José Antonio Martínez: Taking Photographs From Festivals To Morgues

José Antonio Martínez graduated cum laude as an industrial designer from the Universidad Iberoamericana but has had a long career in photography. Martinez’s work is part of the collections of the Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle; of the Library of the University of Texas, Austin, United States, as well as The Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center in Oaxaca. The interview was conducted by Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe.

Q: What was the path that led you to become a professional photographer? Do you think your studies have influenced in some way your visual search?

A: I’ve photographed since I was 9 years old. A friend of my parents gave me as a first communion gift a Kodak box camera, and I still have it. When I was in college, I learned the tricks of the trade; a photography course was part of the design school curricula. I had an internship in a design office and was in charge of the graphic design section. In that time all the work was made analog, no computers, so I learned a lot of prepress photo-mechanics, and spent some time in darkrooms. After a few years I incorporated in the family business in a managing position, so I left the design and photography for a while. 30 years ago, I moved to a new house and decided to build a darkroom and go back to photography, which I did part time for 10 years. One day I decided to quit to the family business, to let someone else take care of the business duties and go full time in photography.

My college education allowed me to know what photography is, at least about how to take an image and how to develop and print it. In a more careful thought on this matter, I realize that the main objective of the design school at that time was to stimulate the imagination following some composition rules, my teachers were followers of the Swiss structuralism. I have the feeling that the structuralism has influenced my photography a lot. Sometimes I want to break this condition in my photos, to compose more loosely, or not compose at all, but I go back without noticing it, simply, I frame in a square way, old habits die hard.

Q: Let’s go talking about your photography. How would you describe your style and approach you have with your subjects?

A: My style, if I have one, is sort of a conceptual-documentary. One of my recent projects is a series of photos of the odometer of my car representing the pass of time, my personal pass of time, as the kilometers increases, and I constructed a book with the images I made during the illness of my brother. You can see some examples in my web site.

About my approach to the subjects in my photos, I try to involve more than observe. At the beginning of my photographic work I was obsessed with techniques; I was a devotee of the zone system. One day I realized that in my photos were no people, no specific subject matter, only a good composition and a good craftsmanship. I discovered that I was afraid to take photos of people; I was shy approaching someone and making an image of him or her. Then I decided to overcome my fear and turn people my subject matter and went to Mary Ellen Mark, someone who I respect on this issue, for help. I knew that she was giving a workshop in Oaxaca City and enrolled in it. The title of the workshop was “the world observed”. She helped me a lot; she taught me how to take a picture in total control of the situation without losing your feelings involved.

Q: Mexico is an amazing country, and for a photographer it is even more. Do you think you would have been different as a photographer born in another country?

It’s hard to me imagine how I could be if I wasn’t Mexican. There is no doubt that my photography is part product of been born and lived in Mexico, I live in a fascinating country, not only for the land, the culture, the history and the people, it’s also a territory of great photographers. That fact makes the practice of photography something natural and, at the same time, more competitive. Anyway, I think that it couldn’t be any other way for me, my family is originally from Spain, and I have two granduncles that were photographers in the mountains of Cantabria, maybe it’s in my blood.

Q: Looking at your portfolio, the theme of death often recurs. Does this theme represent or inspire your visual search?

A: Death is a recurrent theme of my work, as pass of time is too. I can say that they are one subject matter. Death is an event, not a state, and the evidence of this event is the remains, the corpses. Instinctively we turn out our sight from anything that reminds us the end of our own life.

When I decided to get more involved with people in order to be a better photographer I went to some slaughterhouses to overcome my fears and surpass my comfort zone taking pictures. Going further in this exercise I ended up one day in a morgue in front of a dead body to photograph it, to take control, to make the photo while I feel the moment, the situation. I learned in these experiences that you can find aesthetic values out of the debris.

Q: How do you get the idea for a photographic project? Do you plan a project or does it happen spontaneously?

A: All of my personal projects come out of some search but also intuitively. Photographing people takes me to the street, to festivals, to slaughterhouses, to the morgue. Another source of projects is the interest in learning some technique, some process; I got involved in “scanographies” learning how to produce images directly in a computer using a flatbed scanner. I have no specific routine, things tend to be intuitive, a drill or an exercise give a body of work; learning some technique takes me to a new place to make images. What I make in an orderly path is the edition of images and the printing process.

Q: Among all your projects is there a favourite? Can you explain why?

A: I’m not sure I have a favorite project, I like to think that all my work is a whole project. If I have to segment and pick a preference, I’ll go for funerals and festivals. It’s always a challenge to me photograph people in special situations. I think I haven’t overcome my fear of robbing the soul of living things.

Q: Photography for you is…

A: Photography is to me a passion, an important part of my daily life. Can sound common place, but it is my way of expression, the way I use to truly communicate my inner being. I need to create, to produce, and find in photography how to do so. Sometimes it is sort of occupational therapy, allows me to find peace of mind.

Q: Has anyone influenced your work?

A: The most important influence in my work are the Norther Renaissance painters, Albrecth Durer, Hans Holbein the young, among others. Talking of photographers, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Avedon, Josef Koudelka.

Q: Describe a typical day in the life of Josè Antonio Martinez Gomez.

A: There is no typical day because I also design books and help in the work of the gallery that represents me and where I have a partnership, Patricia Conde Galeria. It could be random; if I’m in the field, when is the right time, gather the gear and go to the event until the light allows it if the thing is in natural light, or I have enough shoots for the day, or I start feeling that I’m repeating myself; I come back when the event happens again. If I’m in the studio I start clearing some routinely office work, if I have rolls to develop I do it and batch scan the negatives when they are ready to do it, once I have the contact sheets I edit it marking the images I think have a possibility, when I finish the contact editing process and still have time, I print work prints; when I have decided which deserve a fine print I reserve a whole day to do it, I start scanning the negative in high resolution and work it in Photoshop as if I was silver printing in the darkroom, selecting the overall contrast and the fine tuning the local contrast, dodging, burning, etc. and when I’m pleased with the results I inkjet print it. I make silver prints of the ones I like most. I dedicate another day when I have one. If I have an exposition of my work I dedicate full time to prepare it enough time in advance to the show. As I’m writing these lines I figure out that it’s random, indeed.

Q: Why Leica? And what equipment you use most?

A: It took me a while to have a Leica, I used to say that “Leica people are boring people”, because my friends that own a Leica spend a lot of time talking about the grandeur of the gear. At the same time that the price was an issue, I was convinced that my Nikon F3 and a 28mm f 1:2.8 did a great job. One day a friend of mine decided to sell his Leica IIIg, one of the last made before the M era, and I bought it. At the beginning I had a lot of trouble loading the film, but as I was using it, I saw the difference in sharpness and how fast and precise I could focus. So in a trip to Houston, where I found better prices for photo gear, I acquire a M6 body and a 35mm f 1:1.4 lens. Two years later I bought a M7 and one year after a MP.

I’m now a boring Leica guy. Leica equipment is what I use all the time to shoot in the field; the MP is the one I rely on more. One thing I like the most is the range finder focus, at my age I cannot trust my eyes so the mechanical way to focus is really important. And to not bore you I won’t talk about the rest of the goodies.

Q: Are there some personal photography projects you are currently working?

A: I’m still working in regular things; there are projects that never end. What calls for my attention in this moment is not related with Leica photography, I’m learning how to make wet collodion images. I’m making “author books”, codex’s, inkjet printing on rag paper to bound it in traditional hard bounding in limited series, on subjects out of my projects, the morgue, the funerals, the scanned dead birds.

Thank you for your time, José!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of José’s work, visit his website.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.