I must have been no more than eight or nine years old when I started to watch classic gangster and detective films. Gradually, I became fascinated by the figure of the anti-hero: scoundrels, bewitching femme-fatales and disgraced private eyes were notably played by stellar actors such as James Cagney, Ava Gardner or Humphrey Bogart. Allied to the outstanding performances, that glamorous black and white cinematography was crucial in defining a genre and it got me totally hooked on to it.
Gardner’s striking beauty, Bogart’s beguiling gravitas or Cagney’s infamous bravado, were all emphasized by the way the lighting dramatically sculpted their features, highlighting facial expressions while enhancing the tension on each scene. Arguably, my later interest in portrait photography, in the equally refined work of photographers like Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, or the remarkable French Studio Harcourt, is rooted in that early passion for cinema classics. Oftentimes, watching those films has made me envision reality through a veil of haunting, monochrome sophistication. I remember thinking that if I were a photographer, that was how I would like to portray someone, surrounded by all that stylish allure, and with a charming, tender intensity in the eyes.
But even though my interest in portraits has been present for a long time, it was not until recently that it became, unexpectedly, an area of major relevance in my work. I first approached photography in a more serious way by going out on the street.
Oddities and peculiarities that caught my eye
Although I have devoted plenty of time developing a few projects that ended up on exhibitions and in the publishing of a photobook, I would say that my methodology of work is at first somehow chaotic. Someone said and I agree that a camera gives you a reason to go out; for years, I have been taking one with me almost every time I leave home. I always enjoyed taking long walks, and as my interest in photography increased, I saw myself less absent and more perceptive of my surroundings, halting to stare at stuff that I previously ignored.
It felt strange how well known streets suddenly looked amazingly different. Driven by growing curiosity, I then got into the habit of making detours from my usual routes, exploring the city under the spell of the new passion. There I was, using the roll of film as a sketchbook journal, avidly registering the oddities and peculiarities that caught my eye. I beheld the weirdness emerging from the most ordinary things: when carefully observed, a new dimension revealed through the lens perspective. More than being just a hobby, photography entirely changed my perception and approach to the world.
Like a sleuth searching for clues of an unsolved mystery, I had become a collector of traces and signs of an alluring, unfathomable code. As I primarily didn’t do any planning, I believe I was, and still am moved by some kind of controlled intuition that precedes meaning and structure. In fact, my photography projects evolved from random material, by creating connections and establishing visual narratives out of my previously unrelated photographs. Like assembling a puzzle without a picture reference, as one creative idea led to another, form and concept slowly developed and took shape towards the final project.
Recognising a style and something more
I am leafing through dozens of negative sheets, desperately searching for a particular photo. I should have them archived in ring binders, instead, I insist on keeping them muddled in cardboard boxes and drawers; fortunately, most are neatly preserved and properly labelled. As I inspect them, roll after roll against the light, I notice some resemblances in several photos, most evidently, the recurrence of a distinct, dynamic wide-angle lens effect, expressed in pronounced and dramatic leading lines.
They give the illusion of extending themselves throughout the frames borders, straying in many directions across the film stripes, with some surprisingly matching diagonals and connection points between photos, presenting an interesting balance and graphic harmony over the negative sheet. I tend to use these wide-angle lenses frequently in urban environments; they create an impression of vertigo and disturbance.
Then, looking closer, I see a likeness in subject matter: desolate, gloomy landscapes; eroded textures on decrepit building facades; cemeteries; empty streets flanked with naked trees or derelict industrial areas. There is a widespread restlessness and a feel of melancholic bleakness. I could say that these found similarities, exposed almost like a pattern along the filing sheets of nearly a decade of work, are both in form and essence the main attributes that define my photography style.
They established the source to create the body of work of my projects about Lisbon and London, which still remains a photographic database perhaps for incoming ones. But more can be found in the negatives. Scattered here and there, contrasting with that dominant style, like doodles in the margins of the sketchbook, I can spot assorted photos of family and friends, and primarily of Filipa, my girlfriend.
