Russ Martin: Beauty in Abstraction
Although he was born to a part-time professional photographer in 1949, Russ Martin initially contemplated a career as an engineer, architect or scientist. He even entered college as a chemistry major before changing his focus and earning a BS in Art/Photography from SUNY Brockport and an MFA in Photography from SUNY New Paltz. Thus equipped, Martin became a photography instructor in the early 1970s and simultaneously produced a series of pioneering color imagery that synthesized visual tropes from abstract painting, sculpture and photography. He exhibited this work at the Alonzo Gallery in the early ’70s (a time when few New York galleries were receptive to showing anything beyond black and white), but was unable to follow up his initial momentum when the gallery closed. Since retiring from teaching in 2008, however, he has found new gallery representation, and in addition to resuming his exhibition career, has won several prestigious awards. He’s also switched from film to digital in the interest of greater image control. Martin feels he is making the best images of his life, including recent color abstractions that reference his early work, and a compelling monochrome series on unusual plant life. Intriguing visual juxtapositions and an emotional-intellectual duality are present in everything he does.
Your wall and torn-poster images were created not only from the perspective of photography, but also painting and sculpture. Was this an attempt to transcend differences between the three mediums?
In a sense, yes. I borrowed from both painting and sculpture to create something that I believe hadn't been done before. For instance, there is the subject material on the wall that is reminiscent of various painters, and other material, either in front or to the side, that is in juxtaposition with it that creates three-dimensionality and new meaning. In another sense, nothing is really new. However, back when I was making these wall and torn poster images, I hadn't seen anything similar. Yes, some borrow from painting, but they aren't paintings. They are photographs, but they aren't exactly photographic. They are somewhere in-between. In the ’70's that was new and it foreshadowed some work that has appeared since then.
The first wall picture that I made was the one of the rust and rope. I call that one "Homage to Peggy Guggenheim." I made it the day after having seen an exhibition of her sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum. They were very strange. Some were groups of ropes hanging from the ceiling. I saw this piece of rope and the rusted metal, and thought of her. Next, I made “Hard Edge with Crane” and “Hard Edge With Tires” in the same area. About a year after that, I made “Homage to Rauchenberg” and “Porthole”—all in the same place.
I understand this work attracted considerable notice when it first appeared.
I was one of the first color fine art photographers, showed in a good gallery in New York (the Alonzo Gallery at 30 W. 57th St.), and was on my way when the gallery closed, and I was forgotten. To quote my good friend Allan Ludwig, who was showing his photography in the same gallery at the time: "You are smart to be pushing yourself as one of the first color photographers on the art photo scene. That is the key to everything. Critics and historians like to find moments of origin for trends and movements, and here you are waiting to be a discovered as one of the first but somehow overlooked at the time. It is the key to your brand. I was there in the old days and I saw these very pictures being created."
He isn't kidding. I lived in his house and shared his darkroom. He saw me making many of these images, some of which were Cibachromes. The stuff was so toxic and corrosive that I wore a respirator while processing them. I'm sure he remembers that very clearly. I had red marks on my face for a week.
What kind of qualities does photography have that the aforementioned mediums don’t?
Most paintings are flat. Most of my photographs suggest a three-dimensionality that paintings do not have. In addition, the sharp focus that a lens produces is usually not an attribute of painting.
Homage to Peggy Guggenheim, 1973
Do you find any limitations using photography, for example, when it comes to rendering textures?
Generally speaking, photography is the best method of recording textures. It records minute detail that the human eye may miss or not resolve. There have been times though when the distance between objects, or the depth of the subject, is too great to render in sharp focus. I usually stop the lens down all the way, or almost, to produce the depth of field required, but it sometimes is not enough. When photographing textures, I want them to be as clear as possible. When I started photographing these subjects, I hand-held the camera. That did not produce the sharpness required. Subsequently, I used a tripod and cable release and whatever shutter speed was required. Sometimes, it was necessary to wait until bits of torn paper stopped moving in the wind.
Have you ever been tempted to work directly in sculpture and painting?
I occasionally considered making both sculptures and paintings, but never got around to either. For instance, I once thought about going out into the woods in the Adirondack Mountains and creating sculptures on the large rock deposited by glaciers. However, I never studied sculpture and didn't know anything about stone carving. It would have also required time and money that I didn't have. Then there was the question of who would see them! It was more of a conceptual project than something I probably would ever have done. Regarding painting, I once had a vivid dream of a scene in upstate New York near where I grew up. I could see it clearly and even sketched it when I awoke. Later, I bought canvas and paints to make the painting, but it was around this time that things started happening for me photographically and I've been concentrating on this medium ever since. Maybe someday I will create that painting. But I know my limitations; I am a much better photographer than I would ever be a sculptor or painter.
Action Painting, 1979
What was the inspiration for this series? Why the specific focus on walls?
