If you are reading these words then firstly, well done for taking the time to get clued-up about your local arts & culture scene. Secondly, welcome! This is what will hopefully be one of many articles on the photography and photographers of Leeds and the wilds of Yorkshire, spanning everything from documentary and photojournalism to fine art and fashion.
As for our inaugural offering, we here at The State Of The Arts are extremely pleased to be able to bring you an interview with esteemed music photographer: Tom Martin. One of Yorkshire’s leading lights in his field, Tom now works for Kerrang! (after five years shooting for NME), as well as freelancing for several major labels. He also runs the staff photography teams for some of the UK’s best festivals, including Boomtown Fair and Kendal Calling, and has been commissioned as the official photographer for, among others, Enter Shikari and Basement Jaxx. Around all this, he somehow manages to produce a stunning array of personal work and has recently been invited to exhibit solo retrospectives at London’s Test Space and Leeds’ White Cloth galleries. All of this before the age of 30; he’s been a busy boy!
As if to underscore our last point, the following interview was conducted over the phone, in the middle of the night, with Tom sat at some nameless services on the M11 (yeah, we don’t know where the hell that is either), whilst driving home from a shoot. We hope you enjoy reading it far more than he enjoyed giving it.
TSOTA: Hi Tom. What was it that first made you pick up a camera?
Tom: Well basically, I never wanted to be a photographer in any way, shape or form. I had a bit of a panic because I left school in the middle of my A-Levels and decided to go to Bradford College to do a foundation course in art and design. As part of that, one of the taster sessions was black and white, 35mm photography and that was it, really. Going into the darkroom and developing my own stuff was all I did for the next six months, plus I was rubbish at everything else that we got to try.
TSOTA: So it was essentially just by chance?
Tom: Yeah, it definitely wasn’t something that I wanted do when I was younger but I had a really good teacher at Bradford. It’s probably not a cool thing to say but I was a crazy eighteen year old and he was really supportive. After that year I went and worked in a beer factory with loads of big men, delivering beer and driving vans around and didn’t have anything to do with photography for nearly eighteen months. Eventually I found my way back to Leeds and the art college there.
TSOTA: Aside form your musical mainstay; you work seems to include a wealth of strange narratives. I’m thinking specifically here of images such as Wonderwoman on the swings and the burlesque girl on the moors. Where do these come from?
Tom: I grew up in quite a strange place just near Hebden Bridge and I lived at he top of a hill, in a little village where it pissed it down with rain all time. I always describe it as exactly like The League Of Gentlemen but real. Actually they made The League Of Gentlemen quite close to where I grew up. I think growing up in a place like that affects the way you see things. I’m just a bit of a weirdo, basically.
TSOTA: So essentially, your personal vision is a reflection of your upbringing?
Tom: Yes, absolutely! The other thing is that, just the same as I never wanted to do photography, when I became a photographer, I never wanted to shoot music. That was a complete accident as well. One of the reasons is that photographing music is generally just you on your own. It’s quite lonely driving over the M62 in the middle of winter and being not only on your own at the gigs, but the only one sober. It’s better at the festivals as you’re part of a team but as a job it’s quite solitary. So when I want to do other work, I do things that involve a big team of people, designers, stylists, make-up artists and what have you. I just really enjoy working with a big team of people, I guess.
TSOTA: How did you make the jump from being a keen amateur to being a professional photographer?
Tom: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this recently because a lot of students and young photographers email me. One of their main questions is usually “How did you get to work for the NME?” or “How do you make a living in it?” and really, I never asked anybody for any work. I never contacted the NME, they rang me because I’d been assisting Danny North. I think if you just concentrate on what you’re shooting and keep improving then the paid work comes to you. Or it did for me anyway. It was probably an accident, same as everything else!
TSOTA: I noticed on your site that there are now a few longer, cohesive bodies of work; I’m thinking of ‘Nerdfest’ in particular. Is this a signal that this might be somewhere that you are looking to go with your practice?
Tom: Yeah, for sure. Recently I’ve been very much looking outside of music and fashion photography towards fine art and documentary; people like Alex Soth and Zed Nelson have been inspiring me. For me with these longer projects it has to be something that builds with time and something I do for myself, not necessarily something that I make money out of. I really enjoyed shooting Nerdfest; it was like taking a holiday from photography being a job. I’m looking at extending it into a longer project, I’m not sure that it will happen but this is definitely something that I would want to do.
TSOTA: It seems that many creatives who have a taste of success, almost automatically migrate to London. You are now an established professional and yet you haven’t joined the herd. What is it that keeps you rooted in Leeds?
Tom: My cat
Tom: And my girlfriend.
TSOTA: Ha! In that order?
Tom: In all seriousness, it’s two hours on the train; that’s nothing. I do go down to London every other week for meetings and this and that, but I can drive and shoot in the rest of the country. That really makes you an asset to a lot of people in London because instead of being one of a huge group concentrated just in the capital, I can cover things anywhere else in the whole of the UK. Also, I can’t imagine swapping how I live now for one bedroom in a shared house at three times the cost. I just couldn’t.
TSOTA: OK, thank you for speaking to us, one last question though. What’s your favourite dinosaur?
Tom: A Pterodactyl, without a doubt.
TSOTA: Cheers Tom.
You can see more of Tom Martin’s work by following the link at the bottom of the page or by hunting through any number of music publications. Also, please stand by for the next article, featuring an interview with Leeds legend Ricky Adam, covering his two decades of photographing Punks and BMX’ers, as well as how he feels about the second edition of his book, ‘Destroying Everything’.
Filed under: Art & Photography