The global award in photography and sustainability

Edgar Martins

Produced between 2005 and 2008, Martins’ painterly effects reach an apogee in his images of forest fires shot in Portugal. It is hard to believe that representations of ruin could be so seductive— this is especially true of those photographs shot along a creek, where the vivid greens of vegetation are just being invaded by flame, which drips off the riverbank and is reflected in the water.

In those photographs where the fire is more advanced, Martins achieves rich atmospheric effects. Thick haze focuses our attention on the foreground, as in the shot of a pair of pine trunks rising out of the ferns and set against a background of smoke. Atmospheric conditions have a pronounced effect on pictorial space. Only a couple of images have any suggestion of spatial depth— in one, we are looking up a blackened valley; in another, a road disappears into the smoke. The rest are foreshortened, focusing our attention on the qualities of line, the tonalities of smoke, the colours of flame. Martins’ intentions in these images were not only pictorial, of course; there is a contemporary anxiety to them as well. Portugal’s 2005/2008 fires were the result of extended drought and extreme heat; many believed them to be an expression of global climate change. Moreover, they could be seen as evidence of environmental mismanagement: much of the forest was eucalyptus, a fast-growing but extremely flammable tree that is frequently planted in reforestation projects. Martins was in search of this story as much as the pictorial effects in these images of fire.

There is a tantalising convergence of subject and medium in these smoky photographs. They both portray and are made possible by one material suspended in another: their subject is suspended carbon; their medium photographic emulsion. Martins went to considerable effort to capture these images: he completed a residency and training with fire fighters in Portalegre before being allowed to work in the field with them, and he coordinated his work with the National Fire Protection Unit. This effort, he recounts, was expressive of commitment he generally makes to the ‘sites, places, and people’ he photographs. In the case of the Portugal fires, it enabled him to work close-up to the flames, using a still wider-angled lens than he typically uses. Proximity to fire resulted in a technical accident that accounts in part for the quality of the images: in extreme close-ups of the flames, the film was fogged by exposure to intense heat, which reinforces the atmospheric quality of the smoke. In a sense, the subject became the medium here—the heat is presented as much as re-presented; it enacted a technical transformation that was encoded in the film itself.
As with previous works, The Diminishing Present is a photography of poised turbulence; full of stillness and silence yet haunted by mobility.

Whilst structured within the pictorial traditions of arcadian and romantic paintings, and for all their historical evocation and appeal to the sublime, these images reflect on both the physical death of the landscape and the death of the landscape as a pictorial ‘theme’.

Edgar Martins