Coveted Interview: Dan Martensen

by jennine on July 11, 2007

One of the reasons why I love smaller magazines like Preen, Lula, Purple, is to see fresh talent at work, and usually they use nice paper…. One photographer I noticed in Preen was Dan Martensen… The Sonic Youth spread is just amazing… set in a very ordinary place, it looks so futuristic and it’s truly captivating. Dan took some time to talk to us about his first photo, life on a fashion shoot, and if Graceland is really worth the trip to Memphis…

The Coveted:
What are you obsessing on these days?
Dan Martensen: I don’t know, I guess I’d say I’m obsessing on nature. I have been trying to shoot more on the road. Getting out of the city in the summer is really necessary, considering I am writing this at 9am it’s 92 degrees in New York. A lot of my work has been bringing me back to nature. Taking road trips, going upstate, I just spent a week in Woodstock recently and I’ve been reading a lot about “Green Living” and the state of the world’s environment. With the amount of press it’s been getting along with Al Gore’s initiative, its sort of become hard to ignore, which I think is great. Later this summer I am shooting upstate New York at an “off the grid” commune, a real bunch of hippies living on solar power and what the land provides. I’m hoping it will be a utopia, getting back to basics, living off the land. I think the images can be really great.

TC: Do you remember the first photo you took? Your first camera?
Was it
love or apathy?
DM: Yes, actually I do. Ha, speaking of nature, I was on a camping trip with my dad. I think he gave me the camera to keep me busy while he did all the work getting the barbecue or the tent ready or something. I must’ve been about 12. We were right by a lake I was wandering around and took a picture of the sunset under a tree with the water bouncing flare into the camera and light into the leaves of the trees. I still kind of shoot pictures like this, I remember looking in the camera and wanting to shoot everything. I think I shot through most or all of our film on that trip. Instead of having traditional pictures of me catching a big fish or portraits of my dad and I by a campfire, we had a lot of pictures of rocks and bugs and stuff. I still have that camera, I don’t shoot with it anymore because I’ve abused it so much since, but I’d say it was love from that day on.TC: Did you get into fashion photography to meet beautiful people?
DM: Ha, no, actually I became an assistant in order to pay rent. I had been in art school at RISD, had I brought a fashion photograph into critique there I’d have been thrown out of class. I’m glad for that, I think learning how to put meaning into a photograph is much more challenging than learning how to make clothes look good or people look cool or beautiful. Anyway I left school with a great education about art, but no clue how to make a living at it. After two gallery shows I was “making it” as an art photographer but I was really broke. I had interned as a freshman for a summer at Milk Studios in the city, so I knew a few people in and around the business, so I asked around about jobs in photography, and eventually became an assistant to Alex Cayley, a fashion photographer and an awesome guy. I knew nothing about fashion, but loved working on different things all the time, traveling, free catering… haha, and yeah, at 22 years old it’s pretty cool when the only one your age at work is a beautiful girl. I didn’t complain too often.

TC: I’m kidding… really, what is it like doing a fashion shoot? Is it really as glamorous as people say?
DM: Do people really say they’re glamorous? I mean, I guess as an assistant I had been on some pretty glamorous shoots. Mine aren’t so glamorous but I think they’re always fun. I try to keep the environment pretty laid back, photos tend to be better when everyone, not just the model, is relaxed and comfortable. High profile “glamorous” shoots tend to stress people out and bring a lot of bullshit drama. Big tour vans, tons of catering, body guards, fifty assistants, 5 star hotels, sometimes all that stuff really kills the mood. (not that it’s all that bad) But my favorite shoots are usually just the opposite, It’s when you’re on set with some big superstar in a small town in Mexico or something and everyone’s eating tacos and drinking beers at a roadside taco stand at lunch break. TC: Who was the most inspiring person you’ve ever worked with?
DM: Hmmmm, that’s hard. I’m afraid to cop out and say “they all inspire me”… while I guess that’s true, I suppose it’s when a team really clicks. When you have a stylist, hair, makeup, and a model that all get along. I like putting teams together that would hang out in socially. That’s what gets me excited about shooting, keeping it natural. So much of fashion is faked, it’s when it’s real that I get into it.

TC: I get the impression that you have done a lot of traveling in the States…. your America series, and the Yurman Down-Country Rally… where is the most interesting, or uninteresting spot in America? Why does it inspire you?
DM: Yea, funny thing though, I’ve been in probably 40 states, but never made the trip across country in one drive. My favorite thing to do is shoot on my own, document life, a place, or a person. Not fashion at all. When I find a place un-shot, a candid moment with someone, or a voyeuristic one, a piece of time or a setting, I try and snatch it up, as if it were virgin in some way. It seems almost impossible at this point, but I think this is why shooting America has been so exciting for me. Photographers like William Eggelston, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, I mean, the list goes on and on, they’re like pioneers to me, they all shot America and defined it. Its like I showed up to San Francisco for the gold rush about 30 years late, but I am still looking for gold dust in the gravel.
What inspires me to shoot America? I have a hard time answering that… It’s weird, because I am one of millions of Americans trying to figure out how to remain patriotic in such a fucked up place. I mean, my generation is really lost. I think the reason I shoot America the way I do is to try and identify what it is I still understand about this country, like a sort of misguided nostalgia. Coming from New York it is easy to feel like a foreigner in America, and the only parts that I have any real sympathy for are the places that seem to have fallen apart… Oklahoma was so poor and beaten down. Really gritty, real people, I had a lot of love for them. The old Vegas strip, 3 or 4 miles off the main strip that we see on TV, it’s a relic of what Vegas used be, rundown and shitty, yet there are still lives and buildings left over, old time hustlers and hookers, 50 year old hookers!! I mean, c’mon, if that’s not inspiring…

TC: Is Graceland really worth the trip to Memphis?
DM: Um, YES. And stick around for the barbeque.

You can look at Dan Martensen’s work at:
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Jessica July 11, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Great atmopheric photographs. I remember that couch photo from a magazine, lovely interview as well. I hope you are doing alright..

goingRAWr! July 12, 2007 at 1:04 am

hiya gorgeous!
i have been following your lovely blog for a while and told a friend of mine about it- she then started a blog inspired by your goodself at, for the fashionable Malaysian girl (cos trust me, we have very bad fashion issues in this country).
so check it out, i’m sure she’d be chuffed to know if you approve :)

Joyce July 12, 2007 at 3:12 am


dianabobar July 12, 2007 at 5:50 am

That’s a great post and an amazing interview. Let’s just say you got me interested to see more of his work now!

jennine July 12, 2007 at 10:06 am

oh gosh! thanks so much for the lovely comments! i also enjoyed reading what dan had to say about his work… interviews are so much fun for me to do, so i’m happy you like them!
; )

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