This week Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of photographer Martin Elkort.
How did you get started photography?
When I was around nine or ten my family was on a trip to visit Baltimore. We got caught in a huge flood and I managed to jump out of the car and take some photographs of cars submerged in the water. I encouraged my father to drive over to the local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, to show them the photographs. They ended up purchasing some of the photographs and publishing them in the paper the next day. To me, as a kid, that was pretty exciting, and ignited my interest in a possible career as a photographer.
Which photographers and other artists work do admire?
I like almost all professional photographers. The ones that inspire me are the ones that specialize in pictures of people. I admire landscape, but I am more attracted to good photographers of people who can capture people’s emotions and actions.
I can’t pick out one photographer because there are so many whose work I admire. I find nature and landscape inspiring but ultimately boring, whereas people are endlessly provoking emotion and reaction and are colorful and interesting.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you overtime?
Dorothea Lange’s photo of the migrant woman who has her hand near her mouth and two small children. It was taken during the depression. I like that photo because it shows her emotion, her angst and you immediately get a sense of who she is. Someone incidentally took a photo of the same woman forty years after the depression was over and compared them. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency the WPA and the FSA supported photographers who took those photographs. It’s an image that will endure and last through time.
Another is Arthur Rothstein’s photo of a man and young boy walking past a sod hut in a windstorm during the depression. It gives you an immediate sense of the dramatic scene.
A photograph that can involve you emotionally can be a successful and powerful photo, depending upon what it is. It involves you in a positive way emotionally. Some can involve you in an unpleasant way. I think one of the most important things a photographer needs is a sense of who he or she is and what they want in life, which can be abstract but it animates the way you see something. People can see the same thing and have different reactions to it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
If you could go out and shoot with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
What about his or her work would make them a great person to shoot with?
Weegee. Because he knew how to be at the right spot at the right time, and to wait for the right second to snap the shutter. He once walked around Manhattan, on an empty street. He took a photo. Three seconds later, a water main blew up and he snapped a photograph and got on the front pages of the paper. He just had an urge to take that photograph. Another photo I like of his is a building engulfed in flames and engines spraying water. On the side, the building has a billboard that says, ‘simply add water.”
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
I see the world the way most people see the world but occasionally I notice an armament of forms or a certain type of person and I think, “this would make a good photograph.” that is why I use to walk around all day with my camera around my neck, so I didn’t miss an opportunity.
I see the world as an acute observer and you begin to analyze what you see, almost every where you go. A scene or a person that looks interesting. If you have a camera, that propels you to take a photo, which is the heart of any good photographer.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images?
I hope they take the excitement and emotion I felt when I took the picture. If I can transmit that to the viewer, then I am successful as a photographer.
I have a feeling the subconscious mind works faster than the conscious mind. Sometimes you see a photograph before it happens and your mind tries to bring it to consciousness in your brain. That’s the excitement of doing the photography that I enjoy. Life is full of surprises and if you can capture one of those or a hint of it, you may have a good picture.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
“Parable of Life” is one I’m fond of, it is a picture showing a baby in a baby carriage and next to the carriage in the foreground, an old shoeshine man in the mid ground, and in distance a woman is walking away. On the side, is a block of ice waiting for the storekeeper to open the store and take the ice in. The ice is melting which shows the metaphor of time passing. That isn’t something that I thought of when taking the photograph but after, I thought it was a parable of life, which is how it got the title.
Let me explain what I mean when I say that sometimes the subconscious sees things before you do. As a photographer, you have to trust your instincts, or subconscious mind. The more you can let your instincts guide your camera over time, the better your photos will become. That’s why certain photographers tend to specialize in certain kinds of photos, because their subconscious minds tend to be activated by that type of photograph that they work with. You can do that with a camera. The whole thing is relaxing and not trying to ‘take pictures’ and just see what life presents to you but take the picture at the time that your instincts tell you the time is right. Or take several photos if you’re not sure.
Anything you would like to share with photographers that are just starting out?
It depends on what kind of photographer they are. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Just get in there and take the picture. Now a days with digital cameras, you can save a lot of money compared to using film. If you don’t like an image you just erase it and use the space over, which you can’t do with film cameras. Just wade in there.
Also, if they are taking photos of people, develop a “line of patter” that you can use, like a magician doing a trick. Try to get people to approve of what you do and like you on an instant basis and to acquiesce in taking their photo. You can do that with a nod and smile, or a few words to convey that you’re not here to harm them and you want to take a picture of them because they have an interesting face. You don’t have to say that to them, but learn to convey that. Or else, just use the stealth method which is taking the photo without the subject knowing your taking it. After you take the photo, then ask them if you can take one. Then they are in agreement but you’ve already captured the photo that you wanted initially.
Thank you Martin for your time and for sharing your work and your words, and a special thank you to Stefani Elkort Twyford.
To see more of Martin Elkort’s work please visit his site at, Martin Elkort.
To learn more about Dorothea Lange , Arthur Rothstein, and Weegee, please click on their individual names.