Portraits of Filipa
Being quite cautious and disciplined with the use of film, I normally take considerable time observing and composing my scenes before taking a picture. This allows me to explore multiple points of view, and the effort to choose the right one helps me improve my aesthetic sense, avoiding at the same time an unnecessary waste of frames.
In the end, I enjoy looking at the negative or the contact sheet as a whole and see a consistency in the photo sequences. However, photos of friends and relatives are an exception to this approach, on those, I tend to be more spontaneous and immediate as they normally depict unstaged, candid moments that work better the less intrusive the photographer is. These pictures are a warming complement to the main street documentary body of work. They stand there beside, like milestones in a timeline chart, a record of the people with whom I spent my time over the years that I have been developing my projects.
Pictures of Filipa belong to a category of their own. Through the last years she has made herself available to feature in my photos in endless situations. Assuming that I can sometimes be quite persistent, she generally reacted, regardless of that, with natural gentleness and sweet nonchalance. She is present in virtually every roll of film since we have met, even if in just one or two frames. Shown here is a selection of portraits I took her that I am particularly fond of; after having gone through all those negatives, I decided to assemble a group of thirty-six, imagining an ideal 35mm film roll, even if they have been shot with several cameras, black and white, colour, and a few in medium format. In spite of the fact that some were captured more or less discreetly in social contexts, snapshot style and unposed like the other pictures of friends and family, most of Filipa’s photos cross the boundaries of spontaneity into a more staged, creative approach, or just linger in that threshold.
In one, as we were strolling along a riverside walk I decided to photograph her with the sunset casting our shadows on a worn-out tiled wall. As in a shadow play, the action was revealed through our silhouettes. To increase the tone of mystery, I asked Filipa to slightly lower her head, letting a large lock of hair cover her face, keeping the anonymity of all the figures in the photo. Looking at it some time later, scenes from Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People came to my mind, as those shadows on the wall suggested the memorable dark shaped menacing figures seen in the film.
In other situation, after having spent a pleasant afternoon lying on the grass in the park, Filipa got up, and as I looked at her from the ground, I came up with the silly but funny idea of what a cat’s or a dog’s point of view would look like when staring at a human being. To accentuate the suggestion, she reached out and pointed her finger, as if giving a command or an order. Using a Zuiko 28mm f/2.8 lens in my Olympus OM-2n, I took a low-angle shot to highlight the idea of a powerful figure and the feeling of being submitted by her. Far in the background, a few cypresses pointing at the sky gave the image additional strength and dynamism.
In another one, after a long walk, we stopped by a graffitied white wall, with two flights of stairs opposing each other. The graphic symmetry of the metal handrails attached to the scribbled wall made me think of a comic book panel with speech bubbles, explosions and a cryptical onomatopoeia. Promptly, I asked Filipa to stand there in the middle, and she joyfully posed like a character, her legs positioned to match the handrails orientation, head over the graffiti, composing a lively scene in the style of Serge Gainsbourg’s Comic Strip videoclip.
After work we sometimes meet for a pint at the local pub’s beer garden; that early evening Filipa was particularly tired, and while she was half-asleep, hands holding her face with eyes closed, I looked for the perfect angle to portray her amidst the garden’s atmosphere. She suddenly opened her eyes, surprised to see a camera pointing at her face, and I gently asked her to stay exactly as before, thus turning what was previously a candid moment into a posed scene, even if nothing in her posture had changed.
I used my Nikon FM2n fitted with the Nikkor 20mm f/3.5 lens, carefully keeping Filipa in the centre of the viewfinder to avoid high distortion, leaving enough room for the surrounding ambiance. In the first plan, the long wooden table filled with glasses gives context, situating the scene in a pub; in the background, due to the ultra–wide lens effect, groups of people seem to be sitting farther away in the garden, increasing the sense of Filipa’s isolation, while asleep or lost in her thoughts. The wavy outdoor string lights hanging across the image bring back old memories of merry-go-rounds and nights at summer fairs, conferring the photo a magical mood and a nostalgic, retro look.
Stepping into a dream
As seen with these examples, Filipa’s portraits differ from the others for the predominance of quickly staged scenes.
