It speaks to one’s mastery of the instrument and technical prowess when one no longer has to comment on those aspects of an image. Superb technique is a given with Michael. His camera and know-how gets out of his way to produce poignant street stories with acute vision yet kindness for his subjects.”
These are the words of another great photographer named Zun Lee and for me its hard to come up with better words. Togs Series is proud to continue on its mission to bring forth amazing photographers. Without further ado, I present to you Michael Martin aka Lempkin.
Jorge Ledesma: Hello Michael. Let’s get started. I was immediately drawn to these images, its a very powerful testament of what street photography can portray and at the same time tell a story. Please tell me about these images.
Michael Martin: Hi Jorge, thank you for the opportunity to participate in the TOG Series.
Both photos were taken at the same location on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, bordering Chinatown. There was a fairly large response to a fire in an old building on a narrow side street, and I wound up in an area with a couple of press photographers, where I was actually walking around among the firefighters as they finished the operation. I don’t know if there were any casualties, but everyone seemed grim, possibly because it was just that kind of day; cool, gloomy and gray. I stood next to the trucks and talked to a couple of them, all the while taking pictures each time I spotted a dramatic facial expression or group scene. The patrolman checking his messages with a look of concern seemed to add another dimension to everything that was going on around him, almost as though he was in the middle of two emergencies rolled into one. It goes without saying that this is dangerous work, but you really don’t feel it and smell it, or get a full appreciation for what’s happening until you understand why their names are printed on their backs in luminescent yellow, or until you see a guy who just went up and down six smoke filled flights of stairs, wearing about sixty pounds of gear, sitting alone, catching his wind on the rear of a truck, possibly replaying the kind of mental images that most of us will never have to encounter in a routine day of work. I was lucky enough to get several up close portraits of these fellows that day. Most of them were very tolerant, and didn’t seem to mind the intrusion.
Jorge Ledesma: I just love these. Its great when one can encounter scenes that resonate and really tell a story.,The depths of these are truly outstanding. Michael, let me throw you a boomerang. You mentioned in a comment on Erik Kim’s awesome Street Photography blog in response to Josh White’s featured post:
Josh’s street work is excellent and consistent. He gets the same end result with any camera, and he has use a lot of them. He’s a thinker as well as a shooter, and that’s one of the things that I like about his work. His comment about using a manual camera is sound advice too. Kudos, Josh!
When I read that interview and came upon your comment, I felt like I had just drank a jolt of expresso and my eyes were wide open. Sage advice indeed. Michael, I’d loved to know a bit more on your philosophy of shooting as a thinker and also how the use of a manual camera, or perhaps these days, a fixed focal length can help photographers, old and new alike gain a new perspective to their work.
Michael Martin: Jorge, had I known that this comment would be analyzed one day, I might have given it, well… more thought 🙂 Certainly, I wasn’t implying that any deep thought process is required before pushing the shutter release. If that were true most of us would go home without photos on a regular basis. But I do think that a photographer should have a clear sense of purpose, a mission I suppose, when hitting the street, otherwise you’re just roaming about absently, relying on happenstance and luck, and the photos you take will tend to look random, as though you’re just shooting at anything that comes into focus. That approach can sometimes reward you with an image that generates some interest, most of the time it does not. I’ve read that the process for taking any picture involves seeing, thinking, and acting.
I think the mechanical and technical aspects of shooting should require the least amount of thought when you’re on the street because by then you should know your equipment well enough to operate it second nature. But your purpose for being out there in the first place, what it is that you want to convey through your photos, what you want others to see through your eyes, is something that deserves some thought beforehand, in my opinion.
