Photographer Interview: Charles Martin Of New York City
Q: Define the word “beauty”!
A: Not entirely ugly.
Q: Who are your influences?
A: Jazz music, in particular Miles Davis: the need to change. All photography: museums, galleries, posters, post cards, magazines, album covers (from the vinyl days). Films. Design. Architecture. Sculpture. Sketches. Painting. Conversations with photographers.
Q: Do you like to talk about yourself or your pictures?
A: A BOOK OF ESSAYS.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: Camera: re:vision.
Q: Do you have any formal training regarding photography?
A: Photography came to me in stages. In my dad’s darkroom, I fiddled around. He had Exacta and Rolleiflex cameras, which he liked more as objects in themselves, not so much as producers of photos. He enjoyed the darkroom—mixing chemistry, the quiet, and so forth. When I went to college, a few people met a few times in an informal training group to learn darkroom procedure. I took part. It was not, though, until graduate school that I really took care with photography.
At the time that I was planning a first trip to Brazil, a friend, just back from China, pointed out that he had not gotten any good pictures. That seemed like a message to me, and at that point I pored through basic photography magazines. There seemed to be two or three basic photo method stories, regularly repeated, which made learning easier. Equally, if not more importantly, I went though an art library’s holdings, going through photo books, absorbing photographs. (I still remember wonderful blurry pictures of Peter Brook’s theater, by, I think, Josef Koudelka who, at the time, I had never heard of.)
I went to Brazil, took pictures, and told a friend in History of Art went though them and told me that I should exhibit. I did—at Yale University—and have ever since. I then enrolled in a basic photo course where I learned to shoot without a light meter—back in those days of manual cameras and developing film. That defined my approach to photography for years, particularly since most of my photos then were black and white—though I did shoot quite a few slides, too: Kodachrome 25! Now my cameras are all digital—goodbye Leica M—but the process and approach are pretty much the same for me.
Q: How technical is your photography?
A: Not at all, except for using a computer!
Q: How do you feel about cropping?
A: Generally I don’t crop. I used to do slide shows and found that taping a slide to crop it made it look un-uniform from the other images of the showing. So I planned not to crop, to avoid that problem. Then, as I began to have prints made by other people, it made sense not to have to give cropping instructions beyond “full frame.” Occasionally, a crop will make a great difference, and in that case I do crop. Cartier-Bresson made much ado about not cropping but one of his most famous images—the man leaping and about to touch down in a puddle of water—is cropped.
Q: How about manipulation?
A: “Manipulated photography” has always struck me as a strange category. I like very much the work of such as Jerry Uelsmann, but see no reason to define his destination by his path. Once I answered a call in a The Photo Review for a special issue on “manipulated” photographs. The magazine accepted and published an image of mine that had been photographed through glass, producing overlapping images—a style I was early drawn to and sometimes still pursue. But the photo was not a mechanical manipulation. I thought it was an example of the weakness of the concern for process rather than result.
Q: How do you feel about digital manipulation and to what extent do you utilize it?
A: At this point I shoot digital entirely. Post production is about the same as the way I worked with film: very little, just dodging, burning, and tonal adjustment. For the most part, I photograph what I see and the final image is very close to the idea. Photoshop does make it easier to get the colors to pop!
Q: Describe what black and white photography means to you?
A: Tri-X and 120 VerichromePan days! Light, shape, form.
Q: Do you think of yourself as an artist and what do you think of the word artist?
A: An artist makes art- be it painting, sculpture, photography, hats, music, instruments, conversation, poetry, whatever. Some art is good, some is not, and it does not depend upon genre, method or permanence. Popular art is as moving as erudite art. Simplicity and complexity are equally interesting. It is a mistake to think that “art” means quality or “successful,” or that the selling of art is much related to art, itself. If sales were the only criteria, McDonald’s hamburgers would be art. Maybe they are?
Q: How do you describe your photographic style?
A: Simple. Very much art-directorial, whether spaces and situations are found or created. But please have a look at the websites I am on and let me know!
Q: How does your personality change when you look through the camera?
A: I think faster and see more geometrically.
Q: How do you feel about missed shots that cannot be recreated?
A: Better luck next time…but there is so little for which some substitution cannot be made.
Q: What has been the most surprising or most predictable reaction to your photographs?
A: Kids love them.
Q: Where is your favorite place to live and work as a photographer in the World and why?
A: Any big city: New York, São Paulo, Rio, Paris, Algiers. Love the public space (an on-going project), architecture and the city know-how and animation of urban life/residents.
Q: What is your favorite image, either your own or someone else’s or both? Describe its creation or meaning to you?
A: “Miles in the Green Room,” by Frank Stewart. Calm Miles Davis surrounded by a horde of photographers. Excellent glimpse into the composure required to make and maintain a personality or an effect. There is a wonderful portrait of Jessye Norman—opera singer—by Anthony Barboza. Shawn Walker published a beautiful series of roof tops and clouds in NUEVA LUZ magazine, years ago. Of my photographs, I like a series I did on the Twin Towers-World Trade Center, before their destruction, and also another series, FERRYBOAT.
Q: Describe a day in your personal or professional life.
A: I am pretty much unplanned (which is opposite to the way that I prepare to shoot video or the way I teach). I periodically review my digital files and contact sheets.
Q: What are your favorite subjects to photograph?
A: Urban scenes. And although I don’t think of myself as a portrait photographer, I take a lot of portraits: it’s just a reasonable way to interact with people.
Q: Tell an odd story from a photo shoot!
A: A friend told me it was important to show a meter as the photographer taking stills on a film set, which I was about to do. I took a broken meter and displayed it often, as I took pictures with my Leica M2s (which have no meters). The director, an accomplished photographer himself, was well satisfied with the resulting pictures. He and I were talking photography one day, and I mentioned that I never meter. (No longer true, since I have taken up digital.) He said, “But you metered on the set, right?”
Q: Tell a little secret about yourself that no-one knows …
A: I cannot draw. When I discovered I could photograph I was shocked to realize I was a visual artist after all.
Q: Who or what would you love to shoot that you haven’t already?
A: A tree-house hotel in Belem (northern Brazil).
Q: What would you have done differently during your photography career so far and could this be an advice to others?
A: I do not have a photography career. Mainly I do exhibitions. I do not work for hire. I support myself by teaching literature. I do shoot digital documentary. If I were to change something, it would be to have gotten earlier into moving images.
Q: What are your thoughts on the paparazzi and their effects on photographers and photography?
A: They feed a low but real instinct in human beings: to gawk intrusively, to annoy, to antagonize.