ARTICLE NATASHA STAGG
PHOTOGRAPHY DAN MARTENSEN
To celebrate Dan Martensen's new book, Photographs from the American Southwest, out October 31st in a limited edition of 200 from Damiani, Milk Gallery will exhibit his work tomorrow night, November 17th, from 7 until 10pm. We asked him to tell us a little bit about it.
DAN MARTENSEN In the book I explore this place, the American Southwest. All around there are habitats forgotten, frozen in time. Driving through the desert you find abandoned houses, housing developments that failed to launch and then left to spoil in the sun, a dead garden that was once a motel pool but is now filled with dry desert dirt. There are messages from God and churches and from billboards promising a better tomorrow even though everywhere you look are signs of paradise lost.
Things that the average local passerby looks at and may find to be an eyesore, many of these things are very beautiful to me. Especially the way that the sun and the dry desert air seems to mummify things and fade their colors. The show is a twenty-one image selection I made from the book and are images that i feel best embody these things I find so interesting and so beautiful."
What prompted your excursion to this area?
DM The first photos I took for the book were taken on a road trip to Las Vegas from Los Angeles for a friend's birthday weekend. I was about 23 and didn't have the money to stay in the big fancy resort with the rest of my friends, and being a photographer and interested in the underbelly of things, I opted to stay in the Old Strip of Vegas so I could walk around and see what life—or lack thereof—there really was to see. Rather than thousands of tourists and bright lights, there were rundown businesses and motels, beggars, addicts, and a general lack of optimism that somehow made things so much more interesting to me.
I wound up leaving my friends at the casino at sunrise only to go back to my thirty-dollar-a-night roach motel and grab my camera in time to get the good light, walking up and down the strip taking photos. From that point forward I just kind of made every effort I could to get back out to the desert, whether I was in L.A. working on a photoshoot, or visiting extended family there, I'd always have my camera. Eventually I started to see a body of work emerge and that's when I got serious about going to the Southwest and really exploring.
How long did it take to get all the photos for the show?
DM I took about fifteen road trips over about nine years. Some were just two or three days, but some were longer, including a couple cross-country trips and a few border town trips that I will never tell my mother about. I'd usually just rent a car and if I had a friend who would be up for jumping in with me I'd bring him along.
My friend Evan is a jewelry designer, and every year he and his father and a few of their colleagues go to Tucson, Arizona for the big gem show. I'd tag along and check out the show, then I'd hop in the rental car and make my way to the border of Mexico, sometimes for a day or two then return and we'd meet up in Utah and go snowboarding at the tail end of my trip. When I say it like that it makes me laugh, like I've got all this time to just wander around the Southwest, but there's something about the place that just keeps you coming back. Even having completed this body of work I'm curious to get back there and see more.
Where are you from originally?
DM I'm from Pleasantville, New York. I spent a few years in college at RISD, but otherwise I've lived in [New York] City since. A big part of this project really is how different the Southwestern environment is to New York. It's kind of a great contrast.