Junior Meets: Mark Hartman
Ellius was in New York over the Christmas period and had a chance to sit down and drink some delicious tea with photographer extraordinaire and all-round lovely dude, Mark Hartman. Mark is a photographer and director based in New York. He has worked with a host of high-profile clients in his editorial and commercial work including Nike, Vogue, and the New York Times. His recent personal project, Island saw Hartman adopt a meditative approach to photography. We talked to him about work, photo-books, and using the practice of photography as a form of therapy.
I'm not gonna be like asking, what camera do you use? What F stop do you use?
OK. Cool. A lotta people like that question
Haha, yeah they do, I’ve done talks before and a lot of people have been like ‘oh what lens do you use for that’ and I’m like ‘it doesn't matter, it’s literally the least important thing about the whole shot’.
Yeah, definitely. It doesn’t matter.
Anyway, what’s it like working as like a jobbing, editorial photographer? Is it a good time? Do you enjoy it?
Yes. Yes! But it also comes with a lot of challenges. I like the challenge of making something work in a short amount of time and I like the challenge of problem solving. I like creating stories around subjects. I think that’s really interesting. But it’s also challenging in terms of budget restrictions. There’s not a lot of money in editorial which is hard and it’s just a weird business, youknowwhatImean?
Like, people hit you up and they’ll basically ask, ‘Are you around on such and such a day?’ and you’re like ‘….ok...?’, and they don’t tell you what the subject is or what the rate is or anything. People just think that everyone is so desperate to shoot editorial.
I guess the short answer is that yes, I am interested in shooting editorial. I’m more interested in shooting story-based work, you know? Stuff where I can really tell a story, when I can spend more time and go a bit deeper than just a surface level thing.
How do you find it day-to-day, making it work with editorial? Cause, you know, I do a good bit of editorial but generally I have to do a bit of commercial to try make it work.
I do a lot of commercial as well. I’ve actually sold a lot of prints lately which has been really cool. I’m pretty fortunate to have that. I mean, yeah, you just have to make it work. Sometimes I even assist people. For the past few years, I’ve been doing the editorial pretty strong. I mean I’m not getting rich but I’m paying my rent. And that took a while to figure out. People, in New York especially, hire who they want to hire and it’s hard to get in there sometimes.
And what’s your background like? Where did you come from to be here?
It’s a long story but I got interested in photography in my senior year at high school and got very obsessed with it. I went to photo school in Rochester, NY and came to New York shortly after and did some assisting. I started shooting editorial maybe at like 27? So seven or eight years ago. But I’ve done all sorts of weird jobs just to make it work. And only really in the past three years have things started to really connect and grow for me. It took a long time.
And so your latest thing is the Coney Island project. You were talking about using it as a form of meditation. I definitely agree that photography can be very therapeutic. You know, going out on your own but also kind of making these connections along the way-
-Sure, I mean, my philosophy is that I really believe in the one-ness of the universe. It’s one of my core beliefs so connecting with people is part of the way I understand the world and part of the way I am able to make pictures and understand myself. I think it is therapeutic. It’s interesting how photography is such a spiritual practice onto itself because you always have to be creating and even if you think you have this great body of work or a great project, it’s kind of ego-killing to be in such a competitive field, you always have to be growing.
And the trick to so much of photography is that the more true to yourself you are, the more honest, that’s what really produces good work. You really have to figure out your own vision and be authentic. That’s what people respond to. So for me, that Coney project was like a breakthrough in that way. Cause I shot in a different way, I was a lot looser than before. Even just going to the same place every day– that discipline aspect which is such an important part of meditation, to really enjoy and to really grow in that practice, you have to do it every day. And it’s the same with photography. At the same time, I did so much therapeutic work with myself so by doing that I was actually able to connect with people on a deeper level because I was more clear.
Yeah and when you’re more open you’re not nervous in front of people. People then are much more open to you. I hope I can still approach next year with that same type of tenacity. I’ll be in a bit of a different place in my life but I’ll still want to have that approach. I’m really interested in humanity, you know? And I think the world needs those kinds of pictures right now. I feel like creative people have a certain responsibility. Maybe not everyone but I feel like I definitely want to elevate people through photography. That’s really my goal, to make pictures that elevate people in some way. And to just go back to connecting with people instead of making like ironic photos. I’m interested in people and showing their similarities. I kinda answered that question in a really roundabout way?
