An Inveterate Image Maker

A Conversation with Martin Klimek

Whether it is from his Window Seat or while traversing the diverse landscape of Tanzania, Africa, Martin Klimek keeps a close watch on his surroundings, so that, nothing escapes the roving eyes of his faithful camera. Armed with an insatiable curiosity of experiencing the motley of colours presented by people and places closer home or away from it and an equally commendable open–mindedness, Martin Klimek continuously documents life as he views it. His photographic essays depict an irresistible élan vital that not only draws the attention of the audience but also engages into a conversation, albeit mute to the outside world, with them. At the end of the day when one finishes glancing over the pages of his album one senses how united everyone is in joys and pathos; it feels that one has just woke from a deep reverie; it seems one was treading the long forgotten dusty lanes of one’s own memory lane than shifting the pages to see some ‘unknown’ faces and ‘foreign’ environment. If for an artist the highest achievement is to transcend time then this San Francisco based photographer is surely sculpting his way towards the right direction. For, his work made his viewers aware of, ‘Where the voice of the wind calls our wandering feet / Through echoing forest and echoing street / With lutes in our hands ever–singing we roam / All men are our kindred, the world is our home.’

Tell us of your childhood experiences at home and in your immediate surroundings that helped shaping the human being in you.

I grew up in a small town in suburban, middle–class New Jersey in the 70’s. As the second youngest of ten children I possess a classic ninth birth order personality. From a child’s perspective life was relatively easy, stable and free of serious conflict. I turned intuitively and eagerly to the arts at a young age and even though my parents were extremely busy caring for such a large brood, they were always supportive of my early interests: theatre, music, singing, photography and drawing.

I enjoyed immensely the constant and immediate companionship of a large family but later on it’s possible this drove me to seek space for my own self.

How and when did you first feel interested in exploring the world of photography? From or beyond the world of photography whom do you consider your greatest source of learning and inspiration?

I picked up a camera in high school and was captivated immediately. I have always been intensely drawn to visual stimuli and possessed a keen curiosity about the world and how it all works. To this end, photography seemed like a great match from the start. That curiosity manifests itself through my photography. I also enjoyed the social engaged/detached aspect of using the camera and instinctively focussed on what was closest and began to document the world around me — family, friends, school, community… I began pouring through books and discovered the works of Winogrand, Gene Smith, Freidlander, Gene Richards, all these were indelible. When you’re a teenager, things are imprinted in the memory in such ways that may never happen again. And, this led me down the documentary photography path. Then a little later, I discovered the world of motion picture. Greenaway, Leigh, Coppola, Bertolucci, Bergman (cinematography of Sven Nyquist) and the neo–reliasm of Herzog, Leigh, Fassbinder. I marvel at both their visual and dramatic sensibilities. Quite a different way of seeing and describing the world through pictures and moments. So, you see, I was drawn to this humanist, documentary work and a dramatic, cinematic style as well. These two ideas inspire me still and I’ve tried to make them compatible.

Tanzania, Photography by Martin Klimek

You have covered and captured the many facets of Tanzania. What inspired you to document the lives of this East African country? As you viewed the country from behind the camera lenses how did it reveal itself to you?

For me, to travel is to explore and learn; and to get a little lost. And to this end I like to visit and experience a culture which is totally unlike my own. I don’t like ‘vacations’ for vacation’s sake. I don’t want to go and lie on a beach for two weeks; it is not really fun for me…

The impetus to visit Tanzania was manifold. My wife and I both wanted to visit Africa; the people, the wildlife, the environment. We both have a deep love and respect for the natural world and wanted see as many animals in their natural habitat while we still could, so this led us to visit Tanzania, Serengeti and the surrounding towns. Photographer and activist Nick Brandt has described the act of photographing specific elephants in Kenya and Tanzania only to return years later to discover they’d been killed by poachers. So sad…

A new environment automatically sends me into a state of heightened awareness. Blend this with curiosity, humility and a willingness to engage and such a world might open up and reveal itself, if only a little bit for a short while and as much as it can for a middle–aged, white guy from California.

You have also journeyed to India. From its varied colour and character what appealed to your artistic senses the most?

The Indian culture too is so rich and ancient; it was like reaching across the centuries. What one sees e.g. life along the Ganges, has been playing out exactly the same way for centuries. The sheer fact that life on a daily level is so, so different from my own experience seems unique yet so familiar; on one level so divergent yet united by a common humanity. I love this chasm and try to arrive at what we have in common. They were as interested in me as I of them! I am astounded by the ways people across cultures subsist as they make their way through this world and always approach them with the utmost respect.

Through your photographs the audience come to know of many unfamiliar territories. What do you make of this ambassadorial role that a photographer willingly or inadvertently must perform?

I think what you are asking me here is to what extent a photo can be trusted? What are you offering and what is it the viewer taking from the photo? A complicated question… let me just say this. Photography is very subjective in my opinion. It can also be many things and communicate in many ways. What the audience sees is the photographer’s version of events. It’s the viewer’s responsibility to understand this when consuming photography. They need to educate themselves beyond the photograph if they are curious and want a more complete view. The still photo has an undeniable power but is only one piece of the puzzle.

In America, Photography by Martin Klimek

Through your personal projects and commercial assignments you have also documented the natural treasures and humane aspects of your own country. Did you plan on capturing specific subjects or opted for spontaneous explorations? Through photography what did you learn about your ‘home’ which was not apparent to you before you started creating your photo essays?

