Thursday, January 14, 2010

Russ Martin


What inspired you to start taking photographs, and what is the primary inspiration for you to keep working in this field?


I grew up around cameras and photography. My father was a part time professional photographer and had a studio in town until I was about 12. When the building that he occupied was going to be torn down, he moved his business to our house. That included constructing a darkroom and using the living room for a studio. In high school, I wanted to make a name for myself. I tried sports, but I knew that was not going to be my claim to fame. Then I noticed another student who took pictures of school events was getting some notoriety. Having access to professional equipment, and a darkroom in my house, I said "I can do that!" My father loaned me one of his Rolleiflex cameras, showed me the basics, and I was on my way. Once I started, I was hooked. I loved looking through the camera and took pictures of everything and everyone. I came from a family without much extra money, so my father said he wasn't going to support my new found hobby. I think he wanted to teach me to be resourceful. Anyway, I had to find a way to pay for film and paper. I did that by taking pictures of all my friends and anyone who said "take my picture". I sold them for 25 cents to one dollar each. Back then, a roll of film was 80 cents and a box of 100 sheets of 8X10 paper was $8.00, so the income paid for my supplies. I went on to become the primary photographer for my high school yearbook. I photographed every school event as well as teams and activities. About half of the pictures were mine. Once I graduated, my photography career might have ended though. I went on to college and became a chemistry major. If I had been a little better mathematician or chemist, I would have stayed with that. However, when I ran into difficulties, I looked around for another major. In the meantime, when I applied to colleges, since I was involved with photography, I wanted to attend one where I had access to a darkroom. A tour guide where I ended up said that they had one students could use. Little did I know that she didn't know what she was talking about. So, once enrolled I discovered the truth and I wrote a letter to the editor of the college newspaper to complain. To my surprise, he called offering a position as a photographer. The fringe benefit was that I could use their darkroom any time I wanted. Now, being on the college newspaper had it's benefits as well. I got into concerts and other events for free and I was popular since I could get pictures published in the paper. This clinched the deal. I was having a lot of fun being a photographer and I wasn't having any being a chemistry and math student. So, knowing that I could be an art student and take photography courses, I made an appointment to see the chairman of the art department to ask if I could transfer in. I had never taken an art course in my life and didn't know anything but Picasso and Leonardo DaVinci, were famous artists. That didn't matter, I went for it based on my portfolio of photographs. Well, he evidently could see how intent I was, and that I had some decent photographs, so let me in. That was the beginning and it established the course for my life.

Since the beginning, I have loved everything about photography. I especially remember looking through my camera at everything. Though I didn't make pictures a lot of the time, I just liked how things looked through a lens. I also liked composing images and visually played around frequently. That love of images is still present. Today though, I don't photograph everything. I work on one project, usually involving one subject, over a long period of time. I do this to achieve something which is new and meaningful and that usually takes time. The challenges inherent in each project are what keeps me going. "The Hosta Project", which I am still working on after three years, was a challenge to myself to try to make "good pictures" from a subject that seems unimportant, or even boring. That is the kind of challenge that keeps me going.


In your opinion and experience, how can emerging photographers evaluate themselves as ready to start promoting their works and seek broader exposure for their photographs? What is one vital action you would recommend photographers undertake to find their audience, be included in exhibitions, and gain professional representation?


They should to try to take a detached view of their work and compare it to that of photographers who are known or famous. If their work resembles anyone well known, my advice is to try something else. I frequently tell people to be yourself. Nobody wants another of anyone. Also, some subjects are already staked out. Ansel Adams was known for his pictures of Yosemite National Park. Anyone who takes a Yosemite picture will have their pictures compared to his. Better to photograph somewhere else. But, it goes further than this. A photographer shouldn't work in the style of another photographer either. Today, I'm seeing a lot of photographers who imitate Michael Kenna. Some of the pictures are even better than Kenna's. However, they will never become as important as Kenna. One person gets known for the, subject, style, or technique, and the rest are clones.

