In the darkroom dead? In a world addicted to instant meals, instant replies and instant art, where does darkroom photography belong? According to the internationally renowned photographer Michael Allen Martin, it’s become ‘retro’, so it’s not actually dead; it’s just not what it once was. Which is an insightful response to what could have been a very painful question.
For artists like Michael, change brings with it challenges that can inspire as well as deflate. The reality is that these days, everyone is an artist, a journalist, a writer and a photographer. Everyone has access to the digital overload. And you don’t need to have any particular training to become a social commentator. Somewhere between the blogosphere and Instagram there are several billion people attempting to capture and display their ‘unique take’ on an already weary but content hungry planet. Photography is a perfect example of how more can be less. Whereas once a perfectly timed image would stun and amaze, these days nothing short of an actual video of the big bang makes the front page of the paper. So what, then , separates photographic brilliance from yet another happy snap of cells dividing, or self-emollient monks, or a tri colour sunset?
“It’s not”, Michael assures me, “technical perfection”. In fact he is not looking for that anyway. “The technically perfect photo of an apple would be the most boring picture on earth, I don’t think I’ll ever take the perfect photo technically, it has to have meaning”. And this is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
On a very rainy morning in Hong Kong, and yet another bright sunny day in Thailand, Mike and I sat and chatted for an hour via skype about what it means to him to be an artist working with a modern medium that is now so mainstream we have forgotten that it was once considered sorcery.
When he first started using digital images to express himself, his technique involved shooting on 35 mm film and then re-shooting the image with a 3MP ( then state of the art) camera and manipulating the pixilation to create what he calls ‘Pixel impressionism’. The results were stunning. Beautifully dissected colour blocks that attract then distract the eye.
Back then, digital photography was new and manipulation of the image was something only clever people and nerdy types knew about. These days, 3 year olds can use Instagram and will spend time choosing the filters and special effects they prefer before posting. This is not an exaggeration, I watched one do it.
Even mainstream advertisers now use photographs taken by the general public to advertise their products. Mike pointed out that the luxury brand Prada ran an advertising campaign where Instagram pictures taken by punters did all the heavy lifting that would once have been the domain of a professional photographer, an art director and a well-lit studio or set.
So how, then, does an artist’s heart beat above the riff-raff, and does it matter?
For Michael, who has lately concentrated on street photography, a lot what he calls ‘the hit-and-run approach’, the changes we see in the visual arts world are a microcosmic indicator of a new age. “People worry that self-driving car technology will kill the trucking industry”, he said “jobs are changing, but that doesn’t have to be bad. It’s just different. Art is very political. Art is Life. It has to have meaning, so whether it’s staged or natural, the photographic arts still play”.
Some of his favourite shots come from his time living in Singapore, where he would carefully stage a model in the middle of little India, and quickly snap away at the humanity. “For the most part”, he says “we were ignored, so I could get the shot and be gone before too much fuss was made”.
Not so when he took the same model into the Financial District where he was once surrounded by 6 silent police officers. No one said anything; it was just made clear that he wasn’t welcome. What does that mean? Is that when art becomes political?
When we point the camera at ourselves being ‘successful’ rather than ‘human’?
For those involved in the visual arts, it’s always been a balancing act. For Michael the payoff of his work is watching another human being standing in front of one of his photographs trying to interpret it. Trying to find the meaning. For him, it is the greatest compliment.
In the words of the father of photo-journalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, an artist Mike admires, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”.
To see more of michaels work head to http://www.fotoartasia.com