Art Photographer Martin Osner | Practical Photography | UK

The 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 South African 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 many 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 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 “moody” landscapes, Osner, like Matisse, ensures that the whole arrangement of his photograph is expressive and captivating. 


Like Matisse, Osner is also a stickler for composition, precise and often laboured. 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 is it that you enjoy about photography, particularly as an art form?

In the world of art, photography is certainly the new kid on the block. I appreciate most forms of art, but for me, photography provides a distinct sense of realism, almost a contemporary connection that can easily be related to by the viewer.


We understand from your biography that you had specialized in commercial photography for most of your career, what made you then change over to a more speculative fine art career? 

I think people have seasons in life. Sometimes the income versus the love for something needs to be weighed up. For many years 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 over and a new one had begun. 


How would you describe Fine Art Photography? 

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, is defined as art that is intended to be appreciated primarily for its aesthetic content. In my opinion, Fine Art Photography does not stray far from both of these definitions. For me, Fine Art photographs are works that have been primarily born out of a desire to fulfil the creative vision of the photographer/artist. 


What challenges did you encounter when moving over 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 realized 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. 


In your view, were there positive lessons commercial photography taught you that you now apply to your fine art photography? 

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 master. I think now, lighting has become more subconscious in my approach. 


Let’s look at four bodies of work within your portfolio; Abandoned, Extremity, Faceless society, and Road to freedom. Abandoned is a lot grittier than some of your other work on your website, and yet it still retains your personal style. What prompted your interest in photographing these rather dark landscape studies? 

A few years back I was preparing for two exhibitions, back-to-back. As most of the images were abstract studies, I had spent a lot of time in the studio in the lead up to these shows. At the time I just felt like shooting some outdoor work in a less controlled environment. It was December 2006, I packed very little camera equipment, in an attempt to uncomplicate my mindset and headed out into the countryside for three weeks. After a couple of days, I found this old Opel Manta standing on a pole just off the main road. It was used to mark the entrance of a small farm in the Free State. I returned to the subject a few times, but the light was not great.  One afternoon a storm started building in the south, I rushed back to find the light just right and the background perfect.  I felt that the old Opel had been given a new lease on life, although it would never see the road again, it looked proud of itself even in its last years of life. It was then that I decided to shoot a series entitled Abandoned. I said to my wife at the time that I wanted to find similar subjects, that had also reached the end of their life. As with the car, I wanted to portray these subjects in a positive light with lots of moods. I have been working on the series for just over two years and have sixteen images in the collection.


Where did you photograph the broody landscape, the one entitled Extremity with the intense storm clouds?

Actually, it was very near the old car on the pole and this picture was taken during the same trip. Funny, I had been eyeing this picture for a number of years. It is an abandoned marina on an inland lake. The lighting was just never quite right when I visited, but I knew it was just a matter of time. Two days before Christmas I was given an early present. At about three in the afternoon, the weather suddenly changed. I had a sense that something was about to happen – and it certainly did. This Highveld thunderstorm came rolling in towards the marina in the shape of a mushroom. It felt like Armageddon had come. I rushed to get my equipment out and had just enough time to set up a composition. I knew if I missed it, I would never be given the same opportunity again. Just before the hail came down I got three exposures off. It is times like these that bring the most satisfaction.


From describing these two pictures it’s clear that your photography is not just a spur of the moment, it seems like you do a great deal of planning for each shot? 

Yes, I am always on the lookout for possible subjects, but over the years I have had to discipline myself not to shoot the picture if the conditions are not ideal. I see this as a compromise. For this reason, 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 generally walk down a street, for instance, with a camera around my neck and just fire away – although on occasions I have done this if I feel I’m in a bit of a rut.


The picture of the old man and his dog, Road to Freedom. Was it just a momentary engagement or had you met the man before? 

Allow me to answer this question in a roundabout way. Road to Freedom was photographed in 2007.

A few months before I had been experimenting with Lomography but it had not caught my fancy.  I must

admit it really tested my understanding and concept of photography, going completely against the grain for

me. After six weeks of struggling, I still hadn’t got anything meaningful and I shelved the camera out of

frustration.  Although I was not successful I did quite like the idea of shooting instinctively, using more of a

subconscious approach.  I set up the camera's exposure beforehand and pre-focused at 3m using a small

aperture to increase the depth of field. I hadn’t planned to photograph the old man. Suddenly he walked out

from a corner. Immediately I started shooting from waist level without looking through the lens. 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. 

I must confess Faceless society is an unexpected surprise. Here you have composed vertically, whereas all your other work featured has a horizontal format, tell us about this body of work, and why the change in format?

There are nine pictures in this series. The reason for the vertical composition is really just to create a poster type feel. I have worked with “iconic” people in society, like those whose pictures would appear on subway walls. Combining the portraits with a lot of texture has helped to add a tenacious look and feel to the images. The purpose of this body of work is simply to question community leaders and their influence on society, be it good or bad. 


What camera do you use?

I was hoping you would not ask this question. 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. Really if it has a lens, aperture and shutter and is lightproof enough to record an image, it is good enough for me.


Do you prefer to shoot on film or digital?

It's like asking “do you prefer strawberries or cream”, I love both mediums, it’s not a choice for me. There is nothing more satisfying than 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.


So then what function does digital post-production play in creating you're fine art images?

