Portraits - A Survey 1979-1987 | Dunedin Public Art Gallery 1988
Pose and Contrapose
The title Adrienne Martyn gave her first exhibition at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1982 was 'Surfaces'. The images were black and white studies of architectural details photographed under a strong raking light which brought life to the texture of stucco walls. They were geometrically composed and almost abstract.
In this, her second exhibition at the gallery, the thirty- three survey portraits demonstrate that while she continues to be concerned with textures and surfaces, this time those of a person’s physical appearance, her art consists in her successful communication of the complex emotional and psychological realities lying behind those outward appearances. The world of Martyn’s portraits is the interior world; a world which can be at odds with the outside one.
The images she presents appear to be harmonious and still, but in them her subjects front up large, looking the audience straight in the eye. The photographs are candid, they describe their subjects’ singularity in unrelenting detail, they show them with impassive expressions. For all that they communicate discord, variance and difference. The portraits show their subjects’ likenesses, but they also reveal things that belie those appearances. The result is a troubling ambivalence.
Personality has so many faces that it cannot be characterised as a single stereotype or self-image. People wear many different masks, at least as many as the roles they play. The roles are determined by their relationships with other people and with the world. The portraits show us glimpses of all these things, and in doing so make manifest a number of human personalities successfully communicating something of their bewildering complexity.
The thirty-three survey portraits represent a relatively small proportion of Martyn’s output over the last eight years. They have been selected to present, more or less chronologically, a tendency to recur to a few persisting themes. That is because Martyn works by constantly reappraising and reviewing her images. A fresh image may remind her of an earlier one and she will return to it — reassess it. For instance, the portrait of 'Tara' (cat. no. 5) expresses entrapment. The image of 'Denese Henare (Lawyer)' (cat. no. 29) is a later exploration of the same concern, but it reaches a different conclusion.
Another example of this reworking is the image 'Mother and Child' which prefaces the survey. Although the decision to include it in the show represented a breakthrough in the selection process, it wasn’t made until the exhibition was almost entirely chosen. Seeing it was like discovering a missing link because it is a dynamic and graphic picture of a child struggling to express its independence. It is a particular instance of how we achieve the freedom to be something else by pushing at the boundaries that define us. The work is thus a graphic talisman for the whole show which aims to survey how in her photographs Martyn successfully portrays the multiple roles of which her subjects’ personality is comprised.
In a taped interview with Annette Facer, Adrienne Martyn said: “I’m totally fascinated and intrigued by what people do to themselves and each other and what they become.”1 It is the thesis of this exhibition that the ways in which people define themselves, and how those are variously expressed and perceived, is the process around which Martyn constructs her fictional world. For instance, the portrait entitled 'Married Woman' (cat. no. 7) looks at how people become what they are in relation to others. Standing in front of a closed Venetian blind, an immaculately costumed woman with an elaborate hairstyle poses, hand on hip, a large engagement ring displayed prominently on her finger. Her lips are slightly parted. She appears to be sensual, seductive, glamorous and inviting. But her eyes say otherwise. They are blank and unfocused as if they are avoiding the camera. Visible at the top right of the picture is the hanging cord which opens and shuts the blind. That the photographer has made so much of this detail indicates her intended question — dressed to kill, this woman is waiting for the curtain to go up. But on what? And for whom? The title lends a clue, for there is no husband present. It is a portrait of momentary doubt. The woman seems to ask: "Is this really me?’’
There seems no such doubt in the portrait entitled 'Laurie' (cat. no. 3). Made in 1979, it too is a glamorous seductive image showing a man with intense black eyes who is reclining, like one of Matisse’s odalisques, on a richly brocaded chaise- longue. His expression is inviting, just the shadow of a smile playing on his lips. If he appears to be seducing us, then Martyn is seducing us. She directs the light to describe his soft skin and the folds in his clothing. The picture’s sensuality derives from a combination of the way it describes these surfaces and the subject's compliant pose. Because his overall is so white and contrasts so strikingly with the darker background, the man appears right at the forefront of the image and the shallow depth of the room projects him towards the viewer. The combined effect is startling. It is like a male version of Manet’s Olympia, although the subject here is clothed. Despite his being placed in a feminine position, the portrait remains distinctly that of a man: a man who is only slightly uncomfortable in his role, as we can see by the guarded way he protects his body with his right arm.
