Pat Martin: Family

  • Photography   Pat Martin
  • Words  Max Barnett
Documenting our lived experience is something inherently difficult and sometimes painful to navigate as a photographer. Few of us delve into the depths of our family history with ease; this was also the case for US-based photographer Pat Martin, who documented the final few months of his mother’s life, alongside his nephews, brother, and chosen family. We discussed time-based limitations and how they propelled this project forward, relying on instincts, and the ‘American’ colour palette. See below a selection from Pat Martin’s series ‘The Family’.

Tell us more about your background and how you got into photography?

Born and raised in Los Angels. My brother Drew first opened the door to photography. He gave me my first camera, helped me with my first internships, and inspired me to make this a career.

I started interning at Smashbox Studios my freshman year of high school. From there, I started assisting portrait photographers until I began diving into my own personal work a few years ago. Growing up pictures weren’t important, cameras were rarely around, but I remember once I got my first camera, documenting was a way of making friends and connecting with people. I still feel that’s all it is at it’s simplest form.

What inspires your process?

Fishing, or what I think fishing is like. I’ve only actually gone fishing once. When I’m overthinking and unsure what to photograph, I’ll wait for the right light, then rush out with an idea to capture something. Sometimes without an idea at all, and I’ll walk down a street until something or someone catches my eye. Then I’ll ask to take their portrait. I like the challenge and the mild awkwardness. There’s no absolutes, but I always hope to find something to write home about. It’s almost like an easter-egg hunt.

The pictures of your family have so much life in them, the colours, the energy, have you always had a close relationship with them?

Not always close, but photographing them brought us a lot closer. A few years ago, I realized my family album ends at my 3rd birthday and every page after is blank. Around the same time, there was a health scare with my mother, and it was clear we wouldn’t have much time left together. I decided I needed to start documenting, and without a fully set idea, I began taking her portrait and the series grew and snowballed.

Was photographing your family so frequently challenging for you?

Definitely challenging. There’s been numerous moments where members of my family don’t want their pictures taken, and at times have to ask myself why I am taking these pictures. Like looking into a mirror and not always wanting to see what’s seen. I’d question often if having a camera around was too intrusive. Eventually, I had a gut feeling to continue, and at other times, the same feeling would tell me to put the camera away.

It’s great to see different generations captured, do you feel you have learnt more about the difficulties brought forth for each generation by working closely with varying age groups? Have you learnt things that help you to appreciate/understand their distinguishable outlook on/approach to life?

Absolutely. Photographing my family has taught me a great deal about empathy and how we deal with loneliness. I feel everyone is faced with it and we have to be creative with how to cope when lonely. I think this series in a way was myself fighting my own, and everyone I’d photograph in their own way was fighting it too. Every generation just wants to enjoy uninterrupted time and laugh when possible. I find that with almost everyone.

Also, I didn’t grow up with grandparents, so when I met my partner Sarah’s, I gravitated towards them like they were my own. Hanging out with them taught me you can keep ageing, but you can stay whatever age you want to be in your mind. 97-year-old Jeffries still feels 25.

It’s hard to explain what an American colour palette looks like, but it feels clear to me that this series is shot in the US, despite seeing not much surrounding details outside of the portraiture. What do you think is so attractive about American documentary photography to the wider world?

That’s a good question. As an American, I’m curious what others have to say.

The sun in Los angels is a character though. When I travel, I don’t find myself squinting as much as I do when at home. It’s strong, hot, impossible to ignore. At times, you can spend only a few minutes in direct light, before you have to run back inside for relief. That all definitely plays a role both in the energy, color, and contrast of the images.

Explain the process of entering the Taylor Wessing Prize?

This year was my first time entering. I had always wanted to include my portraits in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, and especially at the National Portrait Gallery. But I hesitated to submit in the previous years.

Before my mother passed away last January, I had a dream for her to see herself framed. I was always waiting for the portraits to feel final in some way. She didn’t get to see that realised, but I knew regardless she’d want me to continue. When submissions opened, I went ahead, then anxiously waited to hear back for the next couple of months.

I remember waking up to the email that I had been shortlisted. Overwhelmed at first but the positive feelings turned a little bittersweet. Knowing the portraits were accepted but I couldn’t tell my mother took a bit of time to sink in. Eventually though, I remembered how proud she would have been, and I tried to keep that in mind the whole way. Seeing them in person in London felt like seeing them for the first time again.

What do you plan to do next?

In the next few months, I’m hoping to go back to London again to visit the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize before it ends. I’d love to see them in the National Portrait Gallery one last time.

But for the future, I’m planning to make a book and box of prints with my family album. Possibly with some of my childhood images. I’m also planning to do the same with the portraits of my mother, then would love to exhibit both, but have no set plans for when exactly.

You can see Pat Martin’s work on show at the National Portrait Gallery, until 16th February 2020.

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