No, no, it was good
There’s something there. If you can just write this whole thing down maybe there’s something-
-I’m transcribing it so-
*shocked* The whole thing?
*laughs* Yeah, yeah...
*stunned* Oh, no…
I did a 50 minute-long interview earlier so that’s gonna be a fun time…
Hahaha, don’t worry, I’ll type as I go, hopefully it won’t be that bad. Maybe I’ll get an editor to do it [Editor's Note: Maybe you will Ellius, maybe you will].
So there’s one picture in that project where there’s like a father holding his son up in the air. I wanna know about the situation that led up to that. What was that like? What happened?
Oh, I just saw that guy and he was like really interesting. With all those photos, they’re all posed so I started taking photos of him and he would start doing the typical ‘peace sign’ tough look kinda thing. I just started telling him to do certain things and I would move around a lot. I’d work very quickly and also kinda give him little cues about what to do and where to stand and how to look. And I just liked the idea of him holding his son and being like the very protective, strong paternal figure.
Yeah it’s amazing, it’s pretty monumental and that kinda ties in with what you were saying about wanting to elevate people. Cause pictures from this project, and as it seems a lot of your photos, are quite heroic in a way.
*agreeing* Yeah, kinda, right?
But I don’t think they’re overly heroic, you’re not putting them on a pedestal, but they’re very solid, very sure of themselves.
I think before I shot those photos I kinda connected with that guy in a conversation. We just talked about life and different thing, his experiences and my own. After I photographed him, he said ‘I don’t pose for anybody and I’m surprised I did that’. I just created this rapport with him and we had this shared moment. And that’s really what it was about. It's about sharing a moment with somebody and really giving them your undivided attention.
And that’s such a rare thing. Especially in today’s culture. We’re so connected with our phones that we’re not connected with each other. So I was thinking a lot about that when I was shooting that project. Just the lack of that in the world today.
I think it’s also about feeling really comfortable and feeling really good. Like, when I was making those photos I was in a really good state of mind. You can kinda tell I was feeling good when I made those pictures. There’s a certain feeling to them. I think I was just able to get things out of people. Photography can be so manipulative too. And you can use that power to manipulate or you can use that power to elevate. I really want to elevate people and that’s a challenge because photography itself is sort of voyeuristic and maybe in it's essence it is kinda exploitative.
Yeah, I mean it’s a perspective on someone rather than a like.. I mean there’s no "true" image
Yeah, there’s no "true image". I think the Coney pictures, like a lot of my pictures, are like self portraits, you know? I like to think about it that way.
So do you find it as easy to level with someone and bring out the best in them when you're shooting editorial or commissioned work as you would when shooting a personal project? How do you find those two different environments?
Well, it’s harder because some people you connect with immediately and some people when you’re shooting an editorial job, they’re just not interested in connecting with you. They don’t care. The advantage of shooting projects is that you get to choose who the subjects are. So I obviously look for someone who I have some initial connection with or I have a spark with. And shooting that Coney project, I would just walk on the beach and look for who I was sort of drawn to. I'd go off my intuition and choose people who I found physically interesting. Or if there was some sort of connection or spark there, I woluld kind of go up to that person and just introduce myself and tell them what I was doing and then kind of have a little conversation. Whereas editorial is challenging because, you know, you might not get thrown in with someone who is interested in connecting with you.
It may just not work
Yeah, exactly. But sometimes it can also be really great. Like, if you have a really interesting subject and you connect with the person it can be a really intimate, really amazing thing. But that’s not always the case. And that means you have to work towards getting that out of people. It’s challenging. Also, when you’re photographing editorially, people have a certain sense. ‘Oh, this is going to be in a magazine so I wanna look a certain way’ or if they have a certain perception of what they look like or how they want to be portrayed and that’s not always the most authentic or real version of what you see, you know? And sometimes you have to do a little bit of a dance with people to get them to just relax and get something more honest.
There is definitely a little bit of a theatre you have to put on to try bring someone to a place that you feel is honest. It is constructed but I think it's constructed to bring things to a middle ground where you can both exist and it's not just a pantomime the entire time.
*chuckles* Yeah I totally agree.
