Conversation: Scott Martin, Photographer of the Seldom Seen

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A view of downtown at night from the Pearl brewhouse’s copula. Photo by Scott Martin.

A view of downtown at night from the Pearl brewhouse’s copula. Photo by Scott Martin.

Editor’ Note: After finding San Antonio artist and photographer Scott Martin crawling under the rotting foundation of the Boehler House, the  former Liberty Bar, as Dodson House Movers prepared to lift it off its pier and beam footing and move it 60 feet to make way for a new foundation, we decided it was time to catch up with the man and his work first profiled on the Rivard Report in June 2012.

Rivard Report: Scott Martin, what is an artist and photographer known for his work in very dark and remote venues like Big Bend doing with a hard hat and safety vest on, crawling under a century-old house as workers lift it off its foundation?

Scott Martin: I guess I’m drawn to the seldom seen: crawlspaces, attics, abandoned industrial buildings, and the vast desert far away from the road. It’s surprising how comfortable I am under the Boehler House – it’s a treat.

Read (and see) more: Boehler House Elevated in First Step Toward Preservation.

RR: This isn’t your first work with the Pearl. How did you get started with your work there?

SM: The Pearl had seen my night photography work and approached me about commissioning some work in the abandoned brewery buildings before they were repurposed. That initial project has extended for several years and has been expanded to include some documentation of the preservation work and re-use of materials. I am the son of an architect, a home brewer for 20 years and am involved with historic preservation, so the Pearl is an incredible fit for my interests.

I received the city’s only issued Preeminent Green Building award this year for the restoration work done on our house that involved salvaging another 1910 house with matching lumber from the same year and lumber yard. Somehow I feel like this exhaustive, masocistic work goes hand in hand with what the Pearl is doing

RR: In fact, we published some of your work from past years that you did at the Pearl, which readers can find here. Our audience has grown a lot since June 2012, and we want newer readers to see some of your amazing night photography. Have you done any night photography at the Pearl?

SM: Yes, I’m working both during the day and at night at Pearl. The brewhouse is a pleasure to be in at night. It’s sleeping giant with lots of stories to tell.

RR: We enjoyed publishing your work showing the Dodson House Movers team as they elevated the former Liberty Bar off its foundation. The underside of the structure looked in pretty bad shape to an amateur. Did you have safety fears crawling under there to document what looks like pretty dangerous work?

SM: I’ve spent enough time under my 1910 house to not only feel comfortable under it, but to love the crawlspace. It’s intimate, cozy and reveals the structure’s secrets. Edgar Dodson’s hydraulic jacks were well placed and I was ready with an exit plan – it was a calculated and educated risk. From a creative perspective, though, you can’t play it safe all the time. You’ve got to push yourself to get the best possible shot you can. Climbing under there right away and getting the action up close felt important.

RR: Jeffrey Fetzer, the architectural conservation consultant, said it will take 18 months or more to restore the Boehler House once it is placed on a new foundation. Will you document the process all the way to completion?

SM: Yes. I’m not a commercial photographer but my background has lead me to doing a little of this for my own restoration projects and now for the Pearl. These stories of preservation are worth telling. 

RR: Your work for the Pearl and your own art has come to include video and time lapse photography. How do you go about shooting something like your piece on the Pearl Farmer’s Market or the video you did on the old bridge that was moved to the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River?

SM: These were self-assigned projects that I did for myself and showed the Pearl afterwards. I felt the work they were doing to preserve some of the brewery equipment was extraordinary and I thought it would be fun to document it in the timelapse genre. Those videos allowed me to push creative boundaries and try new things.

Farmer’s Market Walkthrough by Scott Martin from Pearl Brewery on Vimeo.

The Farmer’s Market walkthrough video is the story of a visitor that walks to the Pearl and enjoys the experience. I took one frame with every step and walked though the Farmer’s Market for four hours of continuous shooting and pieced all the frames together as video afterwards. I hope it has an authentic, raw and playful quality to it.

For the Footbridge Transit video I had five cameras rigged to shoot continuously and no assistants. I just about had a heart attack running around moving them during the move. At one point I gave up and climbed onto the bridge as it moved by and shot a sequence from the bridge’s perspective which turned out well. Once (the Hotel) Emma is open I’ll shoot the final sequences and publish a final version of the video. What’s online now is a rough, in-progress draft.

Pearl Footbridge Transit (In Progress) from Pearl Brewery on Vimeo.

I’ve recently installed two hours of high desert video at Tacos and Tequilia, a block away from the Boehler house at Josephine and Broadway. One daytime and one nighttime video that play off each other simultaniously. They represent an experience of the desert that’s important to me especially within juxtaposition to city life.

RR: The Hotel Emma is the next big opening at the Pearl that everyone is anticipating next year. Have you been documenting that transformation of a historic brewery into a five-star hotel? If so, when will we see that work?

