Australian photographer Martyn Thompson left Sydney in 1988, and hasn’t looked back. After some time in Paris and London, he settled in New York in 1999, and the rest, as they say, is history. His prolific output, prodigious talent behind the lens, and distinctive aesthetic have paved the way for a truly remarkable career, working with great international designers such as Ilse Crawford, and for brands including Hermes, Tiffany & Co. and Ralph Lauren.
There’s no mistaking New York’s magnetism. Creatives from all over the world are susceptible to its gravitational pull. Many of our best and brightest Australian creatives have done their obligatory stint in NYC – some return home after notching up a few noteworthy career milestones, others never return.
Today’s interviewee is one such expat, a prodigiously talented photographer with a unique aethsthetic, who has carved out the most incredible career since leaving Sydney behind over 25 years ago. His story is like a kind of fairytale… there’s something a little bit magical about the life and times of Martyn Thompson.
Martyn left Sydney for Paris in 1988, and was there for 3 years before moving to London (after falling in love with an Englishman). In 1999, he made the move to New York City. He’s now been in New York for 15 years, and for much of that time has been living and working out of the MOST AMAZING loft in SoHo. (Photos above – they defy belief!). ‘For the past 11 I have been in my loft on Prince Street, it’s in the old Singer Building, built in 1904’ explains Martyn. ‘It was love at first sight, I wanted it as soon as the real estate broker said, ‘You can’t afford it’ !
Martyn initially studied English literature in Sydney, but was always attracted to the visual world. It wasn’t long before he began dabbling in photography and shooting for local magazines… and before long his distinct aesthetic was noticed by the people who matter! He was encouraged to move to Paris to propel his career, and of course he obliged. In the early nineties he began collaborating with Australian editor, Jane Roarty, who played a big role in his creative direction. Together the pair shot many stories, and through Jane, Martyn met Ilse Crawford, who at the time was editor of British Elle Decoration. (Dying! Ilse = all time hero).
Over his career, Martyn has photographed people, places, fashion, food, and interiors. His photographs are distinctive – always richly layered and full of theatre. Even an empty room seems to tell a story when captured by Martyn’s lens. There is a rawness and uniquely tactile aesthetic to his work, influenced in part by his great love and respect for handcraftsmanship.
Martyn’s clients over the years have included Hermes, Tiffany & Co. and Ralph Lauren, as well as international editorial publications including Vogue, Architectural Digest and W Magazine. He has photographed two books by his friend and regular collaborator Ilse Crawford, as well as creating two beautiful books of his own – ‘Interiors‘ (2011) and ‘Working Space‘ (2013)
In addition to his impressive work behind the lens, in recent years Martyn has expanded his creative practice. Martyn Thompson Studio is the name of his multidisciplinary creative studio, and it is under this umbrella that Martyn now creates limited edition art, and designs a striking collection of fabrics and wallpaper inspired by his photography practice.
We are very chuffed to chat to Martyn about his incredible career and prolific creative practice. It is SO inspiring. Makes me want to jump on an aeroplane immediately. For those craving even more after reading this interview, do check out Martyn’s lovely blog, which is thoughtful and endearingly earnest. He’s also well worth following on Instagram.
Tell us a little about your background – what did you study, did you always want to be a photographer, and what path led you to the kind of work you’re doing now?
After I left school I studied English literature at Sydney University, but by the time I’d finished my degree I didn’t want to write another essay, and realised I was far more attracted to the visual world. Music and fashion had always been my principal interests. I started hand-painting fabrics and soon after opened a shop with a group of friend in Taylors Square called ‘Ox’. Often I would photograph the clothes, and eventually I became more interested in this process than the clothes themselves.
I began shooting fashion stories for local magazines, particularly Follow Me and Stiletto. These caught the attention of an Australian stylist who was very successful in Europe and who encouraged me to move to Paris. Slowly my photography began to embrace elements outside of fashion. In the early nineties, an Australian editor, Jane Roarty, really encouraged me to broaden my perspective. Together we shot many stories about people and their lifestyle: the food they ate and the things they made, often for the Australian title Vogue Entertaining. Through Jane, I met Ilse Crawford, who at the time was editor of British Elle Decoration. The interior environment had always been a part of my fashion photos – much of my work involved creating an environment to put a model in. Ilse simply asked me to take the model out!