One vital action I recommend that photographers undertake is to network. Get on Facebook and learn to use it. It is a wonderful tool that didn't exist when I was young. Today, anyone can contact anyone. Not only that, it is free! I have become represented in three galleries through my Facebook contacts, and my "friends" include some of the most important people in the photography world. Not sure how much they pay attention to what I post, but they are seeing my name. Eventually, I become a person to them. That is important.

I also recommend entering the biggest and the most important competitions. See if you can win top honors. It is the people who win those honors that sometimes become important. If you can't win them, then that tells you something. On the other hand, if you do, it can really jump start things for you. Everyone has small competitions and exhibitions on their resumes. If a resume is important, then it will only be as important as what is on it.

Last but not least, your work is the main thing that will get you attention. It has to be wonderful in some way. It has to stop people in their tracks and make them sit up and take notice. I sometimes tell people that the work is everything. It is almost everything. Awards are important, but a long resume and well written artist statement won't save weak pictures. And nobody will care much about the supporting material if the pictures are great. I personally know of photographers who were unknown a few years ago and are now selling a lot of prints. They had short resumes, no college degrees, and 25-50 pictures. It didn't matter. The galleries loved their work.

I once was interviewed by the Picture Buyer of ABC TV. I asked what I had to do to get into his file of preferred photographers? He said "make great pictures". That is all he cared about. When pictures are hanging on a wall in a gallery or published in magazines, nothing else is important.


How did it come about that you achieved the status of successful, professional photographer? What steps were involved in reaching your level of success?


First there are all the things that I did to prepare myself. I read everything about photography, looked at thousands of pictures, and went to galleries and museums. I tried to perfect my craft and become the best photographer I could possibly be. I also became an art and photography major in college and earned both a bachelors degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography. This education broadened my perspectives and I became knowledgeable about art and fine art photography.

Then, there were two periods when I achieved success. The first was in the late 1970's when I was represented by a good gallery in New York City. At that time, I was one of the few fine art photographers who specialized in color. Not only that, but it was different in that it wasn't documentary. It was tied to the traditions of art. When I approached the gallery, I believe it was obvious that it was unique and my work was accepted. Unfortunately, my gallery closed after three years and I had to find another source of income. I then became a photography teacher in a number of high schools and dropped out of trying to exhibit. Remember too, that this was before computers and the internet. It was very difficult to get your work seen, let alone represented. You had to send physical portfolios prints or take them around to places like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. I was not in a position to be able to do this. With the internet, this has now all changed.

Fast forward to 2005. This began my rebirth as a fine art photographer. Approaching retirement, I decided to enter B&W magazine's first portfolio contest. I was fortunate to win a Spotlight Feature with my "Flowing Water" series which was created 35 years prior. With this win, I was inspired to create new work and to enter it into international competitions and submit to magazines. Luckily, I have won quite a few awards and been featured in other respected fine art photography magazines. This has led to representation in galleries.

Wilted Hosta and Oak Leaves, 2007

Hosta Flower and Leaves, 2006

Dappled Sun, 2006

Silky Leaves, 2007

Reclining Leaf, 2007

Rococo Leaf, 2008

Wilted Group, 2008

Green and Blue Wilted Hosta Leaves, 2008

Blue Wilted Hosta Leaf, 2008

Torn and Wilted Hosta Leaves, 2008

© all images Russ Martin

About this Blog

Two Way Lens is a project designed to inform and inspire emerging photographers wanting to focus their creative output in a way that enhances their chances of finding an audience, being included in exhibitions and ultimately achieving gallery representation. The journey from inspired artist to successful artist is one that is often difficult to negotiate and hard to control. On these pages, I will feature the experiences and opinions of other photographers who I have found inspiring, and hopefully the knowledge they have built in their own experiences will be valuable to all of us finding our own way to sharing our creativity with the wider world.