SM: Yes, I’ve been touring the site for over a decade and shooting there for the last five years. The remodel is huge not only because the brewhouse is such a historically significant building, but because the historic preservation work is so extensive. Instead of tearing everything out and converting the space to a typical hotel, they are going to great lengths to preserve and integrate the brewing equipment into the new spaces that will honor its history. The stills and time-lapse sequences will give people a feel for how much care and thought was given to the building’s re-use.

I’ve shot well over 250,000 frames on this project so far and I’m looking forward to putting together a nice photo essay and timelapse video when it’s all done next year. The video post production itself will take several months so you’ll have to wait till next fall to see the video material. It should be worth the wait.

RR: You are married to Jenny Browne, the poet and Trinity professor, and you guys have school-age kids. How do you find balance between work, play, and family? You sort of work the night shift with some frequency. That must be a delicate balancing act, or do you never sleep?

SM: Since we both travel we’ve done a lot of taking turns being ‘single parents’ while the other one leaves to focus intensely on their work. Recently we’ve made an effort to do more things with all four of us together, which feels like an improvement. Missing a night’s sleep every so often isn’t a big deal. In some ways, having babies trained me for night photography. You get used to sleep depravation after a while and learn to deal with it. Seriously, it’s just a learned condition that you can manage.

Jenny Browne during her trip to Kenya and Sierra Leone to teach poetry. Photo by Kelly Bedeian.

Jenny Browne during her trip to Kenya and Sierra Leone to teach poetry. Photo by Kelly Bedeian.

Working at night is so exhilarating that once you start you don’t want to sleep. Nighttime is the easy part – it takes focus to not act like a zombie during the next day. As long as I’m making exciting images I can manage the rest.

RR: What kind of work have you been doing or do you have planned near-term beyond your work in and around the Pearl? Any new adventures into the wild planned?

SM: My wife and I are pulling our daughters out of school and traveling around South America and Mexico next year. Jenny has some writing projects she will focus on and I’m really curious to work in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. We’ll work on our Spanish, see the world a little, and spend some quality time together. I think it’s important to give kids an impression of the larger world that’s out there.

RR: Beyond your own art, you lead small groups of photographers to remote locations to teach them the art of night photography. I think you were off to Iceland when we wrote about you in 2012. Are you still teaching other photographers in remote locales?

SM: I’m been leading these week long photography workshops around North America for the past ten years. They are a great chance to work with people’s creative process and make some images at the same time. I’ll take a break from teaching these while we travel. Honestly, I think I’m moving into taking the same trips and focusing on my own work in solitude.

RR: You guys have been Southtown residents for 20 years. How do you see all the change unfolding around you, both in your neighborhood and around the urban core in general?

SM: We always thought our little neighborhood felt right and had potential for growth. Now that it’s finally happening we’re a little surprised it took this long and concerned that it might happen too fast. We’d like to see things grow in an organic fashion with local investors that want to do projects that are in character with the neighborhood and its residents. Projects like Blue Star, Big Tex, the Tobin, and the Southwest School expansion are all really encouraging. San Antonio really is an exciting underdog city with a unique feel and character that is still something of a well kept secret.

RR: You once told me San Antonio is a great city to live in as an artist, but not a great city to make a living as an artist. Is that still true, or is the city’s growth and evolution making it a little easier on artists struggling to make a living?

SM: I feel like that is changing and local artists are being celebrated and valued in ways that they haven’t been in the past. This town is rich with authentic architects, chefs, literary and visual artists that deserve recognition. I feel like we’re on a brink of a cultural shift.

RR: Well, Scott Martin, thanks for your time and for sharing your art and photography.  We look forward to seeing more of your work from the Boehler House as its brought back to life.

To further explore Scott Martin’s art and photography, visit his website at www.martinphoto.com.

Photographers interested in attending a Scott Martin night photography trip can visit www.on-sight.com/workshops.

Related Stories:

Boehler House Elevated in First Step Toward Preservation

Artist Scott Martin: When Others are Sleeping, Painting the Darkness with Light

UPDATED: Boehler House/Former Liberty Bar Move Denied by HDRC

El Mirador: King William Landmark in New Hands

For Sale: Fire Station No. 7 in Southtown

4 thoughts on “Conversation: Scott Martin, Photographer of the Seldom Seen

    • Good point Tara. Not only is trespassing illegal it can be incredibly dangerious in an industrial setting. I’m not only doing it with permission, I’ve got a lot of experience doing this type of work in low/no light, I’m wearing OHSA compliant gear, harnesses, etc and maintain a serious insurance policy. Anywhere one shoots at night one should acquire permission beforehand and be smart/safe about how you go about doing it. Now don’t get me started about Border Patrol or being detained by military police…

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