By presenting this image of a male declaring his sexual availability which is achieved by means of a visual pun — he is put in the traditional pose of an odalisque — Martyn comments on a pictorial convention at the same time as she gives unconventional expression to her subject’s sexual identity.
The portrait of 'Jenny Black' (cat. no. 2) was made over a year later and can be seen as a bolder statement on the same theme. The conventional portrayal of women is as “passive, available, possessable, powerless’2 But Martyn isn’t having any of that. Her image is of a determined and assertive woman, and its meaning is conveyed by the gradual building up of layers of contrasts. The image conveys the strength of the subject because of compositional tension seen, for instance, in the diagonal set of her shoulder — by the dramatic use of tonal contrasts, such as the way in which her pale face is framed by the dark hair — and psychologically because her unflinching expression stares the viewer down. But the image signals countervailing things too. The pale face implies softness — the shape of the mouth, for example, is full and alluring and positioned so that it is at eye level to the viewer. Its message is at odds with the eyes. All these things contribute to the greatest cause for disturbance, which is that despite initial appearance it is a portrait of a woman, not a man. This ambivalence is deliberate and results from the photographer’s choosing to ignore, in fact to exploit, the social conventions about what are characteristically male and female appearances. The subject looks tough, wears what looks like a denim jacket and most strikingly has a light moustache. Women are not expected to look tough or strong, let alone to have facial hair. Martyn has made this image carefully and deliberately to celebrate the assertion by women of their freedom from such restricting bounds of social convention.
The portraits discussed so far are all of friends of the photographer, or people Martyn pursued because something about them interested her. By contrast, the portrait of 'Tara' (cat. no. 5) resulted from a commission by the child’s mother. It is a picture of a little girl sitting with her legs tucked under her on a large sofa in a room in her home. The composition is one of Balthusian calm, order and stillness. It is a picture in which “things are, they do not happen”.3 Balthus was a keen theatre-goer, and so is Martyn. It is by the kind of careful composition we see here that she sets the stage for drama in the fictional world of her photographs. This photograph of 'Tara', made in 1980, includes more background than many of her other ones. She establishes scale; the sofa on which the girl sits seems enormous; the room itself is large and the ceiling seems far above the little girl. The fall of the curtains and the way they frame the wall space behind her head add a vertical element necessary to balance the strong horizontal of the sofa. The setting is opulent; the drapes fall heavily, the sofa is covered with brocade, the wallpaper has an embossed surface. This feeling of richness is also conveyed by the little girl’s appearance. Her long soft hair falls in luxuriant curls and the draped folds of her gown shine with the gloss of satin. The white lace detail on the yoke gives an impression of affluence as deliberately intended as that made by portraits of lace-ruffed Elizabethan gentry. The little girl’s formal pose adds to this effect. It is almost regal and befitted Velasquez’s young Prince Baltasar Carlos in the seventeenth century rather more than a New Zealand four-year-old in 1980. And, unlike Prince Baltasar, this princess’s expression is not one of noble vision, countenance and command. It is instead tentative. The little girl’s eyes are uncertain. The portrait is one of a good little girl trying hard to please. She is in the process of learning the lesson that to conform is to win approval. And she is not yet of an age to ask “but is it really me?”
The portrait of 'Joanna 1981' (cat. no. 9) uses a similar composition and reflects on a similar theme of people confined by the role they have learned to play, but in this instance wittingly the photographer implies.
