Text by Renate Dorestein
Dutch photographer Peter Martens (1937-1992) was a versatile street photographer. His way of working was inspired by the long American tradition of engaged and personal documentary photography, but he went one step further and developed into a radical photographer who took a stand for the disadvantaged and outcast. Tirelessly he captured world’s injustice and bad luck millions of people suffer from, fixed in confrontational, grainy images. In his photographs from the seventies and early eighties, Bogotá, Bangkok, Calcutta, Hong Kong and Ouagadougou were the worst places on earth. Closer to home, he showed the blind faith of believers seeking redemption and forgiveness.
When Martens explored America in the beginning of the seventies, it became his domain: the country where he found the subjects on a large scale that obsessed him as photo journalist. His matter was the everyday war in the street, the news that is no news but daily reality for countless people. Life in the States, Martens indicated, could be just as ruthless as living in dictatorships or developing countries.
Peter Martens left an oeuvre that is not easily approachable, because it touches upon the unspeakable. Until shortly before his death, he worked on the composition of two books featuring the best of his complete oeuvre. The dummies he assembled and over 400 prints he selected layered ever since in the archive of the Nederlands Fotomuseum. Now these two books, Few Loving Voices and American Testimony, are finally being published posthumously. Martens edited both publications in a sequence that leaves you dumbfounded and guessing for his reasons. His photography is a secret, not just this or that single image, but his entire body of work. It raises compelling questions about the world we live in.
The central figure in Marten’s universe is that of the human being lying prostrate among his fellow man, praying, crippled, deformed, begging, ecstatic, shaken to his core, morally broken or even murdered. This central figure is flanked by those standing up, the uniformed guards of the police, the military or the church; ambiguous figures of strength, power and authority, representing both guidance and oppression, dominance and support. The public space, the squares, the streets, the police stations, the hotel rooms build the stage on which the interaction between these poles is played out, in view of the passers-by, who look on in compassion, indifference, disgust, hardly concealed lust or admiration.
The work of Peter Martens occupies a unique position in Dutch photography. In 1969 he became the first photographer in the Netherlands admitted to the Visual Arts Program (BKR). This was not only recognition of his own work but also of photography as fine art. As one of the few Dutch photographers Martens was nominee of Magnum and in 1977 and 1979 he won several prizes at World Press Photo. In 1984 he was awarded the Capi-Lux Alblas Award for lifetime achievement and in 1988 the Dutch foundation Zilveren Camera called him Photojournalist of the Year.
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