In Pat Martin’s sun-drenched world, we are never strangers

The California photographer takes us beneath the golden washes of West Coast sun, toward a deeper study of the American family

In the early 20th century a small and bubbling revolution occurred in the world of camera technology. The introduction of the single-lens reflex (SLR) system, permitted, for the first time, the photographer to see what he or she might be photographing while photographing. Hitherto, imagemakers ruled with clunky large format cameras affixed to even larger (and clunkier) tripods. But the integration of a small mirror into the SLR system paved the way for more precise photographing.

Los Angeles-based portrait photographer Pat Martin uses an SLR camera to photograph his subjects. Foregoing digital systems for film, Martin is part of a growing wave of young documentary photographers reviving a naturalistic aesthetic. Methods aside, Martin’s portraits contain a radical tension: deep lush reds and inviting gold tones—hues owing much to the Los Angeles native’s sun-drenched sensibility—wash over contemplative and private moments. For Martin, photography is an exploration of the world around him, but speaking to him, one realizes that Martin’s photographic process is largely a vehicle of self-exploration. 

Centered and still, Pat’s subjects often occupy the center of the photographic frame. They feel heavy, pulling the lower edge of the frame towards us with an extraordinary gravity and incisive gaze. And there is no escaping their gaze. His subjects equally cannot escape our gaze. And because Pat’s subject matter is so deeply personal—in one photograph he captures his late recovering mother, in another his estranged shirtless father—we occupy the awkward role of voyeur in the deeply personal. 

But the universality of Martin’s photographs are such that, in our viewing, we are never really strangers. 

With his photographs, Martin is running from puzzlement. Sometimes he is running into it—using the lens to probe what is going on around him (as well as what is going on inside of him). His photographs interrogate the complexity of the family dynamic. And thus, his process also raises greater, infinite and vexing questions about the quality and complexity of American life itself. We, as viewers, occupy the periphery of the frame, ghosting in and out. Are we, too, running from something, or towards it? Sometimes, to find ourselves, we have to get lost in the frame.

I almost forgot to mention: another funny thing about the introduction of the SLR camera! Upon releasing the shutter, at hundredths (and sometimes thousandths) of a second, the mirror releases upwards to expose the film. Thus, a ripe metaphor: to expose the photograph, the photographer—for an elusive and imperceptible moment—must look directly into the mirror.

Alex Hodor-Lee: Hi, Pat. Are you from Los Angeles?

Pat Martin: Born and raised.

Alex: I’m jealous. How does Los Angeles influence your photography?

Pat: Being born and raised here—I’m bored of it. It’s easy in its familiarity, but it’s difficult to keep it interesting. I feel like that’s something I’m learning more of in the game of photography. I’ve been doing it since early high school; at least just documenting and having a camera in my hand. At the point I’m at now—still living in Los Angeles—this is going to be lifelong. But how do you do the same kind of loop over and over again? I started in a studio and I hated everything being fixed, and always having to go off a blank canvas. It just grew boring. I guess the word that keeps rotating is ‘boring.’

Alex: How’d you get started, you know, photographing?

Pat: My brother opened up all the doors. He started working at Smashbox [Studios] when I was in elementary school. He babysat me when I was 11 and he brought me to the studio. I met the owner, who was a photographer, and I started interning for him, pretty much as a little pet: bringing him coffee and touching up the studio space. I was exposed to celebrity fashion and advertising pretty quickly. When I started high school and properly started interning at the studio and being a photo assistant, I was seeing the height of certain people’s careers and having this mold that I could look at. Pull any name and I can understand how this person’s career panned out, or if they became a director, or if they gave up, or if they started when they were fifty.

Alex: Is having awareness of career trajectory, but no explicit photographer to look towards, a gift or a curse?

Pat: It’s definitely a gift and a curse. The gift is that I have an awareness—a bird’s eye view. I can see what it can look like in a sense, and that terrifies me. I’ve seen so many photographers become jaded, and when I say the word ‘bored,’ that boredom to me is the wrestle. William Eggleston is a king in photography. I feel like looking at his work really taught me to explore boredom, in a way. I was working for Hedi Slimane in 2011 when he was photographing regularly. That’s a photographer that has a career unlike anyone else, because he basically picked it up after he was already a successful [fashion designer]. I’m still day-to-day trying to figure out: “How do I make this mine? How do I do this my own way?” 

Alex: Do you have those rituals that keep you creative and afresh?

Pat: I’d like to say that I do. That I have rituals while working. It’s not set in stone, it’s just—I have boundaries that I create within. Checklists. Things like that.

Alex: What’s on the checklist? [laughs]

Pat: My girlfriend is a family therapist and she’s been helping a lot of children find some comfort in the new normal. She told me: ‘you should try and have more fun with it, you should treat every photo shoot like it is it’s own experience.’ These are things that are the basic understanding of what we should be doing within our practices. 

Alex: Interesting.