The subject this time is a woman, also sitting on a sofa, with her arms by her side, the palms down, her fingers seeming to pluck at the stuff of which the sofa is made. There is the same attention to texture and detail and the materials here are older, softer, more careworn. The woman wears a tight-bound wedding ring. There are shadows everywhere; behind her head, behind the cushions and in the recesses of the couch. It is the portrait of a friend photographed in her home, and at the same time more generally it is a portrait of a woman in her domestic environment. The uneasy way the hands are positioned and the resigned expression combine to suggest that the slump of the woman’s body is the posture of someone who is tired and weary rather than relaxed and at ease. But the photographer observes the knowingness of her expression and causes the viewer to ask: “Is that really her?”
'Tina Frantzen' (cat. no. 12) by contrast raises no such question. A commissioned portrait made in 1985, it was shot in the studio and offers no background information. That she is a tall woman is successfully conveyed by the low viewpoint of the camera. The overall impression is of a straightforward personality comfortably at home with herself. The subject of 'Nicholas (13 yrs)' (cat. no. 15), which was also made in 1985, makes a similarly straightforward affirmation of identity.
The two portraits of Elvis fans are from a series Martyn presented as a photo-essay for Metro magazine in 1986. 4. Unlike the previous portraits, they contain a lot of detail about their subjects’ surroundings. Cat. no. 19, 'Laurie (Elvis Fan)', portrays a man decidedly at odds with his environment. He is sitting in a defensive huddle on the floor, cigarette in hand, beside a television set on which an Elvis video is playing. Apart from the video and the Elvis plate on top of the television set, there is no other Elvis memorabilia in sight. All the other objects in the room appear to belong to someone else. That he is seated on the floor and so clearly ill at ease suggests that the reason for his devotion to Elvis is to create a world in which to belong. It is a portrait of a man almost crushed by his environment.
The three portraits of lawyers, on the other hand, present a picture of people who are in control of their environment and who, moreover, are in a position of considerable influence over other people.
In 1986 Martyn was commissioned by the Wellington law firm, Buddie Findlay, to produce a portfolio of images on the theme of 'A Portrait of Law'. It was presented as an exhibition in 1987. For her submission, Martyn looked at the practitioners of law as individuals in professional environments. The results are images of poise and authority. In those photographs the few signs that there are of personal roles as opposed to the professional ones are subordinated to the necessity of maintaining the professional mask.
In reference to Martyn's work, Bridie Lonie has described the relationship between photographer and subject as “an open one in which the protagonists are equal; the subject in the strength of his character; the photographer in showing that character”.5 Martyn describes waiting behind the camera for her subjects to “settle down”; to overcome self-consciousness and forget about the pose. When they assume the passive expression which she describes as “going inside themselves” she starts pressing the shutter.6 Some chit-chat goes on while this takes place, but by such deliberate watching and waiting she effectively distances her emotional response to the individual and sees instead a framed image through which she can assert her own sensibility. The individuals so portrayed retain their singularity, but at the same time become representative of “the things that a particular person portrays”, which the photographer has stated it is her objective to reveal.7 In the case of the double portraits, the things thus portrayed are the ambiguities of role in contemporary relationships. We see that there are questions for the people in the relationship — how to balance dependence and independence, for example. And we see that there are questions about how that relationship is revealed to and perceived by others. All these things are presented by the photographer for the viewer’s consideration.
Martyn noticed the couple who are the subjects of 'Marie and Diane' (cat. no. 6) enjoying themselves dancing at a nightclub. She invited them to be photographed in her studio and asked them to wear the same clothes for the appointment. They accepted. The resulting portrait shows them very much as they would like to be seen. They are dressed in a sixties style, all flashed up for a Friday night out. It is a role they obviously enjoy. Martyn draws attention to the things they have in common — ankle chains, bracelets, necklaces. She shows their differences — the woman in the striped dress looks older and more relaxed than the woman in the black lace dress — all of which raises the question, what is their relationship? Are they close friends at the office? Are they lovers? Are they sisters? The photographer communicates their accustomed closeness; that they are similar but different; then she draws a veil of ambivalence across the questions she has raised.