The American West is and shall remain my longest running project. It is intentionally broad and open–ended and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It’s such a laden subject and means so many thing to so many people. It’s as vast as the land itself. It’s also a project that is both spontaneous and planned. I might set a destination but take a rambling route and explore along the way. Portraits, landscapes, stories, experiments… no strict agenda other than to observe. Car–trips are amazing this way. Pack my gear and head out.

Full immersion… Meditative… For example, this year, I drove to Las Vegas – my first visit – and drove 1600 miles. A big lazy loop through different parts of California and Nevada while trying to keep my eyes from wandering too far from the road. But constantly looking for the next ghost town, a roadside attraction or vista… always, pulling off the road.

The world is a huge, complex, beautiful mess and I have far more questions than answers.

How do you view the harmony and juxtaposition of your country vis–à–vis the other places of the world you have visited?

Travel makes the world a more relatable and less abstract place for me. It helps to remind me of the larger picture and how lucky I really am. Still, I try not to judge other cultures simply by my own standards but relate with them on their own terms. Usually I’m just passing through and have very little insight into their real lives. I get a window, at best. It would be arrogant for me to assume otherwise.

When out in the world, I remain keenly aware of the fact that I am an American and many, especially those who see very few Westerners, are seeing me through that lens, at least initially. In that respect, I see myself as an ambassador and the camera as passport. I remain accepting, inquisitive, open and humble.

I have not travelled extensively but it’s obvious that compared to the developing world most Americans are extremely fortunate in terms of standard of living, human rights, status of women and children, healthy food and water, etc. A certain level of comfort and material wealth certainly doesn’t hurt it but isn’t essential to happiness.

The world is a huge, complex, beautiful mess and I have far more questions than answers. I plan to travel more.

It seems your camera loves human faces as is apparent in your passionate pursuit of portrait photography. How do you manage to delve into the soul of your subjects while featuring them on camera? How easy or difficult is it to work with renowned personalities such as Condoleezza Rice or Richard Branson?

Celebrities/high profile subjects have been pretty easy for me. Most have been shot for editorial clients. So, first of all, if the subjects are smart, they understand that they are presenting themselves to the world through the media, which, for the time being is me. And it behoves them to look and act their best. This doesn’t always hold true, but often enough. And secondly, they’re still people and I’m comfortable dealing with people from all backgrounds. The downside is, however, these folks often don’t have a lot of time. I can work quickly and efficiently and make a strong portrait given proper pre–production.

I’m not sure I delve into people’s souls, but if you’re able to relate to people and do it with a camera in your hand, the human face will reveal amazing depth and emotion. Ultimately I think a portrait is a double portrait—Half them, half me.

Window Seat, Photography by Martin Klimek

Tell us of the genesis of your project ‘Window Seat’. Nature, and human relationship with nature have been areas of your study as well. How as a photographer and human being have you experienced the evolving relationship between man and nature?

Window seat is the product of a restless mind. All images were shot on commercial flights usually over the US. To this day flight still amazes me. Look! I want to shout, we are flying! We are 6 miles in the air flying at 600 mph! Our grandparents knew a world before flight. And every one is staring at their books and magazines. I must look like a child when I’m flying. Like it’s my first time; always staring out of the window, craning my neck, shooting pictures. And the vantage is unceasingly fascinating, gorgeous, abstract, ever–changing. You can see how the glaciers and time have sculpted the granite. How man has bent the landscape to his will. We have become so blasé about flight but I still find it a fantastic thrill. Now, airports? that’s another matter entirely… great places to watch and shoot photos, but such a drag to navigate through.

Any understanding of the relationship between man and his environment has come simply through living in the world and paying attention to the issues. In my lifetime man has, for the first time, been able to view earth from space. A profound moment in human history. We came to realize how fragile and special our environment is. This in turn gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Yet it’s evident today that man is actively at war with his own environment. The problems are too complex and many to address here, and I don’t have any answers but all evidence seems to point to the environment slowly being degraded to the tipping point. It’s slow but steady and greed and myopia seem to rule the day.

In paintings we often see the existence of diptych or even polyptych. How were you inspired in exploring this philosophy through photography?

The diptych is not something I’ve explored until recently and was a direct result of experimentation with image sequencing for my commercial work. By studying more closely the relationship of single images to those around it, I began to see my work in a new light. This was the genesis of the Man vs Nature series.

Man vs Nature, Photographic Diptych of Martin Klimek
Man vs. Nature

In polyptych of life how do you see your artistic journey unfolding so far?

What I know about myself is that I’m a late bloomer and any success has only come through perseverance and hard work. I’ve been shooting for several decades and have gone through several career changes and I feel my best work is yet to come. I’m an inveterate image maker and will always push myself to keep shooting, looking, experimenting and learning. To help myself along this path, my new mantra has become ‘trust yourself’. This I am learning to do.

Portrait of Martin Klimek

Martin Klimek enjoys…

Simply nothing is more delicious and sublime than a piece of fresh, ripe, fruit. Preferably straight from the tree; an orange, peach, plum. Heaven! No one does it better than Mother Nature.

As for films, I like watching Herzog, Terence Davies, Keislowski. Decalogue, made for Polish TV remains a high water mark for me. Fanny and Alexander as well.

I share a home in the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife and cats. Nothing clears my head better than a hike in the hills above our home.

Find more of his work at http://klimekphoto.com/

Image Courtesy: Martin Klimek