Interview with Film Photographer Johnny Martyr

Johnny Martyr self-portrait

This week’s interview is with professional film photographer Johnny Martyr. A graduate of film school, Martyr’s love for the frozen frame has developed over time into an everyday way of life. He has worked with numerous cameras, both digital and film as well an antique film cameras as well.

Me: How did you get started in film? What made you want to be a film photographer?

Johnny:I used to want to be a writer.  I was interested in autobiographical work, short stories, poetry and non-fiction.  Essentially, I was interested in short, poignant, true, yet artful stories.  I went to film school to learn to make movies of my writing and became very enthusiastic for digital video and editing in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when there was a tidal wave of non-fiction Television the Dogma 95 movement and millions of untrained people using the internet to share digital media. I found video to be an exciting way to document ordinary life and make personal and compelling stories out of it.  But I was never satisfied with the inherent qualities of video.  As I began working on sets with audio and staged lighting with big crews that were necessary to make video look decent, I felt like I was alienated from the

Stephanie Gross, Martyr’s love.

roots of my inspiration.  Art couldn’t be spontaneous and solitary, it got filtered and diffused, original motives lost.  Photography 101 was required for my major and the digital video version of me attended class reluctantly until I got some good images back from my Pentax K1000 with a 50mm lens.  I loved the feel and style of the camera.  I loved how rich and organic the images it made could be.  I found that I could take my K1000 with my anywhere and shoot anything that moved me, at the precise moment it moved me.  I found the challenge of trying to balance all my technical, aesthetic and ideological objectives in each frame to be exhilarating.  I had come full circle; short, poignant, true, yet artful stories, in the form of little rectangles burned into emulsion.

Dead baby doll, only one of Martyr’s extensive set on decay and the creepy decrepit.

Me: Why do you LOVE film? What makes it stand out to you as an art medium?

Johnny: I’m not sure how to answer this because it seems so obvious!  The grain, the latitude, the feel, the history.  The accidents that turn out beautifully and take you on entirely new tangents that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.  I think that most everyone loves the LOOK of various types of film, I don’t know anyone who looks at quality film photos and says, “yuck!”  It’s just that most of those people don’t want to put the money and effort into using it or they find they can get reasonably similar results digitally so they don’t need the extra work.  A lot of folks enjoy film so much that they even try to fake generic film looks digitally and I think this is just silly and offensive to both mediums as well as to the audience.  Like everyone else, I enjoy the economy, instant preview and the ease and control of an all digital workflow that are involved

More urban decay. Here a light leak is also featured. Light leaks are created when the camera’s seals are not all the way shut and a bit of light comes in during shooting. Martyr is known to incorporate them into his compositions.

with shooting with a digital camera.  And like everyone else, I’m constantly blown away by the annual advances in the technology.  However, I feel that for my work and what I’m striving for personally, film, specifically 35mm, not only looks amazing but its more deliberate, meditative and somewhat more social workflow guide my artistic sensibilities and decisions in a way that I find motivational to my total statement as an artist.

A big reason that I love film is also the cameras themselves.  Chrome, leather, knobs, dials, and levers that all fit comfortably in the hand.  They all have the same basic ideas and functions at their core and yet there are millions of nuanced iterations to accommodate millions of nuanced tastes and purposes.  A good camera design can inspire me to take photos even when nothing in front of the lens is inspiring but more than doubles my inspiration when there is!

Me: Given that you love the physical design and feel of a film camera, what kind do you use often?

Weddings are Martyr’s claim to career in film. Blending art with journalism, Martyr accurately and artfully depicts the most memorable day in many people’s lives.

Johnny:I own around 40-50 working cameras at any given time, and I try to use them all too!  I enjoy learning about and using many different types of cameras but over time, all this experimenting has lead me to two main cameras.  Those are my black 1980’s Nikon FM2n and black chrome 1999 Leica M6 TTL .85.  I have only owned each of these for a couple years but they are the end result of just over a decade of figuring out what cameras work best for my style and philosophies.  I’ve gone through, and still love, many 35mm, 120, digital and other cameras but I do the lions share of my paid and personal work on the FM2n and M6 TTL.  These cameras are just so simple and graceful; no automatic anything, yet their accurate, responsive built-in light meters and intuitive ergonomics allow me to operate these fully manual/mechanical cameras rapidly and reflexively.  I don’t have to waste time choosing various shooting modes or studying the light meter or settings while missing a moment or distracting people with the camera’s presence.  And I get the satisfaction of adjusting everything myself, knowing that I can take 100% responsibility for each image rather than allowing some on-board computer to

A portrait of a young woman. Portraits in film are Martyr’s specialty.

