Photography: Edgar Martins

from Focus, Nov-Dec. 2007  

The Diminishing Present
Galeria La Caja Negra, Madrid
September- October, 2007

Moonless midnight on a deserted beach – deserted, but far from empty. Here, a tether-ball pole that looks like the ensign of a losing army once unfurled from it, intensifying the negative presence of thronging sunworshippers. Rows of thatched sunshades like magic toadstools sprung up under the light of the moon. But there is no moon. Where is it coming from, the light that illuminates the silent dunes so the objects scattered on them cast a suggestive shadow, and every squiggle, track and furrow left in the sand is highlighted like hieroglyphic graffitti?

No, it’s not computerized contrast enhancement – Portuguese-born, Macau-raised, London-residing photographer Edgar Martins never goes photoshopping; he claims that the only light he uses is what his subjects bring with them, though, as you can imagine, his exposures are really long. So what is it, then? Turns out that this particular beach (it’s in Portugal) is actually situated right next to a huge soccer stadium whose wasted wattage makes the sand glow, glow, glow, while the night sky retains its intense blackness.

Thou shalt not set up thy shot, is Martins’other procedural point of honor though it’s hard at first to believe that chance and luck alone placed the little old lady selling bunches of bright colored balloons in that particular time and place (but an out-of-frame stadium certainly improves the odds). Wooodplank-shuttered ice cream stands suggest the machine-gun bunkers that mowed down allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. Is this space or time we’re seeing, or the point where the two intersect? You have just crossed over into the twilight zone of “The Accidental Theorist”, Martins' title for this compelling, uncanny sequence of images.  

The other group is called “The Rehearsal of Space”. It’s about forests and trees, you think, photographed the way such things usually are, as arching verticals, contrasting textures and tones of green. But hold on, what is that blurry spot in the background? Morning mist rising in the rain forest, perhaps, with cute little monkeys chattering away? Guess again, it’s smoke. Lots and lots of smoke. Martins took these photographs from a few dozen yards ahead of a rolling wall of fire that devastated the old-growth forests of Portugal and northwestern Spain in summer 2005. So the trees you are seeing are only minutes away from being consumed and annihilated -- on one or two, you can see the bark charring before your eyes. What you don’t see, amazingly, is the fiery juggernaut itself, tongues of flame licking at its prey. (Well, okay, in a couple of them you do see it, but only a couple.) When that reality has been taken in, you can all but hear the screeching sirens and shouted orders. Awareness of the impending peril, real enough for Edgar Martins when he took the pictures, is as disquieting as the metaphysical tease in “The Accidental Theorist” but not less unnerving just because in this case, the scary bits happen to be for real. Did I mention that his photographs are extremely affordable? They won’t be for  much longer.


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