INERVIEW BY FIONA PEAKE | PIX MAGAZINE EDITOR
On a winter’s day in 1984, photography and Martin met quite by accident. A meeting that redirected his life, changing it forever. Over the past twenty-odd years, while walking the path of self-discovery, his approach has taken numerous detours. The journey has allowed a move towards a relaxed subconscious attitude with the desire to express simplicity and honesty through his work. For me, a photograph holds an undeniable sense of realism, a connection that is easy to associate with. Unlike many artists, Martin treats anything as a subject and photographs things purely because he is interested in their transformation from reality to realism to art. Although Martin has never been a dedicated painter, he sees and experiences the world as one. Martin’s inspiration stems from the great artist and master photographer Henri Cartier Bresson.
How would you define Fine Art Photography?
Good question. It really doesn’t matter how I define Fine Art Photography, what is of importance is how
society defines and experiences it. If you consider the definition of art, it is really the expression of creative
skill through a visual medium such as painting, sculpture etc, or in my case photography. Fine Art, on the
other hand, can be defined as art that is intended to be appreciated primarily or solely for its aesthetic content.
Fine art photography does not stray far from both of these definitions. In my opinion Fine Art photographs
are works that have been primarily born out of a desire to fulfil the creative vision of the photographer. At the end of the day, some may hate it, some will feel indifferent about it and others will connect with it in different ways...but this is art, isn’t it? Let’s not forget that in the history of art, photography is the new kid on the block if you will and because the medium was founded on the pillars of chemistry, mathematics and scientific technology, it has rightfully been frowned upon as a pure art medium. Indeed, most would use photography as a medium to record and document reality as it exists. In my view, Fine Art Photography is where the camera is simply used as an instrument to help capture an image within a creative process, be it mentally or physically. I guess that’s the difference.
What challenges did you encounter when moving from commercially focused photography to Fine Art Photography?
I struggled with finding creative boundaries within which to practice, combined with a high level of artistic energy that is needed to do so consistently. Allow me to explain. For most of my photography career, I worked for clients who came with a creative brief or final purpose for an image. In a way, I really felt like a lighting specialist who from time to time may be given some creative freedom. Concepts and compositions were predetermined depending on their usage, meaning that I needed to carry out briefs to the best of my technical ability, whilst having a creative team standing by just to make sure that I did not stray too far from their creative inspirations. It’s like being one musician in a large orchestra under the watchful control of many conductors. For years I did well in this world, but after a while, I realised that creative fine art photography is really my deep-seated passion. While practising both I found it increasingly difficult to mentally move between the technical correctness of commercial photography, to the artistically pure mindset of fine art at short notice. I found myself turning away commissions because I knew it would negatively affect fine art projects that I was working on. One day, I decided that it was one or the other and the choice was simple. Within a month I gave over my lucrative clients to a close friend, sold most of my studio equipment and leapt off into the creative unknown.
How has your teaching background influenced your photography, especially your fine art photography?
Teaching has had a massive influence on my photography, from both students and fellow colleagues. What I like about teaching is that firstly, one is forced to experiment and practise before taking a workshop, some of my favourite creative techniques have been developed through this preparation time. Secondly, the creative energy that is generated between fellow lectures is just incredible, I will never forget the times that Dirk Boshoff and I would brainstorm ideas over a glass or two of wine. He has to be one of the most creative talents and technically proficient photographers I have ever met. And of course the students themselves. The one thing I admire about my students is their total disrespect for a technique. A creative student will take the information that you have painstakingly taught, throw it into a liquidiser and blend it with total disregard. To add insult to injury, they would come back to class the next day with mind-blowing images with no idea how they got it.
What equipment do you use?
I knew you would ask this question...what a pity. Equipment is not important to me in fine art photography. Over the last twenty-plus years, I have been fortunate to have shot on just about every format from 35mm to 8 x 10-inch sheet film. Funny, after twenty years of chasing quality and technical correctness, I now find modern equipment too good for my liking. The other day I bought a Canon G9 compact digital to try and help me break out of a technical rut. Even though I love using it, this tiny camera is still too good for the creative output I am looking for. Really if it has a lens, aperture and shutter and is lightproof enough to record an image it is good enough for me.
Fair enough, but what if you were forced to make a choice?
How does the type of equipment influence your photography?
It doesn’t. It used to but not anymore. It’s like asking a painter what make of canvas they prefer to use. I consider light, subject and idea the fundamental ingredients in my photography; the camera is merely a mechanical instrument to help me achieve this. End of story.
How much of your work is done on film and how much is done on digital?