The couple pictured in 'Amanda and Scott' (cat. no.14) are girlfriend and boyfriend. There are striking differences between them — for instance, in their height — but each wears an expression of weary melancholy. Is that what each has become in the course of their relationship? She looks like his mother. Is that what she’s become? The young man looks no older than a schoolboy. Is that what he’s become? The impression is that they are more apart than together. Yet they are together enough to commission the photograph to make a record of their relationship. It is a poignant image.
In the double portraits we see Martyn at her best. They are acute and penetrating observations of human interaction, and as such they demonstrate that her fascination with “what people do to each other and what they become” can be so successfully communicated.8
By reading her careful descriptions of the clothes her subjects wear, and how they wear them; the ways in which they stand, and what they do with their arms and hands, and their facial expressions, we can gradually build up a picture not only of individual character, but also of what their relationship is.
In some portraits Martyn builds up her images with such stealth that the effect, when it finally registers, is one of shock.
'Deborah' (cat. no. 20) is one such image. The strong vertical lines of its composition — the tongue and groove panelling against which the young woman is standing, her long hair, the pintucks on the bodice of her dress — all conspire to deny the round fullness of her abdomen. But Martyn ensures that there is no getting away from it by having the subject clasp her hands below her belly, revealing that this young woman wearing a simple white sleeveless dress and looking not a day older than fifteen, is pregnant. Which immediately makes us ask what the image has to say. There is an element of defiance; she’s alone; she looks very young; we know society won't be particularly comfortable for her; but there is an overriding sense of strength, of courage, of straightforward worldliness and pride. The portrait is an affirmation of all those things.
The effect of the portrait entitled 'Nick's New Haircut' (cat. no. 22) is rather more insidious. For, like the image of 'Jenny Black' (cat. no. 2) and 'Laurie' (cat. no. 3), it concerns desire. It may seem from the title and at first glance that it is a portrait of a young man modelling his smart new haircut. Its composition is characteristically elegant. It simply places the solitary figure on a neutral ground. But the eye strays from the subject’s hairstyle and to his naked back, where it lingers. We notice the torso’s shape and surface. In scrutinising the sinuous form and naked flesh, one unavoidably scrutinises the subject with the attention of a lover. The viewer is suddenly confronted with the erotic.
In 1986 Martyn was commissioned by the National Art Gallery in Wellington to make portraits of artists. Of these, there are seven in the survey. Cat. no’s. 32 and 33, portraits of Vivien Lynn and Janet Bayly respectively, belong to this portfolio, but because they also represent a thematic shift they are retitled as Woman/Interior and Untitled for the purposes of this exhibition.
As one of the few serious portrait photographers in this country, Martyn was well qualified to take up the brief. From a list supplied by the National Art Gallery of some forty or so artists living and working in New Zealand, she made up a portfolio of twenty-seven portraits from which the gallery was to make a selection for its permanent collection. In the event, all twenty-seven prints were acquired.
Martyn chose to photograph the artists in their environments, but not accompanied by examples of their work. This was because she wanted to focus on the individual characters of her subjects without that particular distraction. It is also noteworthy that she chose not to glamourise her subjects by making the sort of celebrity portraits that, say, a leading British photographer might make of similarly well established artists. For one thing, this is not Martyn’s style, but for another it does reflect the different attitudes the two countries have towards being an artist: to many New Zealanders it is not only not glamorous, it is not even a proper job. Martyn has elected to go in another direction than that of the celebrity photograph, for although these portraits are as formally made as the others in the survey, on the whole they show their subjects in less confrontational poses which gives them an appearance of greater spontaneity.
The most successful portraits are those in which Martyn achieves a convincing physical description of the individual and communicates something of their character. She conveys a sense of what it might be like to meet them.