As for going manual, I think one of the benefits that can be realized by a digital shooter is that it slows you down a bit, forces you to understand the correlation between aperture, ISO (or ASA if you’re shooting film), and shutter speed, which can lead to a better knowledge of proper exposure. You’re also more likely to consider composition and framing before hitting the shutter release. Then again, I’m not a big fan of absolutes. I still think the end result is more important than how you arrived there. My first few cameras were 35mm film cameras (there was no digital back then), but these days I just find digital more convenient. So, maybe I really don’t want to do that much thinking after all 🙂
Jorge Ledesma: Ah the internet these days Michael, everything is public lol and I certainly agree, hitting the streets with out a purpose can lead to many frustrating frames, I know I’ve certainly been there. I’m not sure if its a rite of passage but I tend to think it is. As we mature into this craft and the inevitability of knowing our gear with blind eyes, we tend to slow down and apply some grey matter to those outings. In the end, what counts is the image. Michael, making a quick a cross over to recent photograph:
Jorge Ledesma: You’re most certainly right Michael, the mood was perfect and I think this one image really does tell the story. So many emotions all wrapped up in a single frame. Michael, your love of public event, rallies, and or even parades as you mentioned above is a common thread in your stream. I think its fair to say you love Photojournalism and its quite apparent. What you would say to about just pure street photography, frames that not necessarily tell a a complete story but leave the viewer to construct their own story like in the following great picture.
Like your other frames, I believe these also project a certain depth to what you’re trying to communicate to the viewer which is not only subtle but yet powerful, and at the same time thought provoking and in its own right, does tell a story. Whether its scope is as wide as those from from parades, perhaps, its debatable, but nonetheless, they sure are great moments in time. Talk to me about these fractions of a second in which you capture these scenes.
Michael Martin: Quite honestly, I don’t always get that fraction of a second. I suspect that no one does, at least not consistently. You see a situation somewhere up ahead and try to anticipate a movement, a gesture, or an interaction. Then it’s a matter of timing. The woman in this picture had just watched several cabs coast by her outstretched arm as though she was invisible, or perhaps just an anonymous shadow, as she appears here. I could see that she was growing frustrated, and it was one of the few times that I actually stood around and waited for something to happen. I was lucky enough to catch her silhouette just as she rushed to grab the door handle of the cab. And then she was gone. I’m intrigued by situations where people appear to have some sense of valediction within the frame. They’re passing through, or moving off into the distance, vanishing into a cloud of smoke, or into the dark night, something that suggests that we won’t see this person again. Often they only appear that way for a fraction of a second. Which is why it’s important to photograph them right now.
Jorge Ledesma: Indeed, the elusive fraction of a second sometimes comes and go and often time it goes unnoticed to the untrained eye but that’s obviously not your case. Michael, they say New York city is the mecca of Street Photography. Your stream is a very visual representation of just how diverse NYC is. Its got many themes across many faces. A particular theme anyone can pickup in your stream is your love, I can dare it call it love because it feels that way to me, is your love toward parades in NYC. I’d love to know what feelings drives you to records such wonderful and often colorful scene filled with enchanting imagery.
Making a brief parenthesis, if I may I have a confession. I have a thing for beautiful women with black colored hair and I must say I was immediately smitten when I noticed these images in your stream.
Again another example of catching the moment, please tell me about her, she’s lovely. She’s got a certain ” je ne sais quoi ” which makes her incredibly magnetic and her energy just flows like river – who is she?
Michael Martin: We are fortunate that New York City is one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet, and as a result, particularly in the warm weather months, there are parades and cultural festivals just about every weekend, and in every borough. The atmosphere before and during these events is always filled with anticipation and energy for both participants and spectators. This usually provides great opportunities for photographs. The faces often glow with emotion and pride, and the performances can be anywhere from formal to sensual. My favorites parades are the ones that feature folkloric dancers in traditional outfits performing their routines at street level, as opposed to floats. Many of these dances and routines are physically demanding. The parade routes can be a mile long or more, and it’s not uncommon to see grandma and grandpa out there energetically dancing their way down that mile with the younger ones, and on the hottest days of the year. I’ve taken photos at more than a hundred parades in the last few years, and in this respect, I don’t think anyone beats the Bolivians.
Not to knock any of the other ethnic parades, but the Bolivians really are quite good at this. But honestly, I don’t know what drives met to record these events other than the excitement and the sheer fun of it. Ironically, I’ve discovered that the best time to get photos of the participants is not always during the parade, but often in the staging areas as they prepare to move into the main procession.