What prompted you to make the move from London to NYC and set up your photographic studio there?
I was excited by the work environment in New York. Companies had large production budgets, which allowed me to work in a totally different way. In London I was accustomed to finding the location, styling the location and taking the photographs. In New York, rather than drawing on just my own ideas, I was able to collaborate with and learn from other specialists. The New York market was a better fit for my still life and lifestyle imagery. I met a creative director named Robert Valentine, who really championed me and had me working on all these amazing projects. I was in New York so often; I became almost a permanent resident at Morgan’s Hotel. It just made sense to move here.
What have been some projects in NYC that have kept you occupied in recent months that you are excited about?
The last few months have been full of travel. I have been in London a number of times. Firstly to shoot my friend, Ilse Crawford’s studio for WSJ magazine (the glossy monthly magazine supplement for the Wall Street Journal Newspaper) and again shooting fashion accessories for Italian magazines, Amica and l’Official. Across America to San Francisco and Los Angeles, then down to Mexico City and the Bahamas.
Back in New York I’ve been busy working on the new collection for my fabric and wallpaper studio, a relatively new endeavor. I’ve always loved textiles so to be producing my photos in a fabric form feels very natural; it speaks to the tactility I try to imbue all my images with.
The first collection ‘Cezanne’s Shadow’ is floral (I’m obsessed with flowers). I was inspired by Cezanne’s ‘Vase with Blue Tulip’ which resulted in a series of photos titled ‘Falling In Love at the Institute’. I tried reproducing the photos on various media and I came across this jacquard tapestry process. I loved it. Holding the fabric, it seemed like all of my worlds coming together.
How would you describe your approach to photography, and what influences the style of your work?
The light is the key. I like to set up a situation and search for the picture within it. I prefer to work with daylight as it’s dynamic and always changing.
My first great inspiration was Paolo Roversi, famous for his work 10×8 polaroids, that had a painterly quality that I look for when creating my own images.
Can you give us an insight into the day in the life of Martyn Thompson? What does a typical day at work involve for you?
In a sense there isn’t a typical working day, which is one of the beautiful things about it. Commercial work is a group activity and involves a combination of imagination, delegation and sometimes a degree of bossiness! Managing people and managing a business are necessary components to most of my days. Though when I’m working on a personal project, I like to work in isolation, away from the Internet and other interference.
Can you list for us 5 resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
1. Music: I’m very attached to the music of my teenage years, it’s a constant source of inspiration. Whether that’s ambient sounds of Brian Eno or the glam music of Marc Bolan.
2 My boyfriend, Dove Drury Hornbuckle. He’s a great critic of my work and a voice from a different generation which keeps me intellectually and creatively challenged.
4. Documentaries: I love to see other people’s working process (Thank you Netflix!).
5. Instagram, I’m addicted!
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?
Michelle Outland and Fiorella Valdesolo, who put together the food magazine Gather Journal, they are really pushing the boundaries of what a food title can be.
Andrea Blanch from Musee Magazine, for championing new photographic talent.
Josh Gurrie from MAC cosmetics, check out his beautiful paintings on his Instagram.
What is your proudest career achievement to date?
The sense of evolution. I’ve been able to embrace change and have experimentation at the core of what I do.
What would be your dream project?
I feel like I’m always working dream projects, I am fortunate to have a lot of creative freedom in my work.
What are you looking forward to?
The Chinese New Year, the current year of the horse has been a true labour of love and I wouldn’t mind things flowing a little more smoothly!
NEW YORK QUESTIONS
Your favourite NYC neighbourhood and why?
The East Village, there’s fabulous ethnic restaurants and still some sense of Old New York.
Where and what was the last great meal you ate in NYC?
A Parsnip salad and Chili Squid at Navy in SoHo. Absolutely delish and the interior is incredibly stylish, it feels very hand crafted. The walls are upholstered with denim.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Having Breakfast at Siggis in Soho.
NYC’s best kept secret?
Abrons Art Centre, they have a wonderful program for fringe and emerging performing artists.