They may originate from some nonsense, hilarious idea, or just anything that piqued our interest while taking a walk and made us stop, like the graffiti and the handrails.
Staging could mean simply asking to linger in a particular position for a few seconds more, just to freeze in a picture a captivating moment, like the one in the pub garden. Sometimes, when we set up these scenes, it feels that time stops, just like in old Hollywood musical films: a couple of characters are walking down the street and everything changes when suddenly a dialogue line becomes a song, and from a moment to another they are both dancing cheerfully over a delightful set, as if they had stepped into a dream or passed through a magic portal.
Indeed, it amazes me to notice how the presence of a camera can awesomely transform a moment, as without it we certainly wouldn’t have experienced that specific place and situation in the same way. From recreating a pose we have seen on a revered painting, to evoking a film scene triggered by some spark of memory, it is the camera that invites us to fantasize, to find some level of grace and enchantment in the banality of everyday life, allowing us to immortalize it in a photograph.
What is in a portrait?
Different contexts are depicted in this series: leisure time spent in parks and pubs; mundane or more intimate domestic scenes; nightlife and dancing; traveling abroad and the laziness of summer holidays; eating out in restaurants, and so on; and although these images were not particularly elaborated or planned in advance, I would say that they are, along with faithful representations of Filipa’s physical features, a genuine reflection of her inner self, which I believe are both essential components of what makes a good portrait.
People often tend to be defensive, assuming a rigid, protective body language the less confident and uneasy they feel in the presence of a photographer, resulting occasionally in bland, soulless portraits.
Closeness and confidence were thus crucial in the making of these photos; me and Filipa, over the years, the better we got to know each other, the easier it became to read and understand each gesture or expression, therefore, the more comfortable we started to feel in front and behind a camera.
There is, however, a key element, one that stands above all in the effectiveness of this peculiar correlation photographer-sitter, and that is undoubtedly the element of love and affection. For mutual devotion could naturally set up a peaceful, ethereal atmosphere, and at once, the inspiration and obstinacy that moved me has always been a passionate one.
From there, it is easier to discern that hoped-for moment when the soul of the portrayed charmingly reveals, often through the eyes, and that is the right moment to press the shutter.
Everything connects and evolves
I then identified in these portraits, some of the pivotal attributes of earlier projects, either on a certain way of composing and framing, or for a serene, somehow melancholic mood observed in the embracing atmosphere.
Finally, I perceived an inherent theatricality and density resonants of my beloved crime dramas of the film noir era.
Meanwhile, I had people saying that some pictures resembled frames from a Nouvelle Vague film. It could be for some mannerisms or affectation in Filipa’s poses here and there, but looking better, apart from the occasional evocation, I think that cinematic aura is present in a subdued manner, most likely an instinctive expression of a wider spectrum of assimilated classic references that popped up while setting up the scenes.
Moreover, black and white photography film itself, and the ensuing editing process certainly help to establish those connections. Something similar happened later with my photos of musicians, where unconsciously, an eighties British indie style or mood is recurrently evoked.
Even if by its emotional nature this is a quite intimate and personal series, I was glad to have gathered what I think is a coherent body of work from a previous, random group of photographs. Once again, I realised that the creative process, as a path towards something new and reviving, could often wander and evolve in an unpredictable, aleatory way.
Lately, moved by the enthusiasm and pleasure that I had on the making and assembling of Filipa’s portraits, I gradually started to look for more opportunities to photograph people, music bands in particular. Now I tend to do it in a more planned, professional way. It has been a fascinating process to observe, understand and depict someone’s psychological traits, and in the case of bands, to do the research, listening to the music and studying the lyrics before the location scouting for the photo shoot.
In the end, achieving truthful and interesting portraits without compromising my own aesthetic identity is a plus and an exciting challenge. I think that perhaps the best compliment I can get is something like: ‘I could have guessed, without even knowing, that this photo was yours”.
You can follow my work here:
My website: https://fernando-martins.com
Filipa also photographs: https://www.instagram.com/f.c.photostudio/
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