The young woman in the two photos is one of the people who does recreational skate dancing at the dance circle in Central Park. It’s a well-organized but informal group that gets together each weekend to roller skate and disco dance against a backdrop of house music played by fully equipped DJs. I don’t know this young lady, and I haven’t seen her there in a while, however I don’t visit the circle as often as I did in the past. But, I hate to disappoint you, Jorge. The last time I saw her, if my memory is accurate, if I’m thinking of the right person, she had dyed her hair blond. In those photos, I believe she was simply feeling the rhythm.
Jorge Ledesma: She certainly was, that image had that pizzaz and its well in my mind. The “excitement and the sheer fun of it” is certainly a great catalyst of photography thanks for sharing that you’re Flickr stream is filled with these great parades and often times I wondered what drove you to these photographic themes. We have similar ones down here in Miami and I should one of these days. They’re not quite as glamorous as the NYC but I’m sure they’ll be fun nonetheless.
Michael, let’s talk about a popular question – gear. What’s in your gear bag these days?
Michael Martin: Generally, I try to go as lightweight as possible. Camera with a lens attached, extra battery and memory card, lens cloth, pen brush, and hand sanitizer. I also keep a plastic trash bag in there. It has saved the day several times when rain wasn’t in the forecast. I use to carry a ton of stuff, extra lenses, a flash, etc., but I found that I never used them, and in total it made the bag as heavy as a bowling ball.
Jorge Ledesma: Sage advice, I’ve found something similar to work out fine for myself as well with a few different camera bags for different occasions.
Michael, you’ve photographed a very diverse set of subjects, what’s missing though, where would you like to photograph and where do you see you photography in let us say, 10 years from today ?
Michael Martin: What’s missing? A lot, I suppose. I really don’t have a game plan at this point, and even if I did, I doubt that I would adhere to it. I’ve spent a long time obeying the rules and behaving predictably. I’m trying to break free of the bondage. Right now, I’m just having fun with it. As far as locations go, I like the rhythm and vibe of cities, so any city that has a large and diverse population will interest me. I’m not sure where my photography will be ten years from today. At my age, ten years puts me into another stage of life. I could have an entirely different set of priorities by then. Hopefully, where photography is concerned, I will continue to learn and become better at it.
Jorge Ledesma: Michael, thank you taking part in this series, its truly been my pleasure You’ve open up in a way which sometimes is difficult but through your insightful responses I believe your message is loud and clear. Thank you once again Michael and I hope to meet you one day when I visit New York, it would be my pleasure shooting alongside you. Michael, if you had to give a lecture to young photographers what would be the most important lesson you’d want to transmit to them. Gracias Michael.
Michael Martin: Thank you, Jorge. I doubt that I’m qualified to lecture anyone, wouldn’t even want to, but I do believe that the most important thing in any creative endeavor is to discover your passion, to find out what it is that’s burning inside of you to the point where it can no longer be contained. Once you have identified it you should approach it in your own unique way. Fiction writers call this developing your own voice. It takes time and practice, but if done effectively your work becomes distinct and immediately recognizable as yours, as opposed to an imitation of someone else’s. Take the opinions of others for what they’re worth, both good and bad. Don’t let it go to your head; don’t let it destroy you either. Remember that opinionated people who communicate authoritatively and convincingly, particularly in online forums, aren’t necessarily right, and often misrepresent themselves as “experts,” when in reality they know no more than the rest of us. Keep an open mind and keep learning. Thanks again, Jorge. This was fun!
Well after 5 months Michael and I completed this interview and I must say I had an awesome time. Michael Martin is an amazing street photographer with an uncanny eye for situations and moments in where many consider the capital of Street Photography — New York City. I am truly humbled to have him as part of this Togs Series. Below are two Flickr galleries of Michael’s work with the Nikon D700 and another one with the Sony Nex-5. Michael’s work can be seen via his Flickr stream located here and also his portfolio over at michaelmartinimages.com.