The artists, for their part, have come prepared. They are accustomed to assuming a public face and being subject to scrutiny, which is after all the context for the commission. For instance, the portrait of 'Jeffrey Harris' (cat. no. 24) shows the artist affecting a pose of urbane self-assurance — awkwardly. 'Louise Henderson' (cat. no. 25) wears make-up, nail polish and has had her hair done. She leans elegantly against the wall at the head of her bed. The gesture of the hand in which she holds her cigarette is almost one of dismissive impatience and her expression one of hauteur. We get the impression that this is how she would present herself to an unknown public on other occsions as formal as posing for your official photograph.
Martyn does assume some audience familiarity with the artists’ works, and in some cases refers to it. The portrait of 'Milan Mrkusich' (cat no. 23) presents the artist as a contrast to his work. He is pictured sitting with his arms crossed next to a wall against which lean two stretched canvases, their backs to the viewer. If those canvases were turned around, we would probably see paintings of elegant geometry and immaculate finish as most people familiar with New Zealand art could guess from the title of the portrait. In striking contrast, we see the artist whose own surfaces are far from being geometric or immaculate. His casual cotton clothing moulds itself in crinkles and creases to the shape of his body; he has hairs on his arms and his head shows the heavy features of a greying dark haired man. It is a portrait of an unexpectedly earthy masculinity.
In the portrait of 'Alison Duff' (cat. no. 28) the artist is shown standing in her garden holding sculptor’s tools. The surface and texture of the foliage framing the woman is described in overwhelming detail. She is an old woman with a lined face and white hair. Her appearance is solid and heavy. It is a portrait which seems unkind, but is not. The subject’s expression simply records the information that age and some bitterness have turned out to be inescapable facts of her life.
It was during this period that Martyn stopped cropping her photographs. By doing so she produced images which convey more information about their subjects by revealing more of the places and things with which they live. For instance, she had previously made a cropped version of 'Jacqueline Fraser' (cat. no. 26) which showed the artist framed by her wardrobe and with little else in the image. By reprinting the uncropped original, Martyn projects the world of a markedly singular personality. The tin drum on top of the wardrobe and the capricious toy dog combine with her costume to describe an eclectic, perhaps fairy-like style. But if she looks like a fairy, she looks more like a bad fairy than a good fairy. She wears no fey smile, but an expression of resolute determination, and the impression is that she could, with just the wave of a hand, bewitch herself into something else. Above all, it is a portrait of implied freedom. This individual has constructed her own identity or identities and has learned that by manipulating surroundings and costume, the outward expression of her character can be changed at will.
Compiling the artists’ portfolio allowed Martyn an opportunity for experiment. After this period of photographing people who had, by means of their art, effectively created their own imaginative worlds, Martyn emerged with the confidence to more fully articulate an imaginative world of her own.
The last image in the survey is a 1987 portrait, 'Untitled' (cat. no. 33). It shows a barefoot woman standing on the bed of a grave, leaning against the base of a headstone shaped like a pillar. The portrait goes beyond the photographer’s characterisation of the personality of some real life subject to show instead a character made for the occasion by the photographer. The subject, or rather her appearance, is only used as the artist's means for making this fictional character. The meaning of the image lies in its symbolic representation of elements in a narrative fiction. Martyn combines opposing things such as male and female, hard and soft, dark and light, hidden and exposed, stillness and movement, in a setting which is itself rich with associations — for instance, with such things as consecration and desecration, material and immaterial. By these means she creates an evocative image on the theme of life and death. It is a powerful icon of resurrection which acknowledges death as a stage in the cycle of life. It is an appropriate image with which to close an exhibition which opened with the photograph of the child struggling to achieve independence. This last portrait reveals that the photographer has achieved hers.
For the last eight years the fictional world of Martyn’s portraits has been constructed around her own immense fascination for life and for the complexity of human personality and relationships. Most unusually, she has been able on many occasions to get behind the composed, outward appearance of an individual or a couple and reveal the ambivalent complexity that lies beyond. It is her capacity to do that which marks her out not only as an artist of unusual observation, but as one with the power to move us, strangely.
1. D.P.A.G. Archives II 37/1, Martyn. Transcript of taped interview Annette Facer/Adrienne Martyn 6/5/88.
2. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London 1981, p.116.
