Portuguese born photographer Edgar Martins approaches his work with the scrutiny of a forensic scientist. He investigates and then searches for deeper more profound meaning in the images and the ideas behind those images. Esoteric, existential and philosophical visual wanderings in turn require ‘us’ to do more than merely ‘look’. Indeed, in his images Edgar Martins wants us to question photography and understand its limitations.
Talk to us about a young Edgar Martins. What impact did family have on you and your love of images?
My family always gave me the space and freedom to make all the mistakes I was supposed to make. As a teenager I took full advantage of this and followed my own path in life. I’m not sure, they had a direct impact on my interest in photography, other than supporting my decision to pursue it as a career. Macau was always a very insular place and contemporary art wasn’t very present in our everyday lives.
Can you recall a moment, time, person who had an impact on you and helped forge a passion for photography?
Funny enough, no. I recall the teachers at school who helped me become passionate about Philosophy. I also recall the person who introduced me to authors like; Pessoa, Vitorino Nemésio, António Ramos Rosa, Alfred Jarry, Kerouac, Burroughs and Beckett. However, I cannot really say there was someone who introduced me to photography. My decision to pursue photography was somewhat unexpected and wholly ‘self-inflicted’. Saying this, my choice was cemented with a person who would turn out to be one of my best friends. He was at the time, a prominent photojournalist in South Africa. I hadn’t met him when I chose to study photography, but knew of his work through a good friend.
In 1996 you went to the UK to study photography. What was the catalyst for actively pursuing photography?
My first passion was the written word as I was studying Literature and Philosophy in Macau in the late 90s. At the age of 18 I wrote and self-published a book of poetry and essays. It was structured as a bio-poetic novel, organised in 3 distinct chapters: poetry, poetic prose and philosophical essays. I’m still fond of the title: Mãe, Deixa-Me Fazer O Pino (Mum, Let Me Do The Handstand). This book was very much inspired on beat poetry and on the existentialist de-ambulations of Fernando Pessoa. I realised when I finished it that so much of my writing was incredibly visual. This prompted my exploration of visual arts and study photography further.
I’ve always had a particularly recalcitrant relationship with photography.
When you started what were your wishes when pursuing photography?
I’ve always had a particularly recalcitrant relationship with photography. When I started I was excited by photography’s ability to document the world in excess detail. It’s technicality and its documentary potential captured me. Paradoxically, what motivates me now are its failings. I’m interested in figuring out what it means for the medium when it’s no longer a mnemonic or recording keeping device, a gateway to the sublime. I’m interested in seeking answers to questions. What is left when photography is no longer a shutter based art of time or a lens based art of space? How do we, as visual practitioners, address the politics of visibility in an era that privileges transparency yet is sceptical of fact? I think some of these ideas bear great significance for contemporary photographic practices and for the documentary forms.
“The meaning of a photograph is flexible, figurative and best understood as operating within a system of changing tropes – metaphor and irony being the most familiar to us.” We saw this written regarding your latest project. Big question but what does photography mean to you?
I think the most honest answer I can give you is that I’m not fully sure. Perhaps this is why it has a hold it on me. It’s a medium I am forever trying to make sense of. The photographic image is a singularly inadequate means of communicating complex thought. The photograph, by default, can only point at something. As David Campany argues, it cannot tell us why and what is missing, only that it’s missing. My work accepts this and that’s why it resorts to a wide gamut of meta-representation strategies.
Love that idea of photography leaving ‘us’ with something missing.
I have always seen photography as a kind of sophism, a coherent and apparently irrefutable discourse, which is but an illusion at its core. In the famous classic tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Zeuxis paints grapes that are so realistic that they attract birds. Parrhasius then invites him to remove the curtain around his masterpiece. When Zeuxis tries to do so, he discovers that the curtain itself is a painting. Birds peck at something they cannot eat, just as we are captivated by images that promise far more than they deliver. This allegory refers to the deceptive nature of representation.
Your subjects are often profound, intellectual and slightly esoteric. What drives your choices?
Anyone who knows my work will be aware that it’s largely rooted in landscape and topographic representation, where there is evidence of a link to the cinematic, the pictorial and the sculptural. In technical and conceptual terms, I have always tried to articulate analogue and digital devices as a way to highlight the conceptual and paradoxical possibilities of the photographic medium, as something that moves between various registers: the factual and the fictional, the concrete and the metaphorical.
But like any creative your interests must be in a state of flux?
For many years there was a predominance of themes in my work around technology, architecture, landscape and the notion of place. In the last decade, in particular, in my artistic practice I have increasingly rooted my work in what I call “hard-to-access environments”. I am interested in the techniques of artistic expression in these collaborations and in the dialogue they provoke. My quest to understand these sorts of spaces has led to unique and ground-breaking collaborations with organisations such as: The European Airport Administration Authority, EDP Energias de Portugal, The UK Metropolitan Police and BMW.
Can you elaborate a bit more?
Many of these institutions are heterogeneous spaces. Places where there is an overlapping, convergence and blurring of meanings, functions, and temporalities. These characteristics allowed me to adopt both descriptive and speculative approaches. I documented the scientific and / or historical value of the spaces and objects I came across, whilst simultaneously deconstructing and exploring their cultural, ideological, political and social resonances.
And ‘deconstruct’ within photography what does that mean?
Derrida defines deconstruction as something that captures the dual movement of Heidegger’s concept of Abbau-a mode of construction, which is also a form of deconstruction. This involves the disaggregation, separation, breaking up of something, in a manner that respects the logic of its own architectural framework and thus exposes the internal tensions that define or justify and vex it. I don’t believe that it’s a matter of exploring the narrative potential of Photography, but precisely its elusive and fleeting character – its incapacity to anchor meaning.