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention! When I was in graduate school, at SUNY New Paltz in 1973, I took a course in color photography. It started in the winter. Winter is a very monochromatic season in New York. The only color I was attracted to was manmade color that was either painted on walls or on signs and posters. When I photographed this material, it went through a mental filter created from seeing numerous postwar paintings in art history courses, and also from having been exposed to the photographs of Aaron Siskind. He, by the way, was also my advisor's thesis advisor. So abstraction, and modern art, was a big part of my education. It just seemed to come out in my photographs. Once started down that path, and finding success with my images, I have continued.
Your website references such as influences as Aaron Siskind, Piet Mondrian, Willem DeKooning, Elliott Erwitt. Can you briefly specify the qualities in their work that you respond to?
Each one had a different influence. When I was first studying art, it was easy to understand how Mondrian composed his images and used different amounts of color and space to create balance and movement. For some reason, I also liked the geometry and rigidity of the compositions. I have frequently told people, "Mondrian taught me composition." I also like juxtapositions. Margaret Bourke-White's image of people standing in a bread line under a billboard of a happy family in a car was a big influence. That made me realize that putting two unrelated subjects together could create a powerful statement. Erwitt frequently juxtaposed imagery, too. In fact, he is a master of it. I love his sense of humor. Siskind did abstracts that were reminiscent of postwar paintings, only in black and white. With all the other painters, their imagery was in my head and I seemed to see similar things in the urban landscape.
These images play with conventional notions of what is beautiful and otherwise in the urban landscape. Was this deliberate?
It wasn't a conscious intention, but it’s true that that is part of it. I have evaluated my photographs over the years and have noticed that they function on many levels. Regarding the image "Crane Duality, Kingston 1973," I was attracted to the saturated red of the crane and the hard metal forms. At the same time, I was attracted by the shapes on the wall, which imply compression. But yes, I love beauty, and color can be part of that.
This work (especially the torn posters) addresses a surprisingly wide thematic range, inclusive of cultural, political, sexual, religious and other matters. Do you find that many viewers pick up on these undercurrents, or do they tend to focus on the surface, abstract qualities?
I have had viewers tell me both. Some like them simply for the textures; others, for the content. I think they are inextricably linked. Most of these images were made on the streets of New York. I walked everywhere and was looking mainly for juxtapositions of subjects that might create meaning. I was well aware of the sexual, political, religious, cultural and symbolic meanings that shapes, words, images and symbols could create. When I found compositions that seemed to work on some level, I photographed them. Later, I edited for the most successful, which usually involved the themes you mentioned.
Blue Guy, 1979
In what way does this work seem to resonate with viewers?
I have a difficult time answering this. I don't know. I think some of the images are very direct and easily understandable. Others may be more cerebral. Quite a few people identify with the strong use of color and textures.
For me, these images give off a vibrant creative energy specific to the urban landscape.
You may be right about them possessing an urban energy. I grew up in a much less populated area than New York, so I felt a lot of excitement and energy in the city. It was all new to me, and all kinds of things popped out at me. For instance, my poster images; I saw faces everywhere. It was like they were looking out at me. It was difficult not to see them. Then too, there were all the standpipes. I saw them as figures. They are everywhere.
On your website, your black-and-white Torn Poster series is headed: “They’re Looking at You.” Is this a subtle dig at the surveillance society?
Nope. Just that all these faces seemed to be looking at me from the walls.
There are no people in these images, outside of indirect depictions in some of the poster photographs. This also holds true with your other series, whether you’re dealing with an urban or natural landscape. Are you uncomfortable shooting people, or just uninterested? Do you find you can say more about the human condition through an elliptical approach?
You are getting deeper than I want to go. I just seem to gravitate to subjects that don't contain people.
Crane Duality, 1973
Your wall compositions and torn posters are primarily shot in square, although there are a number of rectangular compositions as well. How do you decide which framing to use?
Many of the square images were shot with a Rolleiflex TLR, which produced a square image. With some, it was necessary to crop to remove material that was distracting or didn't work with the composition. Recently, I have been using a digital camera, which produces a rectangular image. Generally, I use the format of the camera.
The space feels a bit more constricted in the square images. Would you agree? And is this intentional?
Not always. You would have to point out the ones that make you feel this way. Many times I feel the square format allows the eye to move more easily and harbors less dead spaces. However, I suppose the edges of the frame may produce a closed-in feeling at times. If I did that, it was not intentional.
You’ve said that you have been “liberated” by digital imagery. Are you talking about ease of image-making, expanded visual options, or both?
Both. I used to have a black-and-white and a color darkroom, and I was very good with each. However, I found it difficult to find the time to print, especially with color. Then too, film, chemicals and paper were costly. With digital, I don't incur any expenses until I want to print, and I can work for 5 minutes or 5 hours. I also have vastly more control over the image from the camera to the final print. For me, digital photography and processing has allowed me to produce the best images of my life, with little cost or hassle.
Has digital changed the way you “see” images or the manner in which you now conceptualize and capture them (apart from a technical standpoint)?
I don't think so. I'm an old dog, and we don't learn new tricks easily!
(Russ Martin’s work lives here: www.russandmarciamartin.com. Pay it a visit, or contact him directly at email@example.com.)