3. Octavio Paz quoted in Jean Leymarie's text for Balthus published in U.S.A. by Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York 1982, p.56.
4. Adrienne Martyn, Elvis Fans: A Photo-Essay August 1986 Auckland Metro: N.Z.'s First City Magazine. Auckland No. 1 (? 1981) — 6 no. 70 (April 1987) Continued by Metro.
5. Bridie Lonie, Adrienne Martyn’s Portrait Photographs. Issue 29, Summer 1983, p.58. Art New Zealand (Pacific Graphics) Auckland. No. 1 (August/ September 1976).
6. D.P.A.G. Archive II 37/1, Martyn. Transcript taped interview Bridie Lonie/ Adrienne Martyn 1988, p.5.
7. D.P.A.G. Archive II 37/1. Adrienne Martyn's statement edited by the artist and Bridie Lonie from interviews Lonie/Martyn and Facer/Martyn, see 1 and 5 above.
8. Transcript of taped interview Facer/Martyn, see 1 above.
Adrienne Martyn's Portrait Photographs | Art New Zealand 1983-84
Adrienne Martyn is a photographer who has worked primarily in three areas: advertising photography, from which she has made her living, portrait photography and semi-abstract studies of buildings. Her  exhibitions at the Peter Webb Gallery in Auckland and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, ‘Surfaces’, presented studies of stucco walls, sections of which were photographed with almost hallucinatory clarity - tight geometric compositions which resembled constructivist paintings. She used black and white only, intensifying contrast, making of the painted surfaces she photographed something quite different: very crisp and clean, taking only the design of the walls and giving a curious impression of paradox - the function of the architecture being quite secondary. Whatever life goes on behind these walls has become something hidden at odds with their stark simplicity.
Her most recent work has been portrait photography: intimate studies of friends and commissioned works for people she does not know. She sees portrait photography as a contract between photographer and subject, in which the matter at issue is the subject’s image of her/himself, something which lies somewhere between the public and the private being. To choose to have one’s portrait taken means that a decision has been made, and Martyn’s people often look as though they are questioning what they are, using the experience of being photographed as a test.
This contract is made clear in her portrait of Laurie Baker. He leans toward the camera, almost guarding his body with his arms. His expression shows a mixture of advance and defence: this is a photograph of a persona. Details of skin, hair, the texture of clothing, are keenly focused. The echoing curves of the composition heighten that sense of ambivalence: the aggression of his gutting shoulder is restrained by his left hand; the tight circles of his ear-ring and necklace are contrasted against the open, ragged edges of his shirt. An earlier photograph shows shows him relaxed leaning against a brocade couch. Here the impression of sensuality is conveyed by textures of skin and cloth rather than by expression and pose. There is in both these portraits a theatricality which both photographer and subject are creating. Her portrait of the painter Shuan Burdon, taken immediately prior to the ‘Surfaces’ series, is a tightly composed study. Graphic details echo the physical qualities of the subject: plants at lower right and left seem to follow the curves of Burdon’s hair and head: and the corners of the recessed wall counter the lines of the painting. The musculature of his forearms is parallel with the lines in the painting; the paint stains of his jeans have a graphic similarity to the plant at the left. All these repetitions lead into centre - Burdon’s face, which looks out: warily and no wonder. The combination of subject, painting and Martyn’s gentle but in insistent details add up to the description of a real personality. The impression given is strengthened by the painting itself, in which the horizontal simplicity of the lines are softened, made a little uncertain, by the undulation of the paint.
In the portrait of Juanita Ketchel, Martyn balances the dramatic qualities of the background, and the subject’s hair and dress, with the rather nervous openers of her pose. There is decided sensuality in the way the line of breaks is shown, like a fifteenth century Flemish portrait. This sensuality, the clear presence of the physical self of the subject, is a constant theme in Martyn’s portraits. It can be relaxed or aggressive, but it is never ignored.
