Art & Design

Exposed: How Dan Martensen Balances Art and Artifice

Art & Design

Exposed: How Dan Martensen Balances Art and Artifice

Photo by Bill Gentle

The first thing you notice about Dan Martensen’s new book, Photographs From the American Southwest, is the deliberate lack of people. Unusual, coming from a fashion photographer, whose job is to portray people. The collection of sixty photos, taken between 2001 and 2011, suggest a former presence of human life, marked by dilapidated houses and empty restaurants and swimming pools. Abandonment and drought (literal and figurative) are at the fore, tinged with nostalgia of more fruitful, colorful times.

Despite the book’s obvious departure from the bright and indulgent fashion world, it’s not surprising that Martensen was drawn to these landscapes. His style is as American as the Wild West. He has a knack for capturing the youthful aesthetic of the US of A, whether it’s Brooklyn’s cool kids, or those languorous-yet-playful beauties who wear no makeup but can easily turn a Budweiser into an accessory and a vintage car into a loveseat. It’s this artful mélange of skateboardin’, flag-wavin’, American romance that has earned him clients both national and international, from The New York Times and Vogue, to i-D, French Elle, and Costume National.

In his book, Martensen tells a very specific story about the Southwest, one that is both true and untrue. Below, he talks about straddling that line between the real and the skewed, why photography is necessarily perspectival, and how he tries to keep his content as authentic as possible.

The subject matter of your book is so different from the fashion world. Has it been hard to reconcile the two?
For me, photography, whether it’s of people or landscapes, is about capturing reality. That’s the real crossover: capturing the essence of a place or of a person. I enjoy shooting landscapes and creating a narrative out of my observations, and it’s very rare that I have an opportunity to do that for clients. It’s nice for me to do projects [that are] heavily photographic; not about fashion, not about a person. It’s almost photography about photography. A lot of the pictures [in the book] are pictures that were inspired by photography that I grew up looking at, that I still do look at.

Your book displays photos between 2001-2011. Did you notice an arc of change in the southwest over that decade?
The only thing I really did notice changing in that time span was people’s reactions to political figures, you know, being on the road while Bush was being re-elected, while Obama was elected the first time. [In towns] south of Tucson or in Santa Fe, more things seemed to be closing down. It seemed to be more and more bleak. But it wasn’t dramatic. I think that part of the country has, in its current state, more or less collapsed over ten years. 

You capture the desolation of the Southwest in the photos, but there’s also a sense of humor in some of them. Do you feel like you’re bringing a bit of a Northeastern irony, or city mentality, to those photos?
Whatever humor is in there is my own interjection. It’s natural to look at photos of a foreign land, if you can call the southwest a foreign land, and look for the ironic or the humorous bit. But there is a good deal of irony to place itself. The land that we’re talking about is really spread out. It’s the desert. I was most drawn to the desert air and the general dry climate. That’s where you find all the dinosaur fossils, because they’re so beautifully preserved by the climate and the conditions. In a way, the irony for me also is [in] taking [the] pictures, it’s almost like preserving it further!

In the northeast, when a store closes or when a house [is abandoned], generally trees and plants and vines and foliage take over and kind of almost drag it into the ground. A house collapses and becomes part of the soil. In the desert, it’s the opposite. Things just kind of stay. And you see throughout the pictures, there’s this light blue and peach and tan [color] palette running through. Reds become pinks, and greens become teals, and the sand is kind of a khaki color. These tones are all that’s left of these bright colors. In the Southwest, rather than rebuild, people just tend to move on. There’s such an abundance of space, that the sprawl can just keep going and going.

When did you know that you wanted to turn this project into a formal series, aside from it just being personal work?
The first time I really did a long, weeklong drive through the area, in about 2006. I came back from that with a whole bunch of photos and I knew there was something to them. I didn’t know what I wanted it to be, but I knew I had found my subject matter. The later in the project it got, the better I got at finding the things that I knew would work. As good as that was for the book, the project may have kind of closed me off to other things. It’s kind of a weird dichotomy I have to deal with, being raw and open and honest to what you’re finding but, at the same time, once you find your story, you kind of have to try and find it to be true in as many ways as you can. To perpetuate your thesis, I guess. 

