“i’m influenced by modern painters and south park” – tom martin, photographerBack
All photos by Tom Martin
Tom Martin has an international reputation as one of the best live music photographers from the UK, travelling from his home in Leeds right around the world thanks to skills picked up in the city’s venues.
“I’m really proud to say that I’m 28, and I’ve managed to live as a freelance photographer for seven years. It feels really good to be getting paid for something I love,” says Tom.
“I didn’t go down the traditional route of getting photo passes down the Academy or whatever. I used to go to gigs at little pubs like the Packhorse, and Nathan and Pat at the Brudenell were a great help too – you learn to shoot differently in those smaller spaces. You have to shoot the band and the venue, the whole spectacle, and those photos tell a story – you get a sense of the atmosphere and what it was like to be there.
“I was assisting Danny North then, who is one of the best live photographers in the world now. When you work with somebody so unbelievably good you can’t help but push yourself further and further.”
Both Tom and Danny have stayed in Leeds, and Tom has never seen an advantage in moving to the traditional heart of the music industry in London. “Without a shadow of a doubt, I’ve had more work from staying in Leeds than if I moved to London and was fighting with fifteen people over a job. For a while any gig below Glasgow or above Wolverhampton was fair game for me or Danny North and that was it.
“I’ve been all over the world, but I always feel when I drive down the 621 and see the city – that’s home to me.” Tom is currently enjoying a new lease of life working for Kerrang! magazine, photographing in a whole new genre and a brand new atmosphere, although rock photography remains a distinctly un-rock lifestyle.
“I started working for Kerrang! in January and I’m loving every minute of it. The music is different, and it’s a different crowd – a much younger audience, and not necessarily the cool kids. There’s no pretentiousness at these shows, it’s just good silly fun and I’m loving it.
“It’s still very un-rock ‘n’ roll. When you add it up and realise you’ve spent a month of the year in Travelodges – not hotels, specifically Travelodges – you realise it is quite a lonely life. You go to a gig on your own, take pictures, drive back and edit them; especially at festivals, you’re the sober one at the party, photographing the crowd but not part of it.”
A response to that has been Tom’s move into forms outside gig photography, into portraiture and now fashion photography. One photo of Chloe Howl, taken on a video set, combined Tom’s skills in a live environment with his eye for a moment and ability to communicate an idea.
“We got about a minute and a half between takes for that picture. The director was behind me, yelling at me to get out of the way! I just caught Chloe’s eye and we shot that and then I disappeared – and I’m so glad we got it because it’s one of my favourites now. You wouldn’t know we had a minute and a half to take it.
“There are two main ways that I work. If I’m taking pictures for a band, I never like to bank on one idea – I shoot different setups and keep moving. I shot the Pigeon Detectives in Cafe 164 just because we’d stopped there for lunch – I had the idea and then was stood in the middle of the road with cars and buses and people getting angry with me.
“The other work is things like a photo of my dad in his conservatory – that photograph existed in my head for two years. I knew what I wanted it to look like. It’s a direct reference to Edward Hopper paintings like Nighthawks, and I wanted to do something there that was really painterly.”
Those more painterly photographs allow Tom to scratch an itch that can’t be reached in music photography. “I find the limitation of the live stuff is that while you can get really good at it and put your own stamp on it, you’re only ever shooting other people’s creativity. I’ve always wanted to do more than that.
“Photos like the Wonder Woman photograph – that’s really personal work. There are loads of things like that I want to shoot, and you can tell more about my personality from shots like that than about anything else in the picture.
“I’m probably more influenced by modern painters and South Park than I am by knowledge of photography. And The League of Gentlemen – that was the first programme that properly resonated with me. That’s actually my life! The Wonder Woman photo is so unbelievably Halifax – I wouldn’t have thought twice seeing that where I grew up.”
As well as his personal work, this year Tom is collaborating more on fashion projects, a challenge that is firing his enthusiasm.
“Doing big productions with stylists and clothes designers and make up artists and models – I’m loving being part of a big team. It’s hard work for me – I’ve had to learn everything from scratch, but I’m genuinely surprised how well it has turned out, and how well the projects have been received by people who know fashion photography. It’s given me the confidence to follow that on.”
Fashion photography has another big advantage over the music side. “Compared to shooting bands, actually having people who by definition are models is a revelation to me. They’re not going to argue, they’re not going to tell me I’ve only got a minute of their time, and they’re not going to throw me out of a Portakabin in the middle of a field somewhere!”
On Thursday November 20th Sela Bar hosted the launch party for Tom Martin’s new exhibition of photographs taken in New Orleans, NOLA. You can see some of Tom’s NOLA photos and read our interview with Tom and Sela Bar’s Mark Young all about New Orleans’ independence and creativity here.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds issue 13