Pat: I’ve been going into every shoot with the idea of making one portrait that I want. Generally speaking, that’s just that straightforward, relaxed kind of start portrait. [Richard] Avedon was the portrait photographer I looked to a lot. That ‘stillness.’ It’s the same thing with August Sander and Irving Penn. You can take a straightforward portrait, we all know what that is. It’s very documented. It’s almost scientific in a way. Past that, you’re in a moment, and if you have any assignment given, it only takes one click to get that frame. I’ve been doing this standard setup with a beige background. My mom had a lot of beige backgrounds in family photographs. Beige backgrounds, I think that’s just one little spread I can start throwing around.

Alex: Your family portraits are so incisive. Photographing your family seems to be your starting point. A blueprint. Is it easy photographing your family?

Pat: I appreciate you saying all that. It all started with the simplicity of wanting to take my mom’s portrait. It began when I saw Larry Sultan’s photographs at LACMA, and it shook me in this positive and negative way. The negative I didn’t understand at first. I saw these pictures, they were of his parents who were old. I didn’t know my dad. I was also worried my Mom wouldn’t grow old. So this just kept stretching in my mind, and my mom got sick one day, and that’s what woke me up. She won’t be in my life forever. I’m not sure how long after it was that I started going over [to her house] regularly. I can barely remember what the first actual frame I took was. One day I just brought over my Pentax and took a photo, and it’s just like I’m at home, in my brother’s backyard, with my mom, my nephews, and it was with the same sort of method: starting with just this single thing you wanna go in for, and then it stretches. 

Pat Martin’s mother. Photographed in Los Angeles.

Alex: Is it easier or more difficult to photograph someone you know versus, say, a stranger?

Pat: That’s interesting. It’s easier to photograph someone you know because you think it’s easier. But it’s not. Often, [because the subject knows you] they don’t take it as seriously and it’s a totally different wrestle.

Alex: I ask because I once heard Gregory Halpern, who is really one of the great working American photographers, said he struggled to take a good portrait of his wife—that he can’t photograph people if he knows them too well.

Pat: I completely agree. Gregory Halpern is one of my favorite photographers. The point of this whole thing is, photographing my mom, some pictures I took in the beginning just weren’t it for me. I didn’t know why I wasn’t feeling anything toward them, or what was my beef, but I knew that I needed to stage them. I think the beauty in photography is whatever we do that day, it’s archived. So, three years later I can go back to that same archive and reflect differently on that day. With my mom, what I personally find interesting is when I look at my first selects they were much darker than my own perspective. I can see my own eye point of view: I was distorting my mom, putting her out of focus, I was hiding her face. My first three years, if I chose one picture form each year, I couldn’t see my mom. A year before my mom died I learned she was bipolar. I learned she’d still been using. That means my mom was lying to my brother and I while she was taking care of my nephews. It was this whole new struggle with pain, but also understanding and forgiveness. I was truly seeing my mom through a new lens.  

Alex: Do you find that the process of photographing brings about clarity, or, more puzzlement? Are you running towards something or away from something? Clarifying or problematizing the world in front of you?

Pat: It’s absolutely both. Three months ago, I was asked to pull out some family pictures for someone and it was the first time since pre-quarantine that I opened this back up in a focused way. So I had to open my archives, the in-betweens, and reflect. That was really hard. In the beginning it brings puzzlement. But I grew extremely focused and found more clarity. I feel like that’s exactly how therapy works. You start diving into thoughts and it’s very painful. So [progress is] all through the unpacking and puzzling things together. I love that word too, ‘puzzle.’ Because I’m constantly puzzling things back together, even in photoshop. I feel like that’s another game in photography that we play. Piecing images together: ‘how much do I wanna remember? How much of this is relevant?’

Pat Martin’s father. Photographed in Los Angeles.

Alex: Tell me about the photograph of your father.

Pat: Before this day, my father and I hadn’t spoken for ten years. Even after my mother passed I didn’t hear from him. In May, just after my mom’s birthday passed, I came to the realization that I don’t think I’ll ever speak to him again. And having a picture of him in my mind, or the idea of wanting to take his picture, has kept frightening me in a way, or the idea of it is haunting to me. It was a hard couple of weeks of puzzlement, of feeling so uncomfortable knowing that he was existing in the world, and that he hadn’t called me, but then jumping into: ‘I can control this, I can take this into my own hands,;’ and I reached out and he wanted to see me, and he was happy to hear from me, and it was a beautiful day. I drove out to see him. When we started shooting he was just goofing around. He was smiling, he had beers in his hand, he’s with his kids, his three daughters. It’s totally the opposite of what I imagined would happen. But that’s why I love the wrestle I guess. It hurts me, maybe it’s a masochistic thing, but I was the only one that could fix this. And I didn’t want to feel haunted by this anymore. I wanted to take a portrait of him that I liked. I wanted to have a day with him I liked, and [have] something that gives me curiosity. I still stare at this and reflect.