Following in the footsteps of his heroes Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting, Martin Hartley literally walks to the ends of the world in search of the perfect photograph…
Put simply, Martin Hartley is one of the leading expedition photographers of today. His extraordinary images are drawn from the Polar Regions, deserts, mountains and other remote corners of the world. He is fascinated by landscapes and the people who live in them.
As an expedition photographer he often ends up covering more ground than the actual explorers. ‘I hate the phrase Yorkshire terrier’, he says ‘because I’m from Lancashire. But I do end up doing a lot of running around.’ He ruefully admits that because of his job he ends up having ‘more cold dinners than most people.’
Inspired by the great explorers of the Golden Age of Scott and Shackleton, Martin has been on plenty of tough expeditions. And yet he refuses to call himself an explorer: ‘Too many people use the word when they’re little more than adventure tourists.’ He prefers the word ‘photographer’.
Martin’s work has recently featured in Land Rover’s ‘Spirit of Adventure’ Exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society and ‘Face to Face’ at the Scott Polar Research Institute. This exhibition of polar portraits – which is the subject of a forthcoming book of the same name – also includes historical expedition hardware, including Martin’s battered, gaffer tape covered Mamiya 645 Pro-TL. He also has a permanent exhibition on display at the Royal Geographical Society.
When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?
When I realised I wasn’t going to get four straight ‘A’ grades at A-level, and when I came runner-up in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1993.
What was your first camera?
It was one I coveted for quite a while. It was my Dad’s old Pentax ME Super. The thing I liked about it was that it had two little buttons to change the shutter speed, which I thought was pretty tasty. He gave me that when I was about 17, and it was probably my first serious camera. Somebody at my college nicked it, so I didn’t even have a camera when I left college.
What formal training do you have?
I did a National Diploma at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. At the time it was the best photography course in Europe. I didn’t learn much about photography, but I did have a great time being among other photographers. The freedom of the course was the most important element. You were allowed to do anything you wanted to do. You could really experiment.
How important is it to specialise?
Unless you’re extremely good at one particular thing you can’t afford to specialise because you won’t get the work. I’m an expedition photographer, but last Saturday I photographed an 85th birthday party and I had a great time. It was a great brief and I was able to roam free and take photos of anything I liked. And I got paid the day after. The days of the specialist are over. If I were an athlete I wouldn’t be doing the 100 metres… I’d be a pentathlete.
What is the best assignment you’ve been on?
I’ve done a couple of jobs for National Geographic. Doors swing open and opportunities arise because you’re working for these people. But there is a lot of pressure to come up with the goods all the time. I did Brazil and Yemen for them. The beauty of those jobs is you’re working for a prestige magazine, you know you’re going to get paid, and you go to very interesting places.
What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?
I find it quite hard to understand why certain magazines employ you, print your pictures and then refuse to pay you. There’s one in particular that does this and then even hides your credit in the gutter. That to me is a magazine that does not respect the value of photography or photographers.
Film or digital? Why?
They’re different. You can’t compare red wine with white wine and you can’t compare an oil painting with a watercolour. Digital is another tool in the toolbox. If Herbert Ponting or Frank Hurley were alive today, they’d be shooting digital and probably film too, because they would want to achieve what the client wanted. Ponting and Hurley were way ahead of their time.
What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?
It was from a book by Galen Rowell called ‘Galen Rowell’s inner game of outdoor photography’, where he talks about pre-visualisation, which is thinking about the shot before you take it. On the basis of that I always gather a shot list in my head before going on an expedition.
What does photography mean to you?
The camera is a better passport than a passport. You can use your camera to get into places that no one else can. I love the expedition photography best. I know a lot of photographers that earn a lot more money than me, but I have the best job in the world.
What makes a great travel photograph?
A great travel photograph is one that makes you want to be a travel photographer.
Martin’s 5 golden rules
1 Make sure you have a shot list
2 Shoot RAW. Don’t mess about with jpegs
3 Use proper gear – cheap stuff falls apart
4 It’s okay to shoot weddings and parties
5 Photograph what the client wants
Nikon D3, Mamiya 645 Pro TL, Fuji Provia 100 F220, Fuji flash cards, Gitzo tripod