Space and elements of emptiness seem to feature heavily in your images. Can you discuss the role of space in the images you create?
Over the years, my work has dealt with urban/technological environments, geographical categories and liminal spaces. In this context, my earlier work was driven by one main focus: revealing and interrogating the ways in which space is appropriated and transformed. I want to salvage some evidence of the events, dilemmas and reverberations wrought by our actions on the world we live in.
What intrigues you about science and how do you bring that alive in your work?
I’ve always been acutely aware of the reverberation of concepts like the cosmos/infinity/the unknown on our cultural and social consciousness. Subjects such as cosmology, physics, have been a recurring theme in my work, not least in the titles of my projects. These are topics that constantly throw me (us) into the antinomies of perception and existence. Pushing us towards the exploration of boundaries and unstable geometries and realities. In the project Black Holes and Other Inconsistencies, I used cosmological phenomena (the black hole in the landscape) to deal with the metastisation of the urban frontier and its impact on our understanding of the de-centred city. This body of work was structured around a simple premise: If we are no longer able to grasp what a city is, how are we to related to it?
The Accidental Theorist is visually otherworldly. How did you create that world?
In The Accidental Theorist I shot a set of beaches on the Lisbon coastline in a way that made them resemble lunar landscapes. This project is all about temporal experience. All that typifies the beach holiday experience is missing and there is an overwhelming sense of the melancholic and theatrical.
In Dwarf Exoplanets & Other Sophisms we are faced with an illusionary experience. What at first glance look like planets are in fact a myriad of oxidized metal plates. I had picked these up during a trip to a gas storage plant in the UK. I later enlarged them using a high-resolution medical scanner.
So you encompass many techniques to achieve that creative image?
Yes, and in fact in the piece, In The Inequalities in the Motion of the Stars I bypassed the camera all together. I relied on a process that became a sort of simulacrum/substitute for the photographic/photometric process. Over a period of 10 months I placed several 4×5 pieces of sticky paper all over my studio to collect dust and other such things. The action of the particles of dust as they fell on this surface reminded me of the way in which particles of light interact with and imprint on the emulsion of the photographic film, slowly registering an image over a period of time. These last two projects I mentioned exemplify the spectrum of possibilities awakened in my images. As work that uses fact and fiction to establish a necessarily contradictory domain between the presence of a representation and the illusion of recognition.
Your latest project won Sony World Photography. How important is it to receive acknowledgement for your work?
Like it or not these sort of accolades and awards bring the work of the artist to the consciousness of the wider public. In this sense it is advantageous to win awards. As to receiving acknowledgement for one’s work, given that so much of what we do is a one-way dialogue with a potential audience, I think it’s important to get some feedback once in a while. Whether it be positive feedback or constructive criticism. How else does one’s work mature, how else can we challenge ourselves and do better?
Talk about the inspiration behind this project more.
Complex political, human and social issues are rarely conceptualized outside the canonical photo-documentary. So I set out to produce a project that reflected on the gaps in understanding, information and representation. I wanted to look at the deeply rooted anxieties around ethics and aesthetics that inevitably arise when documentary photography and questions of visibility intersect.
The work was produced following research carried out at the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences (INMLCF), in Portugal. Over a period of three years I shadowed autopsies and crime-scene investigations and was able to handle and a wide variety of forensic evidence (mostly historical). I knew from the outset I wasn’t interested in photographing dead bodies or graphic images of death. What I was interested in, however, was communicating the anxiety I felt about handling and representing this sort of material. That’s why the work focuses on a language of subtraction, rather than addition, obfuscation rather than revelation.
We know that death is the absence of life, but defining death as the ‘irreversible cessation of organismic functioning’ isn’t quite precise.
In the West death is not always discussed?
Death has become alien to us (certainly in Western societies). It’s no longer an integral part of our consciousness. We keep it at arm’s length until such time it creeps into our lives and slaps us in the face. A hundred years ago people used to die in their homes. Now we all die in hospitals and hospices. We fear death, not because we love life but because we don’t give much thought to it.
I truly believe mediums such as photography have played a big role in our increasingly uncomfortable relationship with death. The medium’s inability to deal with these sort of issues beyond the glorification of the gory or the bizarre leads to serious omissions with profound consequences.
What type of omissions are you referring to?
How families deal with bereavement is often seldom depicted. On the other hand, and paradoxically, by constantly sensationalising death, photography becomes a kind of apotropaic device, desperately trying to manage difficult experiences, numb shock, appease the consciences of viewers. Above and beyond this there is a broader issue, brought on by science itself and advancements in medicine: even the very concept of death, these days, is problematic. We know that death is the absence of life, but defining death as the ‘irreversible cessation of organismic functioning’ isn’t quite precise. With the invention of mechanical respirators in the 1950’s, it became possible for a previously lethal extent of brain damage to coexist with continued cardiopulmonary functioning, sustaining the functioning of other organs. My question is: how do we relate, understand and discuss death if we’re not even able to define it?
The Poetic Impossibility To Manage The Infinite developed with the European Space Agency in 2014. Space and photography, is there a natural synergy in a way?
The paths of photography and space exploration have been inexorably intertwined for more than half century now. Both have well established roots in each other causes. Color photography was created by Scottish physicists doing experiments in electromagnetism. Even the birth of digital photography (or at least the timing of the birth) could be attributed to the Apollo space program. On the other hand, the incredible advancements in Space Exploration owe a great deal to advancements in optics. Furthermore, the marriage of photography and space exploration have a track record in mobilizing people. One only has to think about the renowned Earth Rise picture taken during the Apollo missions. This one image was responsible for inspiring a whole generation of people, namely the Green movement.