Past Life by Scott Martin
Past Life by Scott Martin

By Robert Rivard

After the last strolling couples leave the river, after the restaurant workers lock up and go home, after the apartment lights above the culinary school go dark, Scott Martin goes to work. He parks in the emptiness of a Pearl Brewery parking lot, and heads for the deserted brewhouse, flashlights in his pockets.

Martin is also carrying cameras. He’s an artist whose medium is photography, one who happens to do his most creative work after sundown. Where the soft glow of artificial light breaks the darkness and the cold light of the moon illuminates the night, these are the landscapes explored by Martin. He works while others sleep.

Portal by Scott Martin
“Portal” by Scott Martin

What he creates out of this netherworld can be captivating, sometimes haunting and eerie, sometimes other-worldly and delightful. After spending time with Martin, I wondered: Does he see the world in a different light than the rest of us, one bathed in a richer spectrum of color? He certainly sees night and day differently.

“It’s kind of sad to see the sunrise,” Martin said, even though he experiences first light far more often than most of us. “It means the night is over.

“All my work is made when everybody else is asleep, which is wonderful: the whole world is asleep and you get to play in a world by yourself,” Martin said. “Sometimes the light I am looking for is already there, other times I add my own light. I prefer to work with hand-held flashlights. It allows me to put a brushstroke on the image. I am literally painting with light. I can make these delicate brushstrokes of light as opposed to a giant explosion of light that comes from a flash, which is nowhere near as controllable. I love that hand painting with flashlights.”

Sometimes that world of darkness pierced by light is experienced in the vastness of Big Bend or some other North American desert, where Martin leads workshop for other photographers who have come from around the world to learn his techniques and approaches to working in the dark.  “Europeans love the American Southwest,” Martin said. Other times it is found in the rusting silence of a dormant brewhouse where giant vats and pipes come back to life in red and blue hues broadcast into the room by gel-coverd flashlights.

You’ll never see him, but Martin is in most of the photographs, untouched by light and thus invisible. While his camera captures an image over the minutes or hours of an exposure, Martin is painting with a flashlight. When he’s finished, the light is part of the image; Martin, who stays in the darkness, is not.  A purist, Martin does his work “inside the camera” and does not use Photoshop.

“Five years ago people would have described me as a traditionalist, when I used to work only in black and white, printing in a wet darkroom, making platinum palladium, silver gelatin and cyanotype prints,” Martin said.  “I have a rich background making traditional prints, but I feel like the night work I’ve been obsessed with for the last five years is something new and refreshing.”

Martin roams widely in search of light revealing the otherwise unrevealed. One night he is immersed in urban grit, the next he is documenting a deep fissure in the crust of the earth, an image that suggests light has been set free by a temblor and now is rising out of the depths. A rickety frontier jail, an old bus painted like an American flag, a candle-lit chapel in Terlingua, a pink plaster pig astride a shuttered drive-in restaurant, all show themselves in a new and different light. Martin makes us stop and see things in a  new way.

Perhaps people who work all night and sleep when the sun is high are different than the rest of us.

“I’ll be 40 in a few months, and it’s true it makes no sense to work the way I work,” Martin said. “I work during the day, come home, eat, put the kids to bed, and my body wants to sleep so badly, but instead, I leave and go to work. Sometimes when I do go to bed, I’ll wake up and notice the moon is in a nice position, and feel compelled to go out and make images with it.”

Past Life by Scott Martin
“Past Life” by Scott Martin

Martin is married to Jenny Browne, Trinity University’s poet-in-residence and an assistant professor of English. They have two young girls, Lyda Rose, 8, and Harriet Jane, 6.

“It’s such a gift to have a partner who does creative work, and it’s great that we work in different mediums,” Browne said. “It always strikes me most when we travel, as I’m such a sound/word person, and Scott is so visual. I’ll be going on and on about the way someone was talking, and he will remember the texture of the wall or the shift in light on the floor. Sometimes you’d think we’d been to different countries. But I think we also have a similar energy in our work as Scott creates these images that show what is happening underneath darkness, creating energy and music and emotion with light, and that’s one of the things a poet tries to do with words, give voice to what is happening underneath the surface of reality.”

