For the Love of Photography: Jeffrey Martz on the Amateur Spirit

Art historian and photographer Jeffrey Martz discusses his love of 19th-century pictorial photography and why he creates work through the spirit of play.

Of all the eras and styles in the medium’s history, art historian and photographer Jeffrey Martz is most drawn to the 19th-century amateur pictorial photographers such as Lewis Carroll, Clementina (Lady Hawarden), and Julia Margaret Cameron.

“An amateur photographer was a clearly-defined category of maker in the 19th century, someone who pursued photography seriously but not professionally. They weren’t in a studio trying to please a client, and because of this, they were free to make the best possible pictures in whatever style they wished. They did their work literally for the Latin root of the word—am—or love,” Jeffrey explained.

He earned his MFA in Photography at Utah State University in 1997, and he has been the photography teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School for the past 20 years. He regularly gives talks at The Image Flow and elsewhere in the community on the history of photography, from the daguerreotype to digital.

Point Reyes Jeffrey Martz

Point Reyes. Photo © Jeffrey Martz.

The images the pictorial photographers made in the 19th century were created using large format or plate view cameras. The negatives were made with a variety of techniques—calotype, collodion, gelatin silver—and often printed with fine materials—platinum, photogravure—to create images with an artistic softness, similar in appearance to etchings. The calotype, with its paper negative, is a particular favorite of Jeffrey’s:

“The combination of the real world, the textural effect of the paper, and the tonality of the calotype is intoxicating to me. It’s very, very beautiful. It’s not as straightforward as the simple glossy print, which came to dominate 20th-century photography,” he said.

Beauty is also at the heart of what he’s seeking in his own work.

“As a photographer working to create something special, the onus is on me to create something rare and worth my viewer’s attention; to create something that cuts through the glut,” he mused. “Otherwise why put anything on the wall?”

Jeffrey works in a wide variety of techniques, from pinhole photography to topographic photography to large-format black-and-white photography created with a view camera. Regardless of where or with what he’s shooting, he approaches his work with the spirit of play in mind.

“Spending most of my time with the history of photography, it’s easy to become burdened by the medium. When I’m out there with a 5×7 view camera I have Paul Strand on my back, Edward Weston, Eugene Atget, I have all these people that have come before. It’s like having a chorus of little devils sitting on my shoulder saying, ‘It’s not as good as ours.’”

Inverness Marsh Jeffrey Martz

Inverness Marsh. Photo © Jeffrey Martz.

His latest body of work, Faster but Slower, was born during a car trip through Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He initially made the images as an experiment with shutter speed and movement, exploring with his camera in a lighthearted way. He didn’t expect much from the images and didn’t look at them for a few weeks.

“I’ve always made my best strides as an artist photographer when I’m at play and not caring about the outcome. This body of work came from a decision to photograph a moving landscape in a counterintuitive way. When I finally looked through the images, I was floored. I immediately knew that the work was excellent and, like all the greatest moments of grace in my life, I just began to laugh,” he recalled.

The images, a combination of motion blur and moments of extreme sharpness, are something akin to a Post-Impressionist painting. Jeffrey went on to photograph some 20,000 more images over the next several months working to refine the technique.

“I’m extraordinarily excited the way I’m creating this work, but the failure rate is enormous. I’ve never failed as much as I have in the past year. For every 400 to 500 photographs I take, I will maybe have one that is successful.”

Jeffrey will show approximately 27 images from the portfolio in a new exhibition at The Image Flow opening February 17th. The color images will be printed poster-sized, up to 50 inches across.

Panning and blurring, either through motion or shallow depth of field, are often used to create pictorial photographs, but what’s interesting about Jeffrey’s work is that the streaks of motion created run in several different directions while other sections of the image are in sharp focus. This formal pictorial vocabulary challenges the viewer to suppose how the work was even created.

The Sun for Vincent Jeffrey Martz

The Sun for Vincent. Photo © Jeffrey Martz.

“This is work that other people need to see. Why? Because people haven’t seen this. That’s a heck of a thing to say in this day and age when we see thousands of images a week, but it’s true,” said Jeffrey. “I just think this work is extremely fresh. It’s not classic pictorial photography. These are unmanipulated images. There is no Instagram filter that is going to create an image like this. I didn’t simply drag a Photoshop brush through a pile of 1s and 0s. This is a unique document made with the basic language of the camera.”

Photography has been in a constant state of evolution from the moment Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre made his first images. Today, we don’t have to confine ourselves to the darkroom trying to perfect the high dynamic range photograph à la Ansel Adams; we can do it on our iPhone. Professional photographers make a living from it—and a sometimes a good one—but others, like Jeffrey, still recall those early pictorial photographers.

“I am absolutely an amateur, and I will be one for the rest of my life. I make photography out of the 19th-century spirit of love with a healthy dose of play. I’m only interested in the artistic impulse, the amateur spirit, and the joy of discovery with the medium.”

Jeffrey’s newly revised lecture series discussing the entire history of photography starts in January. His new show, Faster but Slower will open  February 17th at The Image Flow.

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