Dan Martensen brings a new beauty to decay, desolation, dust and tumbleweed in his new book of works, Photographs from the American Southwest.
Click images to enlarge.
Route 66 is a well-travelled trail for the Kerouakian adventurer but none have done it in quite the same style as Mr Martensen. Presenting a confusion between abandonment and freedom, sixty images over 112 pages showcase the best of ten years worth of driving through the endless deserted landscapes of a desolate America. Where once there were people there are now only empty pools, washed-out pink-washed walls and a picture of the vacant remains. Photographs from the American Southwest provides the city slickers with a tempting view of the never-ending horizon through the glass of their high-rise skyscrapers.
What was it like growing up in New York? New York is New York. I don’t know… how many movies, books, and songs have been written about this place? It’s the capital of the world in a lot of people’s eyes and all my life it has felt like the center of the universe, even now that the world has gotten so small with the internet. Somehow this city was more like one big playground when I was a kid. I grew up just about 30 min north, but still from the time I was old enough to get on a train I was spending as much time in the city as I could. You could do anything here. Originally I’d go down and skate with my friends, sometimes I’d sneak out of my house and go out all night to parties or just to hang out in the village. By the time I got into photography I was so into the energy of the place, I mean where else could you possibly want to go take pictures? I still have a collection of photos taken of homeless people from 1993-1997 or so… I’d give them a quarter and they’d let me take their portrait. New York is or at least was the most interesting and exciting place on earth. Things have gotten a bit more clean and gentrified over the years, making other cities and towns a lot more interesting to go check out, but New York will always be my home.
Who is the most beautiful person you’ve photographed? Shit, good question. I’m stuck between Erin Wasson, Elisa Sednaoui and Tao Okamoto… Who needs a retoucher with these girls in front of your camera? Tao especially, I remember on set once looking at the pictures closely trying to figure out if she had even one blemish on her skin. Not one. Not to mention she’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.
A lot of the photographs from the book are quite eerie, there were obviously people there once, but they’re not there anymore. How did those places feel? Standing in some of these places, with the desert wind blowing and the smell of the dry air, some places get under your skin like nothing I can describe with photographs or words. The vastness, the heat of the sun, the light… all of these things contribute to the bigger picture. But looking at some of the scenes knowing there were people there, knowing there must be stories behind these discarded things, mattresses, homes, shops and restaurants. I wish the photos did the feeling justice, eerie is definitely accurate, but what’s in the frame is only a fraction of the story. It’s the eeriness of these unknown stories that really make me excited about shooting in a place like the southwest. I love that feeling.
What inspired you to travel America? I guess a combination of pure curiosity, a sort of existential maybe “Kerouakian” dream of spending time on the road, wishing I could take even one or two photos that could hold up next to a Robert Frank or a William Eggleston. I think everyone who’s ever visited America dreams about driving cross country at some point.
What were you looking for when you went travelling? That’s the thing, I wasn’t. Not at first anyway. At first I just really wanted to feel like I was seeing the “real” America. Not the postcards, but the other images. The way we remember life. The real stuff is not the picturesque, it’s the mundane that is the fabric of any given place. So I looked for that I guess… The places I went and the things I found along the way really found me as much as I found them. After a while and after going on a few roadtrips and getting my film back, I began to see what kind of photographs stuck out among the rest. And eventually I would start looking for more images like these.
What were some of your favourite places? Specifically to do with the book West Texas takes the cake. It’s nothing specific, it’s vast and open and dry, but there’s something magical about it. You can drive for hours without seeing a thing, then all of a sudden comes Alpine and Marfa Texas full of artists and old hippies and galleries, amazing restaurants and little shops. Then nothing again for hours on west.
How did you decide which images to include in your book? That took forever. There were so many ways to go with the edit, and I had emotional ties to some images that really had less to do with the overall body of work than others. At first I had asked Ryan McGinley how he edited, because I know how much film he shoots when he goes out, I mean thousands of rolls of film. He said he bought a laser printer and just printed everything up. So I did that, and bought 3 million thumb tacks and in my studio I was tacking hundreds upon hundreds of photos up on the walls and on corkboard panels. This kind of helped the process, but then I’d change my mind so much it was easier to do on a computer than have to get on a ladder to swap an image out. Eventually I narrowed it down to about 150 images and did actual prints. I spent over a month about 1-2 hours per day shifting things around and when I brought my edit down to about 100 I started working with my friends Magnus and Tenzin who designed the book. They’ve always been great supporters and have a good eye for photography.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? Damn! I have a laundry list. Well, I’ve never been to Japan. I think I’d say that Japan is at the very top of a long list of places I’d like to go. I have a lot of Japanese friends and the food is probably my favorite of all, I think I’d fall in love with the place.
Anything crazy happen on set with Gitoo and his crew for the Just Kids Issue?!
Surprisingly not. Those guys are the best, they’re just real and fun. Not too many groups of friends out there have so much love in them I felt really welcome and had a great day hangin with them. I want to take more pictures of those guys soon. BROOKLYN!