But what do you feel like you’ve deliberately left out?
Not everywhere in the southwest is lonely, I mean there are people there, and there’s a lot about it that’s, for lack of a better term, kind of normal. There are gas stations that are working, and people get food at restaurants that are open, and go to schools, and have really nice lives and all that. The everyday stuff is all there, but my edit really makes it seem like it’s more of a ghost town than it really is. But at the same time, these [desolate spaces] do exist there, and a lot than in most other places in the world. So, although [my book] is not telling the real story about what the southwest is like on a day-to-day basis, it is picking out and laying elements of the place that really don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

But how do you define your photographic responsibilities? Do you see yourself more as a documentarian or as an artist? Because as an artist, you get to tell whatever story you want.
I think the answer to both of those questions is yes. That’s the trick, even a documentary photographer will tell you that you can take a picture, and try to deliver the most factual, accurate account of whatever you are seeing, but every photograph is a really bad lie, and is leaving out more than it’s showing, every time. No matter how good the photograph is, you’re still selecting a small rectangular box out of reality and omitting every other piece of what’s happening in that environment. So, yeah, I do think it’s a documentary, but a selective documentary. The art is in the selection, and the documentary is in the fact that it’s all real and there. And I think that’s what makes this work art. A lot of the role of the photographer is to look at reality and find the humor or the tragedy or the story that doesn’t lie in the obvious places.

But the framework, the abstraction of the cut, is the definition of photography. People are aware of that when they look at a photo.
People that think about photography are, but I think people are generally over-inundated with images and maybe don’t think about it all that much, not that they don’t realize it when asked. Considering how often we all seem to be taking pictures these days, since anybody with a phone has a camera in their pocket, I think a lot of that gets taken for granted and is not necessarily thought about.

Well let’s talk about that for a second, you have a very funny photo blog. There’s obviously a difference between the photos you take with your Blackberry and the photos that define your style. What made you feel compelled to start a photo blog like that?
The blog is much more a stream of consciousness, you can look at it and kind of get to know me and my sense of humor. That’s kind of how a blog suits me best. I like that there’s a sense of humor to the blog, and at the end of the day, as much as I’d like to think that all of my photographs are “serious works of art”—make sure you realize in writing that I’m being slightly sarcastic—as much as I’d like to think that what I’m doing is art, I work for clients and am a paid craftsman as much as I am an artist. Luckily for me, I manage to book work based on the work that I do for myself. I don’t believe in this mystery that photographers are supposed to be some untouchable source of creativity that no one could possibly understand. So the blog for me is just like, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. It is more about who I am as a person, while my work is about collaboration, and is [also] a little bit more serious.

Earlier you said that whether you’re capturing people or landscapes you look for the real. Your fashion stories are realistic and natural. The models aren’t wearing makeup. The photos are not contrived. How has the natural come to define your style?
I think it flows through every other part of my life. I’ve never been attracted to fakeness. In attitude, I think the genuine and the real are things I’m interested in the most and what I’m most attracted to. There was a time when I was not doing work like that at all. [When I was] in college, David LaChapelle was the biggest photographer in fashion, and Steven Klein. These guys were creating the most outlandish, ridiculous fantasy worlds ever, and I was attracted to that. These masters combine contrived fantasy with real emotional and artistic expression. And if you can combine those two, you’re a genius. But I’ve always found it so much harder to get something really real out of something really fake. So I just chose the real. I was ultimately better at it and also it was a happier sort of process for me. I am very into trying to humanize someone or capture who they really are. That, to me, is way more interesting than trying to create some random fantasy world.

How do you go about casting models? What do you look for?
It’s hard because I look at pictures that other people take of them and I have to think, is this the photographer doing a good job of portraying this person? Who’s running the show, is it the model or the photographer? If I meet them in person, that’s ideal. I could just walk in the room and in five seconds, I know. Like, this girl is interesting. It doesn’t matter what she looks like, it doesn’t matter that she’s 5’2’’ or she’s five pounds overweight. I don’t care about those things, I’m much more interested in personality.

What would be your favorite emotion to capture?
There’s something about what a person looks like right after they’ve laughed their ass off, like really really laughed or really let go and had a laugh or been embarrassed. There’s this honesty in their eyes that I find the most kind of perfect. I don’t always get the right shot. I almost never get my model to laugh their ass of necessarily, but when that does happen, when someone’s been kind of torn down to either laughing or even appear that kind of recovery, there’s something really honest in that in a person, something really beautiful about it, that’s when you get really earnest emotions I think.

Dream portrait subject?
Jeff Bridges, maybe he’ll read this.


Photo of Dan by Bill Gentle.