“I love going to the Pearl at night when no one is there,” Martin said. “I started shooting there in secret, and showed the work in galleries and on my website. Last year, those images got someone’s attention and they called me and said they wanted me to do more of this work until the existing spaces are developed.”

Once inside, Martin said he finds himself “wandering around,” leaving behind the rest of the world and awakening to an environment vacant of all other people. That distance allows Martin to see and imagine his surroundings in, well, a different light than the rest of us might see things. “Some of my images require exposures that last all night, 1-8 hours, some play off the ambient light, other times I add my own light.”

1878 Boiler and Spools by Scott Martin
“1878 Boiler and Spools” by Scott Martin

“Choose wisely, you only have 12 images.”

Is Martin an artist who works in the medium of photography, or a photographer whose work rises to the level of art? I asked him that question when we first met at his studio at the Finesilver Building and then shared lunch at nearby Green, where Martin, a vegetarian, eats frequently. In time, it struck me as the wrong question to ask.

“Describing myself simply as a photographer doesn’t fit quite like it used to,” Martin said. “Am I a photographer who aspires to make art, or a visual artist who works in a photographic medium? I don’t know.” Definitely a visual artist, I tell him when we next meet. “Better for you to say it than I,” he said, smiling.

We finished lunch and split the check. I did a double take as Martin nonchalantly pulled out his money — all $2 bills. He acted as if that’s all anyone carries these days. Did he mind me asking where he got them? Martin recalled leaving another $2 bill after dining with a print buyer. When he bought some of Martin’s work, he handed him a brown paper bag filled with nothing but $2 bills, leaving Martin with an ample supply for the foreseeable future. Making change left me with one of Martin’s crisp $2 bills, but our friendly waitress volunteered that she coveted $2 bills and carried one in her wallet for years. I handed mine over, sensing a small karmic opportunity.

Looking back, there never really was a time when Martin wanted to be a commercial photographer. “Pretty early, when I was a little kid, I got one of those Kodak disc cameras that had only 12 images,” he said. “I remember my parents telling me, ‘Choose wisely, you only have 12 images.’ So there I was, only seven years old, spending all day walking around my  neighborhood in Houston, deciding how to spend those precious frames. The whole thing about having only 12 images made each choice an expensive one in my mind at that age.”

Later, Martin found part-time work as a photographer’s assistant. “I watched and listened to those guys working, and that’s when I knew I did not want to be a commercial photographer,” he said. “They cared about their commercial work, but when we talked about art, I could tell they cared a lot more, and their creative persons were dying to come out. In all fairness, I now see the very best commercial work blurs the lines between fine art and the commercial world.”

El Cheapo Liquors by Scott Martin
“El Cheapo Liquors” by Scott Martin

Before leaving high school, Martin made a promise to himself: “I was never going to shoot for hire.”

Martin attended Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. “It was eye-opening, I had classes with titles like, ‘The Ways of Knowing.’ Back in 1991 I was able to use a scanning electron microscope, and scan the results using Photoshop 1. We were taught art could be made anywhere and from anything.”

The allure of the Pacific Northwest and life in Seattle for a young artist was tempered by Martin’s discovery that while a community of printmakers thrived there, nothing like it existed for people working in photography. Martin actually got out the Seattle phone book and called a number of photographers. “I asked if there was a fine art photography community in Seattle, but I kept getting the same answer: not much.”

A San Antonio mentor, a VW Westphalia camper and a road trip to Guatemala

One of Martin’s mentors, Dan Burkholder, a nationally recognized printmaker, was living in San Antonio at the time.

“I had first seen Dan’s work in a gallery, and very naively, I drove across three states to San Antonio and called him from a pay phone, thinking he would talk to me. He said, ‘Yeah, come on over to my studio.’ I realized then I hadn’t showered for 12 days.”

Burkholder gave Martin, by then a senior, an unpaid internship for six months, and the young graduate found work at River City Silver, a San Antonio processing and restoration photography lab. Burkholder owned a VW Camper and had a month-long road trip to Guatemala planned. Martin went along, shooting alongside his mentor, sleeping in the camper, learning and loving the experience.