‘Steve Thomas, performance artist’ is a study of manners. Here, the elegant shabbiness of the ‘eighties recalls the ‘thirties. Tones are soft and grey, and the plaster walls are part of the period flavour. The pose is a very conscious one: something which is pointed up by the glasses. But despite the artifice it remains an intimate portrait of a gentle mood. The shallow ground and the way the subject half-shelters against the wall contribute to this intimacy.
The subject of ‘Diane and Marie’ is two sisters Martyn saw in a nightclub and asked to come and sit for her, dressed as she had seen them. The composition emphasises their closeness, creating a circle around them. They are completely at home with the situation, using it as a form of self-appraisal, but also as demonstration of who they are.
The two portraits of Joanna Paul make an interesting contrast. The earlier one shows the painter seated on a soft couch, with cushions behind her. It is relaxed, but there is a feeling of distance in it. It has quite clear formal parallels with Rita Angus’s portrait of Betty Curnow - parallels which are heightened by a physical similarity between the two women, of hair, shape and strength of face, pose. This suggestion of fertility is also present in both portraits, in the placing of hands, emphasising the abdomen. But there are no explicit references in Martyn’s portrait to that of Angus: the similarity is purely formal; in the design, and in the associations one makes, suggesting a quiet continuity.
The second portrait is one of Martyn’s best. There are no external details; there is no added information. Only the strength of the face is here heightened by the contrast of light and dark. And there is no explicit discourse between photographer and subject: but instead a complete acceptance which needs no eye contact.
Martyn has worked in photography since she left school. After a period as a darkroom assistant she went to work for the photographer Euan Sarginson in Christchurch, who lent her his cameras in the weekends, and helped her to clarify the images she photographed, teaching her to crop and to alter contrasts, but otherwise leaving her alone. In 1972 she went to Sydney, where she worked at the Sydney Morning Herald on large format black and white shots for magazines. While working there she also made photographs for the women’s movement, and exhibited in a group exhibition at Womens House in Sydney. Her work was printed in ‘Refractory Girl’, ‘Mejane’ and ‘POL’, and she was commissioned by the Sydney Womens Film Group to supply still shots of the way young girls were treated in Welfare Homes, shots which were used in a film called ‘Home’. She was also commissioned to photograph schools for Dannie Humphries book ‘School’s Out’ - a study of educational institutions published by Penguin, and her photographs of women were used in ‘Mother, I’m Rooted’, an anthology of Australian women poets. In 1974 she was commissioned by the Australia Council Community Arts Board to photograph recipients of community arts grants in their occupations.
In the same year she was given a grant herself, to make a film called ‘The Object’. This was a study of a woman alone. It is now in the Vincent Film Library in Melbourne: it has not been shown in New Zealand.
She made ‘The Object’ here, and went briefly to the Dunedin Polytechnic School of Art, but left to concentrate on photography. She had her first exhibition at the Bosshard Galleries in 1978. In 1980 she set up her own Dunedin studio, and has worked since then in Dunedin and Sydney, either free-lancing or from her own studio.
Martyn gives as her first influence the work of Arnold Newman, whose portraits span fifty years. He shows artists in the context of their work, making formal references to paintings, or to similar qualities in work in other media. He shows Stravinsky dwarfed by the rounded shape of the raised lid of his grand piano, Soulages peering between panels with vertical lines. He crops and composes mercilessly; each detail is chosen to reinforce his meaning. Her second influence is Diane Arbus. Here the thing taken is the relationship between photographer and subject: an open one in which the protagonists are equal; the subject in the strength of his character; the photographer in accepting and showing that character. Martyn also recognises the influence of Avedon but his treatment of his subjects too autocratic.
The formal limits of Martyn’s work are clear-cut. She only uses black and white; there are no extraneous details. The relationship between photographer and subject is a formal one, in another sense. The photographing is an occasion for which both parties are equally prepared. This narrows her field, and gives it a traditional context. The rules are known. What spontaneity is left can only be in the essential characters of the participants.