Ten years ago, South African photographer and Canon Explorer Martin Osner left behind the creative trappings of commercial photography to follow a career in fine art. CPN writer Mark Alexander catches up with him for an inspirational chat and to find out about a remarkable project that has taken him around the world...
Occasionally you stumble upon a new technique or a way of looking at the world that doesn’t just enthuse, but fundamentally challenges the way you approach photography. When that happens, you get renewed motivation and a desire to push yourself further as a photographer. Martin Osner is that catalyst.
The South African fine art photographer has been shooting “all his life” and is currently in the final throes of completing an epic ten-year project that has taken him around the world photographing a collection of objects that have elegantly past their sell-by dates. ‘Abandoned’ is a body of work with purpose and direction; it dispels with many of the trappings usually associated with landscape photography. For instance, Osner isn’t a fan of the tripod.
“The tripod is a necessary evil,” he says calmly, “I will only use it when I have no other choice. My advice is that you try to shoot with the camera in the hand as much a possible because making an exciting composition is much easier this way as you can ‘feel it’ and move small amounts until it is perfect. But if you need to use a tripod, first look for the best composition handheld and then make sure the tripod is placed in the exact position that has been established. Most people plonk the tripod down at a convenient height, place the camera on the tripod and shoot form a boring, convenient and compromised angle. But tripods do not understand composition.” Osner uses his full-frame EOS 5D Mark III with its 22.3 MP sensor and the expansive view provided by his super-wide EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM to do the job handheld. He’s a fan of the wider view.
“I would suggest shooting with a wider angle lens because you can bring more of the background into the shot and you’ll get more distortion,” he continues. “Distortion is one of the most overlooked parts of photography. It creates interest. If you get intimate with your subject using a wider angle lens and allow the distortion to take care of the interest, then half of the battle has already been won.”
His marathon ‘Abandoned’ adventure took Osner on an adventure discovering isolated locations where materialism had gradually merged with nature. He purposely sought out discarded cars and buildings to highlight the excesses of today’s throwaway culture. The project also coincided with a decisive point in his career when he turned his back on commercial photography to concentrate on the finer things in life.
“At the start of the ‘Abandoned’ series I decided to leave commercial photography completely and concentrate on fine art photography. There is a season for everything,” he explains. “As much as I enjoyed commercial photography, there came a time when I realised I had to move on. At that stage I was tired of working specifically for what my clients wanted me to do. Everything was with a creative team and everything was briefed. You were told what to do. That’s when I realised I wanted to shoot for myself.”
He continues: “I knew it was a risky thing to do, but sometimes in life you don’t understand the decisions you make. Instead, you make them based on feelings rather than taking a closer look at what may or may not happen. I realised that I couldn’t do both - I couldn’t work on a technically correct assignment one day and then suddenly become artistically creative overnight. One had to go.”
After making the decision to leave commercial photography, it took Osner less than a week to sell his studio equipment and pass his clients onto a close friend. One of his first projects was ‘Abandoned’.
“The ‘Abandoned’ series really kicked it off,” he says. “It dawned on me that for the first time in a long time, I was actually shooting without studio lights, I wasn’t worried about having a tripod or what the customer would say about the composition. I loved the results, and I thought I’m going to photograph old, thrown-away things. Within four or five days I had shot the first three pictures of the series.”
The creative freedom that Osner had found would translate into a portfolio of limited edition Giclée prints, signed and embossed with a print run of just 35. Two of the 25 ‘Abandoned’ shots have sold out and others are selling fast. The eclectic mix of run-down shacks and desolate vehicles is on permanent display at Osner’s home gallery and the collection has toured galleries in the UK and Canada. Plans for a book are also underway although Osner would like to expand the collection to 40 images before going to print.
As impressive as the ‘Abandoned’ shots are, Osner is more than just an environmental photographer. His broader portfolio encompasses black-and-white imagery, urban studies and abstract pieces that blur the lines between art and photography. It is within these pictures that Osner pushes both the technical and artistic boundaries to their breaking points.
