Influencer : Edgar Martins

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From Edgar Martins, The Time Machine 2010-11

This is a review of an interview with Edgar Martins, an artist who is presently influencing my practice.

Edgar Martins is an accomplished theorist and image maker.  I was signposted to him by a colleague who thought I would appreciate his work in the context of my own practice.  I was privileged to meet him in Paris when I was gazing at the most painterly and poetic print I found in the whole PhotoParis main Grand Palais space in 2016, which was his.  He is highly articulate, determined and technically accomplished.

This short interview captures Martins’ theories and methods around planning his work, usually by brokering relationships with organisations which he knows would offer fertile opportunities to make a series of images.  His series often synthesise the real with the slightly uncomfortable and ethereal.  Because he often photographs building and spaces which are absent of humanity, yet show the tour de force of the human hand, he appeals to my mode of making series of images of buildings which are empty (of seen humanity), yet worthy and often secretive or neglected.  There is a trace of humanity in what I capture.

In this clip Martins describes an exhibition in Cardiff which had installed large scale prints of his work made in Portugal having negated his way into the principal facilities owned by the national energy company.  He demonstrates the socio-economic and political statements made by power companies between the 1920-70’s as not simply functional installations but an architectural manifestation of the “ideology of the modern” and its “aspirational project” aesthetic.  He believes that what he sees is not just about power and its generation and control, but the dream of the technological utopia, yet the paradox between modernism and modernisation, that is to say how modern structures are now functionally dated and modernisation is in train.  He has developed an eye that is attuned to seeing the banal, yet enthralling; he frames the view so as to allow the eye to wonder in all directions at the array of detail within the edifice.  He specifically describes the recce he undertook to arrange his narratives and the images that would be the optimum response to his thoughts and his eye.  Interestingly he references the “saturation of the imagery of dams”, demonstrating an awareness of the cliche, and instead gathered views of the very heart of the operations, away from the heroic scale of a damn and into confined, confided spaces.  He mourns the common and captures the uncommon.

Martin uses the opportunity in this short interview to summarise his whole practice approach by describes photography as having “conceptual tensions” and uses his work to bring together “irresolvable contradictions”.  He applies it as a medium to make space look believable, countered by a disturbing suggestion “that all is not what it seems”.  He cites a “temporal manipulation” in his imagery, a term which I have contemplated and define as the often uncanny visual clues to the passage of time, both in an immediate way, the viewer may query ‘where are the people you would expect to be working in these spaces?’ a point that pervades much of his work.  But one may also question the spaces in the broader passage of time that such industrial facilities dwell.  He later speaks about a “confluence of temporalities, looking to the future” in his exhibited work on the power company. He captures the ideology of the Corbusian ideals and the ideal of “machines for living in” and the counterpoint reality of twenty-first century and the need to regenerate power generation in complex, politically sensitive, globally wired world.

He references a fascination for the topographical surveys of the industrial era and notes the investment into logistics, access, funding and communications that are vested in making a coherent series such as this.  The work was made in 2010 and 2011.  Early in 2010 Sean O’Hagan wrote a piece in the Guardian that reflected on the exhibition “35 years previously on the “New Topographics” a title that was coined by William Jenkins, curator of a group show of American landscape photography held at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York” which, and this is the phrase that caught my eye, when noting the 168 rigorously organised images “taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal”. It included work by Bernd and Hilla Becher who worked in America flowing their German documentary sees.  O’Hagan goes on “The New Topograhics exhibition in 1975 was not just the moment when the apparently banal became accepted as a legitimate photographic subject, but when a certain strand of theoretically driven photography began to permeate the wider contemporary art world. Looking back, one can see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” carried a political message and reflected, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities”. (Links to an external site.)

In summary, I am studying and reading more about Edgar Martins as I believe his research into the context in which he bases his work is thorough; his planning and execution clearly require the investment into relationships to obtain approval to shoot and to gain the co-operation of the people to move away for each shoot is elaborate, laborious and rewarding.  Add to this the imagery which is framed, composed, thoughtful and of the unseen, acts both as an inspiration and a parallel to my own practice and ambitions. I am driven to document spaces and respect those places in terms of their founding raison d’être, their present role, or often diminished role, in the evolving world of city development.

Above all Martins is anchored in the lineage of photographic documentary history, with a deep rigour of critical and theoretical analysis.


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