I consider digital post-production 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 is available to us and pay homage to the software developers for a job well done.


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.  


Which photographers or artists have been your main source of inspiration?

For landscape work, Ansel Adams. Besides his clinical compositions, the brilliance and technicality of his zone system and just his life long passion for the medium. For environmental work, it has to be Henri Cartier-Bresson, who once briefly summed up his career in this way: ‘Photographing,’ he said, ‘means recognizing, in a single instant, a split second, both a fact and the precise organization of visually perceived forms that express that fact. It means putting head, eye, and heart on one line of sight.’ When in London in September last year, I explored the streets with just this mindset. Two of the pictures that I got entitled “Medieval City # 1”, of a pedestrian making his way down to the underground and the other “Medieval City # 2” of a man sweeping the street is my tribute to this great artist.


What new projects are you working on?

I am currently working on a number of new assignments. One that I am particularly excited about is a series of work called “Enchanted Forests”. There is just something so special in these places of utter beauty. I have not limited the study to any particular country and I will be adding indefinitely to this body of work. While visiting Scotland last year, I came across a forest

which was covered with moss, the place was so beautiful that I got stage fright. I was like a child in a candy store, I just didn't know where to get started. Late that afternoon, the light broke through the vista and I got the picture I wanted. I called it Eden...I hope you can see why.


Where have you exhibited recently?

Last year I had three main exhibitions. April at Gordart Gallery in Johannesburg, in Septemeber at Stephanie Hoppen Gallery in London and in December at Gora Gallery in Montreal. 




BOUNDARY LINE: I photographed this image in November 2007 north of Pretoria, just off the main road to Thabazimbi. My family and I were visiting friends in the region and as always I had my camera equipment with me.  At about half-past four in the morning, I awoke to the distant sound of thunder.  I thought I had been dreaming but took a look outside just to check.  Sure enough, a storm was brewing on the horizon, suddenly I was wide awake.  I try to capture a lot of mood in my pictures, so inclement weather is like a God-send to me. When I drove out it was still quite dark, but I felt I had a chance of getting a good shot if I could just find an interesting subject.  The day before, although not having taken any pictures, I had identified a couple of spots that could work with the right light.  One of these spots was a dirt road that headed south through some small farms. The storm moved in rapidly and before long the hail came pelting down. I headed along the dirt road and fortunately the storm had turned and was also heading south. Unexpectedly, like a painting, the background came alive, stormy skies, cracks of was all happening.  Frantically I searched for something that I could feature in the foreground; all too often, nature

delivers up a mind-blowing background and one finds yourself with nothing to offset it with.   Before long the storm headed away into the distance and just as I thought, ‘that’s it’, I spotted a path heading towards some cornfields.  I stopped, grabbed my camera gear and rushed down the path.  What happened next is the reason why I love photography so much. This vista opened before me.  A foreground interest appeared in the shape of two fence pillars, supported by a lush green tuft of grass.  Telephone poles conveniently situated, helped to create a leading line that ran down the left of my composition and, as if God was orchestrating affairs, the clouds in the distance started to part allowing shafts of light to break into the landscape.  I remember telling myself to hurry up as I set up the tripod.   I kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord, for trusting that God was listening and would somehow slow the showdown just a bit.  I only managed to get a couple of shots off before the curtain came down, on what was incredible, but a very short display of nature at her best. Now I live for another day, trusting that again all the elements will come together, helping to create images that form part of one’s life.   My experience was summed up by the great photographer Henri Cartier Bresson who said: “Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes”.  


ABANDONED 2: In 2006 I started shooting a series of work entitled abandoned.  My idea was to highlight today’s “throw-away society” by collecting a series of images featuring “everyday things” that had been abandoned.  The idea was sparked off by a shot I had taken of an old car on a pole (Abandoned 1).  Just before the new year, we visited a friend of ours who lives in the countryside just north of Pretoria in South Africa. We arrived on a Friday evening and over supper, Willie asked me what I would like to photograph. I told him about the old car picture and said I am looking for anything recognizable that has been dumped.  He asked, like what? To which I replied, buses, cars, homes, furniture, graves, caravans, you name it.  He told me that he had seen an old caravan a few miles away out in the middle of nowhere and offered to accompany me in the morning. Incidentally, what made this series so difficult to capture, is that I wanted to feature the subjects in a surreal, sanguine sort of manner at their height of neglect, but wanted to portray a positive feel. So finding them is one thing, waiting for the right weather to do so is another. Early the next morning I took a look at the weather outside.  To my joy, a cold front had headed in overnight, something completely abnormal for the South African Highveld during summer.  I bustled Willie into the Land Rover and headed off to look for this caravan. I will never forget the incident, It was one of those surreal days in my photography, everything was falling into place as if it were preordained. After a half an hours drive we spotted what looked like a caravan far off in the distance.  It took a while to find a path that led to this secretive dwelling.  As we came around the last corner I could hardly contain my excitement, it was like an early Christmas present.  The caravan was perfect, the weather was perfect and the resident, being a Saturday, had headed for town.  Oh my God if only all my work could be shot like this!  I took the picture on my digital SLR using HDR – High Dynamic Range.  It was one of the few pictures I have ever taken where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt would work before viewing it on the computer.  I bought Willie a couple of bottles of wine and helped him drink them.