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Michael Marten

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Michael Marten

Born in London, Michael Marten started taking photographs as a teenager and has been involved with photography ever since. In 1979 he started Science Photo Library, a picture agency specialising in science and medicine, and has co-authored several books of scientific imagery. In 2003 he started a new career as a landscape photographer, with a focus on exploring natural change in the world around us. His series, Sea Change, compared identical views at high and low tide around the coast of Britain.


Michael Marten talked to me on the phone last week and we had a very pleasant chat that ranged from German romantic painting to victorian missionaries. We did get to cover photography at some point starting with Marten’s background as a half German, half British forces child. His educational career took him into the realms of religion and history and a graduation present of a Pentax SLR served him well when he moved to Iona shortly after.

He fully intended to shoot reportage style pictures but when he got to the island, the lure of the wilds were too much to resist and he ended up taking pictures of the beaches and interior, using cheap print film (he had to have some money left to invest in the whisky community) and suffering for the week turnaround before the pictures came back. Like many film photographers, he kept notes of each photograph to describe settings, light, etc - learning from each mistake.

He now lectures at Stirling university on religion, history and the politics of the middle east although his doctoral thesis was on the cultural impact of Scottish missionaries on Palestine - this led to conversations about Caspar Friedrich and the way that European society changed its view of landscape at the start of the 19th Century. Marten also talked about his interest in how painters spend days researching pictures compared with modern photographers, and how he’s interested in capturing pictures without content, pictures of nothing but with structure. Being close to Portobello in Edinburgh helps access to beaches, a great source of nothingness.

He learned his craft whilst working in a gift shop on Iona and became a little tired of the thousands of postcards they sold. When a Martin Guppy of Mull, who was himself just starting out, offered to make some postcards for the shop, Michael got to ‘spec’ the shots. Learning the processes and what was possible and what didn’t work was good learning and a great inspiration.

Since working in the university, he has found a strange parallel between acting detective in the search of a coherent story from the chaos of the archives and trying to take pictures, drawing order from the chaos of nature.

He now owns a couple of film cameras, his favourite being a Nikon FM2 plus a 28mm and 50mm lens; he also owns a Nikon D90 which he uses for some professional photography commissions and landscapes with 10-24, 18-200, 35 and 50mm lenses. He even buys the occasional KwikSnap Fuji cameras (producing some embarrassingly good results!). Most of the film that goes through the FM2 is now Velvia with some Ilford FP4 Plus.

Finally, inspiration comes from many sources (most listed on his website but stand outs being David Stanley, Tony Mamic and Bruce Percy).

A big thank you for this interview and you can see more of Michael Marten's work at http://www.marten.org.uk/

  • Charlie Packard

    A friendly interview and he’s a Professor…but did you remember to…wait for it!…ask him which boots he wears?
    Sorry, but the question has to be asked :)

    • michaelmarten

      Charlie, of course, the answer to that is: yes, I do! But you’ll be disappointed to hear that I’m not married to an academic or a medic, so we’re not ‘a pair of Doc Martens’!! Just thought I’d clarify that right away ;)

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  • kevin-allan

    Nice to hear of someone else occasionally using Fuji Disposable cameras – I thought I was the only one ! I wouldn’t claim that they compare with medium or large format but they are surprisingly good for family photos and you needn’t worry about taking them on a beach trip.

    • michaelmarten

      I also like the Fuji cameras because they reduce everything down to the most basic possible level: composition, balance and so on. All things I need to practice, and using these disposables means I don’t worry about settings since there are none to worry about!

  • Joe Cornish

    Michael, I am beginning to wonder if Caspar David Friedrich is the patron saint, I mean, painter, of landscape photographers; he comes up again and again in conversations I have with colleagues. The work seems to strike such a chord, whether it is the atmosphere of elegaic longing, or simply the use of moody light, or perhaps that his most famous painting, Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, seems to anticipate landscape photography. When I did a quick Google image search for the latter, over 650 separate reproductions (attached to articles and blogs) of it appeared.

    • michaelmarten

      Joe, the strange thing is I’ve always felt he’s hardly been known in Britain, whereas in Germany during December, virtually every bookshop selling calendars will have at least one if not more CDF one in their selection – he’s part of the wider social consciousness in a way that he has never quite managed to be here. There was an exhibition of his paintings in Edinburgh in 1990, I think – but that’s a long time ago now! It would be quite something if his work became more well known through landscape photographers!

      I was in someone’s house recently and saw a large painting by John Thomson (died in mid-19th century) of a scene in the Lakes (I think it was). In form and structure and intent this seemed to build on CPD and lead on to landscape photography. Tracing some of these lineages would be a very interesting project (my academic hat on there…!).

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