Opening by Scott Martin
“Opening” by Scott Martin

While interning with Burkholder, Martin was introduced to a vibrant fine art photography community in Texas. He met artists like James Evans in West Texas, Keith Carter in East Texas and attended portfolio reviews with aspiring image makers at Fotofest and PhotoTexas. As much as he loved Seattle and the West, this was the community he was searching for. In 1995 he moved to San Antonio for good.

“San Antonio is a place for artists to live and do their work, but it’s important to sell your work and participate on a national level,” Martin said when asked to talk about life as an artist in the city. “San Antonio is not a big art buying town, like Houston or New York or Los Angeles where you have an economy that’s completely local. But San Antonio is a truly sustaining place for artists to live and work.”

ArtPace has put San Antonio on the map internationally, Martin said, citing its International Artists in Residence program and 2 to Watch,  a collaborative with Gemini Ink, which pairs a visual artist with a writer for an evening. One recent 2 to Watch paired San Antonio artist Joey Fauerso with poet Browne. The David Shelton Gallery, he added, brings national caliber artists and their work into the San Antonio market, though buyers might just as often be from elsewhere. Sala Díaz, a gallery that is installation-based and showcases conceptual art, much of it ephemeral and destroyed after exhibition, is praised by Martin for connecting San Antonio to an international network of artists.

Martin says living in San Antonio has connected him with visual artists who he otherwise would never have met, and knowing them and their work has, in turn, influenced his own work. Browne agrees.

“I’m influenced by a lot of visual artists in San Antonio as well,” she said. “I did 2 To Watch with Joey Fauerso, and she painted the cover image for my most recent book of poems. The central sequences in my new manuscript comes from a poem I did for SAMA/GeminiInk about the Vincent Valdez/John Hernandez show.

Martin said San Antonio artists like Valdez, (who also lives in Los Angeles), Fauerso, and Stuart Allen, can live here part or all of the time, but depend on a national market.

“I teach night workshops around the country, where I take a group into a national park and we make images together and discuss the creative process,” Martin said.  “I make my living more from this than from prints. I show work in galleries, a couple shows a year, but my business as a private instructor, traveling around, working a few days with people, that is what pays the bills.”

Steve's Rock
“Steve’s Rock” by Scott Martin

Rendon Photography and Fine Art will exhibit Martin’s work during Fotoseptiembre in a show that opens Sept. 8 titled, “It Might Have Been Midnight When Last We Talked.”  That exhibition also will feature Martin’s friend and fellow visual artist, Lance Keimig of Boston. Both work with light in the darkness, often together on joint outings and workshops.

“Scott and I began collaborating by teaching night photography workshops in 2008 after meeting the year before at a workshop I was leading in Big Bend National Park,” Keimig said. ” Our different experiences and knowledge base combined with an easy compatibility made it almost a given that we should work together. I’m really exited to collaborate with him again.”

Onsight, Martin’s website, is much more about art than commerce.  “The image gallery doesn’t say ‘buy print here’, but I have strangers who see my work and ask to buy a print,” he said. Martin’s prints can be found at a number of places, including in offices at the Pearl. Does he worry that such work amounts to a reversal of his high school oath to not work for hire?

“Jenny and I talked about that, but we felt that it was a commission to do artwork rather than commercial work, a distinction that I think is an important one,” Martin said. “The Pearl said, ‘We don’t want to  tell you what to do. You know what to do, and we just want you to do more of it.’

His work at the Pearl will raise his profile locally. Martin said he has admired the work of San Antonio contemporary artists commissioned to do larger public works of art on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River. That work has Martin thinking.

“All the dialogue that goes into contemporary  public art. These are tricky things. The Museum Reach could be a pivotal moment in our understanding of what public art is,” Martin said. “San Antonio is way behind, but it’s on the rise, and the Museum Reach is changing people’s understanding of public art. Ten years or so ago people might have said they didn’t want public funds going toward art. Now, that’s changing. I haven’t done any public art, but I’m excited and inspired by what others are doing.”

The slide show of 12 images from Martin’s, “Pearl at Night” on the Rivard Report’s home page moves the observer to stop each image for a deeper appreciation. His work merits a more lasting showcase in his hometown. No one else sees the places where light meets darkness in this city quite like Martin.

Wisp by Scott Martin
“Wisp” by Scott Martin

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.