out the painterly abstraction in an image. The camera is merely a part of this process. For that reason, I am not really bound by colour or perspective and I will change or distort it completely if need be.
You print your photographs relatively small. Is there any particular reason for this?
Lately, I have been printing a lot larger as technology allows for it. But sometimes I just love the intimacy of a smaller print in my photography. Having said that, I am prepared to custom print larger or smaller if my client insists.
Sean O’Toole is the editor of the magazine Art South Africa and writes the Big Picture photography column for the Sunday Times.