make decisions for me.  The FM2n and M6 TTL are very compact for full frame, professional quality cameras and do not call attention to themselves, making candid work effortless.  Another key feature about the FM2n and M6 TTL that I love is their bright viewfinders and light meter displays that allow me to shoot effortlessly in exceptionally dark conditions such as in bars, at concerts and by street light.  Then there are the lenses, both bodies accept a massive array of stellar lenses that can be either decades old (back to the 1930’s with Leica) or brand new and range in cost from $50 to $10,000.  So there’s something for every pretty much every shooter and every situation.  These cameras don’t use lenses that will be obsolete tomorrow; they can take on historical character simply by mounting some vintage glass or put out clinical, razor sharp modern images with newer optics.  My work is all about timelessness and the Nikon FM2n and Leica M6 TTL embody this too.

Me: It’s not always easy making a business out of something that you love. How did you transform your hobby and passion into a career?

A wedding shot with Nikon FE 135mm 2.8 and AI Kodak Gold 200

Johnny:By chance, I sort of fell into shooting weddings in college and have continued to do so since.  I enjoy the fast paced nature of it; weddings are a unique balance of predictable routine and total chaos and you never know which part you’re about to enter and have to navigate!  I’d always worked for other companies previously but last year, my girlfriend Stephanie and I started shooting weddings together.  With her concentration on posed digital portraits, I am free to shoot candids on 35mm with available light only throughout the event, right into the late night.  Shooting receptions at 6400 ISO with my aperture wide open and shutter dragging a little is my favourite part of the event.  Good shots are a combination of chance and careful concentration.  With virtually no advertising, we’ve booked a solid number of gigs so far and things are growing.  A couple clients have hired us specifically because they wanted a film photographer but most hire us simply because they’ve seen and enjoyed Stephanie’s and my different but complimentary styles.  People often tell me that they’re not “brave enough” to shoot a wedding all on film.  I don’t really understand this because it was only about 5 or 6 years ago when weddings started to be shot all digitally.  Film really defined what wedding photography was and still is.  Ironically, advances in film technology in the last several years have lead to lower grain and higher dynamic ranges than ever before.  So to me, with the smaller market, now’s a great time to shoot paid work on 35mm and set yourself apart from the crowd.  I actually find that shooting film for long, fast-paced events like wedding shoots is easier for me than digital.  I personally have more trouble shooting digitally because focus and exposure need to be more exacting just to look good and I find myself preoccupied with checking the preview to be sure I’m getting things down correctly.  Keeping the batteries charged and cards organized but well-cared-for gets on my nerves.  With film, I really never have to worry about power because the bodies consume so little electricity.  I burn roll by roll and throw it in a specific compartment of my bag then forget about it.  I mostly only use professional grade print films with many stops of latitude and this covers for most any exposure errors I may make as well as provides rich, tonal images when I get things dead on!  I don’t have to worry about the massive contrast between the groom’s black clothes and the brides white clothes.  I don’t get clipped whites and still have thick, detailed shadows without any special attention to exposure or editing.  Once I take a shot, it’s onto the next.  I am don’t have the

Polaroid of Martyr and love Stephanie

opportunity to mull over the last shot and am not expected to share photos with clients.  I just have to trust myself, my camera and my film and keep moving forward.  I like the momentum and discipline of this.  The cameras and lenses that I use are all vintage but have been professionally serviced and can handle the rigors of being thrown in bags and cast on the ground with no caps while metal strap clips and collisions with other gear scratch and ding their brass bodies.  I tend to shoot in the rain too, with no worries.  And during the next to last wedding we shot, an intoxicated dancer fell into a table of champagne that I was hunched down behind, spilling sticky alcohol all over my FM2n and 50mm lens.  I wiped off the lens and kept going.  Our fees pay for my film, processing and gear-related purchases/servicing.  So shooting weddings is a fun way to keep myself busy with photographic projects while paying for the expenses of doing these and my personal photos on film.  I love providing people with truly timeless images of one of the most important days of their lives.  I feel like something this invaluable NEEDS to be shot on as fitting and lasting a medium as high quality film.

Check out more of Martyr’s work at his personal website and his Flickr!

5 thoughts on “Interview with Film Photographer Johnny Martyr

  1. Pingback: » MCOM 341: More tips for better blogging » Blog Archive

  2. JM is the reason I shoot film, having nudged me to think about photography on a different level and challenging what I was doing digitally way back in the myspace heyday! His suggestion that I pick up a Pentax K1000 and learn about film has truly changed my life. That camera and film made are the reason I’m totally addicted to shooting film. He remains one of my favorite photographers still, his color work is fantastic and his pushing of films to 6400 for low light candids is something I would love to see in a gallery someday.

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