For instance, in a collection entitled Downtown, he uses some of the innovations in the EOS 5D Mark III to experiment with multiple exposures using the High Dynamic Range (HDR) mode. The results are fantastically abstract street-life observations, vivid in colour and context. “My approach to photography is now more artistic, so I look at some of the features on the camera in a different way,” he explains. “For instance, I thought of combining HDR with subject movement – almost using it incorrectly. The idea was to shoot three exposures and allow your subject to move but the background to stay stationary. You get a black shadow where the overlay appears.”
Taken in the Woodstock area of Cape Town, the images capture life around the colourful neighbourhood with ephemeral figures floating through the urban scenes. Vivid and compelling, the images take the idea of combining multiple exposures to another level through an inquisitive mind and a healthy dose of imagination. It’s an approach he likes to think of as a happy accident.
“You can allow an error to become an exciting facet to the actual picture,” he says continuing in a rich vein of inspirational thought. “The EOS 5D Mark III has the multiple exposure facility that allows you to take nine frames on top of each other which creates artistic impressions that are quite beautiful. You’re embracing error, which is something I couldn’t get my head around in the old days. If you look back at the history of art, some of the biggest errors have become the greatest techniques.”
Using camera movement, focal shifts and multiple focal lengths to create blurs, blends and ambiguity, Osner’s techniques are anything but conventional. Indeed while he admits the process of inspecting a new camera and working out how to use it incorrectly is far from orthodox, his methods produce stylistic art that brilliantly challenge convention while conveying an appreciation for composition and light.
With such an avant-garde approach that dispels with the norm, it is heartening to know that Osner himself can still be surprised, most notably by the EOS 5D Mark III. “The first part of the ‘Abandoned’ series was shot on film,” he explains. “I then had the first 5D camera, which is a beautiful camera. I did a lot of work on that and recently I bought the 5D Mark III, which is a fantastic piece of equipment. I shoot everything on that now.”
He continues: “There is no comparison between the two cameras. The Mark III is leaps ahead. The ISO was a bit of a shock to me especially the resolution at about ISO 800 or even ISO 1,600. It’s very impressive.” In terms of glass, Osner is a firm believer in going wide. “As a society, we are often too scared to get intimate with our subjects. We don’t want to get too close,” he says. “I advise my students to walk into their shots and when they literally bump into their subject, they know they’re too close. Take two steps back and start working.”
Osner’s preferred tool for the job is the EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM – a fast, ultra wide-angle zoom lens with a constant f/2.8 maximum aperture making it ideal for low-light photography. “It’s my favourite lens. Of all the lenses I shoot with, that’s the one I go to most of the time,” he explains. “When you’re shooting at 16mm, you’re going to battle to get a shallow depth-of-field which is not only controlled by your aperture but also by the distance you are from your subject and the focal length you use. Saying that, at 16mm you’re still going to get a sufficient depth of field even at f/2.8. That’s one of the characteristics that works so well with the ‘Abandoned’ series - I was able to get in close, work in low light handheld which is far better than a tripod, get enough shutter speed to freeze the action and get enough depth of field to capture it all.”
Despite having a selection of telephoto lenses from which to choose, Osner was adamant about opting to reject length for width. “For this series, I wanted to stay away from those lenses because the moment you put them on, you get compression and out-of-focus backgrounds. I tried to stay away from those lenses.”
Osner’s approach is to defy what has come before and focus entirely on the job at hand. It means all the perceived wisdom of bokehs, tripods and multiple exposures goes out the window, replaced instead by genuinely original art, which is wonderful and inspiring.
“For many people, they get caught up in thinking a camera needs to record reality as accurately as possible. They think it’s a skill they need to develop so that what they see with their eyes can be recorded. That’s completely the wrong way to go because all that happens is you start to record reality as it is, and the interest is left behind,” he says.
“Take the inconsistencies, like the fact the lens has distortion, that colour is different compared to what you see with the human eye, that there is grain and compression, and embrace all of that. Your photography is going to be more interesting straight away. That would be my suggestion. See what you can achieve by using the camera.”
VIEW ORIGINAL ARTICLE