Sorry, but again it’s like asking “do you prefer strawberries or cream” I love both mediums, it’s not a choice for me. There is nothing like processing a roll of film and printing up the images on photographic paper in the darkroom. Although creative ability is limited when compared to digital, it is still the classic way of enjoying photography. On the other hand digital capture combined with software creativeness, is like a breath of fresh air. Anyone who has experienced the wonders of RAW images and HDR will know what I am talking about. Due to time constraints, I confess that I shoot a lot more digital nowadays, but every now and then I cannot resist the temptation of medium and large format photography.
What function does digital post-production play in creating you're fine art images?
I consider digital post-production as a must in modern photography. Most of my limited edition, archival work is printed Gicleé using the best fine art acid-free paper and inks. This means that Photoshop will always have the last say before printing, even if it is just to correct density and colour. Image software and the computer is the modern darkroom, let’s rejoice in the technology that available to us and pay homage to the software developers for a job well done.
How did you approach galleries to show your work, do you have any advice?
Tough one, as a Fine Art Photographer you must realise that the gallerist has to make a living off the commission they generate from selling art. They are certainly not charitable organisations and need to make sales to survive. For this reason, even if they take a fancy to a new artists work, they will always seek to show established artists who already have a name and a following. This, of course, is a double-edged sword; how can an artist make a name for themselves if they are not given the opportunity to exhibit? In this question lies my advice. If you are good enough, you will be noticed and you will get your opportunity. You must understand and come to terms with the fact that the most part of your career as a Fine Artist will span many years. You will experience a creative and energetic world full of emotion and passion hitting some highlights, after going through some intense and hazardous lows. I am convinced that it’s more a calling than anything else, just stay true to the cause. One day at an exhibition I was having in London, my son, Matthew, came up to me, put his arms around me “don’t worry dad” he said “the day you die your work will become very popular”. We had a good laugh, but in the comment is hidden much truth.
You have exhibited both in South Africa and in Europe and recently in Canada, have you found a difference between the South African audience and the International audience?
Maturity, without a doubt. For the most part, our South African audience is still not ready to embrace photography as an art medium. Overseas, they have passed this stage and enjoy photography as contemporary art. I notice it from some of the questions asked at my exhibitions; South Africans seem to be more concerned with the type of camera you use than the artwork itself. Overseas, the art public and collectors are far more interested in you as an artist and the message expressed through your work. It is almost like they allow the images to touch them emotionally. I am sure it will not take long before we see a breakthrough in South Africa.
How do you keep your photography innovative and interesting?
I draw just about all my inspiration for my relationship with God. As a Christian, I believe that talent is a gift given, inspired and observed by God. Most of my photography, especially nowadays has more to do with the way I feel rather than just what I see. Although, as with most artists, I would naturally draw inspiration from other forms of creativity such as music, drama and everyday life, it comes back to that bubbling sensation that generates deep from within, that tells one that you are on the right track. I see my art as a dedication to God and my family whom both have supported me without question.
What advice do you have for photographers wishing to enter the fine art market?
I guess I have already answered this question. Just remember it’s a calling more than a career. If you are not in it for the love of it, don’t do it.
What has been your most memorable moment on this journey?
There have been many, but recently at my exhibition in London, a cab pulled up outside and a young couple got out. The day before the opening they had purchased one of my images and had turned up to collect it. They came into the gallery with such excitement and anticipation. The gallerist introduced them to me and we spoke for some time. After greeting them, it dawned on me that someone out there actually appreciated my work. It was a great revelation and I knew then that art will always be an emotional thing for me, making the long journey I find myself on, it will be worth it in the end.
What values do you believe one needs to uphold as a fine art photographer?
Firstly realise that the work is really a reflection of the artist's heart and soul, which is openly displayed for all to see. Secondly, I believe that one does not just buy an artwork, you invest in it, in many cases for a lifetime. For this reason, it is extremely important, especially in photography, that the investor gets excellent value. In this, I mean that the prints are made to the highest archival standard available and that the limited editions are registered and managed in a professional and ethical manner.
How do you merge concept and craft in your photography?
This is the hardest question of them all. Craft is a natural skill that one develops over years of practice, mastering your craft will help form confidence. The concept is the originality of one's work, that something special that needs to be fresh and challenged, almost on a daily basis. Craft is the foundation, the concept provides the zing. Frustratingly, sometimes I find myself with a basic idea or concept of what I want to shoot and nothing happens. Then all of a sudden as if a light is switched on, inspiration turns up and the energy starts to flow, sometimes for months. Perhaps this is Divine direction and inspiration or just harmonious moments of blessing...thank you for the opportunity.