In 1973, when Sven Martson photographed this blissed-out fellow and the other New Yorkers in “Hare Krishna,” there were far fewer cameras following our daily movements. So no one seemed to mind a photographer doing “street work.”
Not so any more in the era of mobile camera phones, the NSA, and the new culture of omnipresent surveillance.
Martson decided to return to that more innocent era, photographically speaking, in My Seventies Show, Photographs: 1972-79, his first exhibition at the Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville.
Martson’s black and white photographs, many in the tradition of great 1940s and 1950 photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans and Robert Frank, are on view through Oct. 6.
His work is complemented in the show by Hank Paper’s New Italian Color: From the Gestural to Graphic Design.
Paper’s all-color prints of street and water scenes in Italy face Martson’s black and whites in a kind of inadvertent challenge and raise the eternal question of black and white versus color.
They raise the question by their pairing, but don’t answer it, and in fact nicely co-exist.
That’s what you do when you’re a cooperative gallery with about 25 members, and two at a time show every 18 months. Martson is the newest member.
Martson said he took all the images in the show originally on 35 millimeter Kodak film; most of the negatives sat in his archive all these years. They’re newly scanned, slightly Photoshopped, and printed for the exhibition.
“I didn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done in the dark room. I haven’t taken any heads and stuck them on other bodies,” he said as we toured the exhibition a day before the Sept. 5 opening.
To make the 26 images in the show, Martson said, he went through about 500 possibilities. A good number he had more or less forgotten about as he went on to a career in photographing for schools and alumni publications, mainly in Connecticut.
He liked what he now saw on the wall, although in a different way.
He was comparing his work to his heroes like Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson and Gary Winogrand.
“At the time I [felt] fell short,” he said, in no small part because as a young photographer without formal training who was also doing printing work for Walker Evans, Martson had a serious case of reverence for such photographers, who made their subject simply all of life as it presented itself, unposed, presenting a feeling of “truth.”
The passing 40 years have cured Martson of the self-deprecating side of his reverence, although his respect for the previous generations’ photographers is immense and still echoes in the work.
“Now [as I look at them], it’s about me, and they’re not so bad. Pretty good. I like them,” he said.
What also struck him as Martson recollected his process of decades ago was the response of subjects.
Photography is by definition nosy and even a little rude, especially candid street photography.
“People then were not upset with people pointing a camera at you. [Now] there’s a proliferation of cameras all over the place. Everyone is aware. [People ask:] ‘Where are the pictures going?’ ‘Releases?’ It’s gotten legalistic, harder to do street photography, to be candid and to capture life,” he said.
Martson continues to work as a street photographer, using color, no longer black and white, which is now is considered a specialized field requiring expensive equipment.
That challenge is evident in the street scenes in Paper’s work, which “transform the common scenes associated with travel in Italy, the gondolas, cafes and cathedrals and gives them a streetwise makeover,” according to the gallery’s release.
Martson said color is the greater challenge because there is so much more an artist has to control.
In Paper’s “Another Brand New Day,” for example, the beautiful pastel facades of the houses draw attention. As does the figure with her imperial blue apron, also with patterning. As does the patterning even of the stones of the street.
There’s so much going on and that’s so visually arresting, the observing eye seems to dance this way and that in a struggle to be let go in a single direction of focus.
Martson said that some of his heroes in the Evans, Cartier-Bresson generation referred to color as “vulgar.”
But Martson said he likes his colleagues’ work and as to color he shoots in it now exclusively: “For the most part I shoot color. I’ve matured and gotten over my heroes a bit. I’m being myself.”
The shows will have their formal artists’ reception on Sunday, Sept. 22 from 3-6 p.m. The gallery hours are Thursday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.