It’s interesting, I would always state my intention when I'm doing a project, I would always start with my pitch. But do you go in and just talk to someone and only then tell them what’s up or would you-
Yeah, depending on the subject, sometimes I would connect with people just through the eyes and I would feel like, ‘Ok this is like an interesting subject’, and maybe I wouldn’t say anything. Other times, I would maybe just have a conversation not regarding photography at all and just talk to them, get an understanding of them and connect with them and then work up to the focus of photographing them-
-of what’s going on, yeah.
Just being really focused on the person and getting a better sense of where they’re coming from.
I think good photos require a lot of focus. I find that my best photos are the ones that I am like hyper focused on. I guess it’s about bringing yourself to that place. For different people that requires different tactics I guess.
In contrast to the Coney Island stuff, the Iceland project feels a lot more meditative- even though the Coney Island work is meditative, it’s still very personal and personable. Whereas in the Icelandic project you only have one clear portrait and the rest of the photos are more focused on the ambiance of the place rather than a connection with a person.
For me I guess it was about connecting with nature, I mean, as cheesy as that sounds. I’ve never been in a place like that. I’ve never been in open space. So, it was really about connecting with the nature and it was exactly that. It was a very meditative process. Just going with my view camera, walking around, doing really long walks, and then just really thinking about how I could tell stories just by photographing landscapes.
Is there anything you’ve learnt along the way that you would want to say to the younger you, warn him of anything?
I just think, doing internal work on yourself is related to how the world perceives you and to your relationship with the outer world. I feel it’s very true for photography. Doing that kind of inner work allows you to come from a more authentic place that’s more you and thats whats going to separate you from other people.
That’s what’s going to really grab other people. And because we’re in such a competitive field. You have to do what you want and do it without fear and hesitation and trust your instincts. Follow your gut and don't be so influenced or swayed by what other people are doing or what you may see. From the time I’ve gone to school to now, I’ve witnessed different trends in photography. I’m interested in really making classic pictures. Photos that will really stand the test of time, I feel that’s what’s important. And it’s interesting, looking at certain people’s work, even people who I really admired, some of their work in the past looks dated. I really want to make timeless imagery. that’s my end goal. If I can make a photo that in a hundred years or twenty years or whatever it is, says something about that time and place and the moment, but also relates to whatever is happening then, I think that’s like a huge success. But it’s really challenging and you never know. It’s hard to predict what will end up standing the test of time. I think what will help is avoiding the trends and being authentic and having a good sense of art history. Any good artist nods their head at past masters or influences but you can do that without copying and while also having your own take on it. Acknowledging the past is an asset. I think it’s good to do that.
You have to know what comes before you. And that’s such a delicate balance, being overly inspired by something you see or like creating something…
Yeah, like in my mind it’s like, "yeah, break the rules but know the rules first". So you know where you stand.
Yeah for sure. For me, that was college. I had a few really successful photos and then a load of really bad photography. But it was good to make a lot of mistakes and then learn the confidence to just trust myself. And it's interesting, sometimes I’ll be wanting to take a photo and I’ll psyche myself out and say ‘oh that’s maybe boring or not interesting or maybe there’s not enough there’. But then other times I take these photos that I have an instinct to take and there’s no hesitation, no fear. Sometimes they're very simple photos but they're interesting because there’s an underlying feeling to them. And I think that’s what's really interesting about photography, being able to go beyond what a place looked like and actually show what a place might have felt like. That’s the real magic of photography. And so much of that comes from just being present and relying on instincts and trusting yourself. I've missed so many good photographic opportunities because I started to second-guess myself. So I feel that’s really the best piece of advice I can give.
Very lastly, do you have any photobook recommendations?
Yeah, I have photobook recommendations. I like this one, I got this in Japan. It’s a Japanese photographer, Yoshinori Mizutani. Tokyo Parrots. It’s badass. I like a lot of modern Japanese photography. I just bought it, I like this book a lot. I like Josef Koudelka, I like his book Chaos. It’s on my shelf. I also like his book on gypsies, it’s one of my favourites. I love Roger Ballen, like he’s one of my guys. I think he’s amazng. He’s one of my favourite photographers. I like all his books.
Was he an early influence, or?
Yeah, definitely. And then also I have like Larry Sultan a lot. He’s also one of my favourites.
That's awesome Mark, thanks for taking the time to talk