Haunted Cars and a Rare Interview with Paul Martini

Eli Beck here. After Bluff’s prolific photographer Paul Martini sent me a series of “haunted” car photos, I had the opportunity to record an interview with him. Enjoy his photos below, and note that the interview has been edited for length and clarity. Here’s how Paul started off the conversation:

I have some ambivalence about accompanying photographs because in general I have a philosophy that a good photo doesn’t need a single word. I think photographs share a similarity with jokes in that, if they have to be explained, they’ve already failed. There’s this tendency nowadays for photographers to go on and on at length about a photograph and that just does nothing for me. No amount of dialogue can make a photo any better. Or any worse for that matter.

Sometimes I try and title a photograph in a way that will direct the viewer, turn it to how I feel about it, or see it, but I try to avoid that.

Another example: John Coltrane said that he never put liner notes on his albums, and he said everything I have to say is in the music.

So I think even a really good photograph sometimes will ask more questions than it answers.

EB: You’re known for spectacular night sky shots and then the first photo you sent me was this one of peeling paint. And it took me by surprise. So I’m wondering, what drew you to these cars?

PM: Yeah, that’s just textures. That’s another one of those things that draws and attracts photographers. I have a photographer friend of mine who once said anything with rust on it draws photographers like a moth to flame.

In general I’m drawn to this theme of entropy; it’s kind of a commentary on human culture. You could get more in depth than you need to about it but that’s part of it I think. You know what a throwaway culture we are. Sometimes I see things like that and what I’m thinking is, boy, if this old car could talk.

One of my all-time favorite old car photos I ever did is one that Zak published in the Canyon Echo a while back is that old Ford Galaxy that’s in the old Bluff dump and I did a shot of it with the Milky Way and then I inverted the photo and I titled it, “Don’t drink and drive to other planets.”

EB: Could you talk about how you achieved the haunted look?

PM: You know, it was maybe not so much a conscious effort, but I do the lighting to a point that it, first and foremost, it has to please my aesthetics. If aesthetically I like it, I go with it and I don’t always know why.

Frequently in shots like that, I will rearrange the lighting and readjust the lighting multiple times. I might do 10 or 20 shots of a subject like that, and ultimately I decide on one that maybe comes closest to what I’m thinking about it.

EB: I imagine you out there, especially with your night shots, alone. I wonder just how long you must have spent in almost total caffeinated silence.

PM: Yeah, I’m really working caffeinated yeah. But yeah, people don’t realize how much time and effort goes into just setting up a shot. There are times that it’s an hour or 90 minutes setting up the lighting and setting up a shot. And a lot of times I’ve got the lights hundreds of yards apart from each other. So, ‘Oh I could make that a little better’ and ‘I could turn that one up a little bit’ and it’s a lot of walking back and forth.

One night my wife and I were camping out above Hite and I was doing a shot maybe a quarter mile from where we had our trailer. Joyce was sitting there in the chair watching me and that was one of those that took 90 minutes setting up the shot, she said. I had no idea. She was watching my headlights going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and up and down the hillside.

One of the things I started doing because sometimes, working on a moonless night in the dark when I go off to adjust or move the lights or something, I will take another headlamp or another small flashlight and set it on the ground at the base of the tripod. Because I’ve had it happen where I can’t find my way back to my tripod.

But that’s a luxury, being out there. It’s just so still and peaceful, which has always been one of the attractions of the desert for me. It’s just the stillness of it. Even if I get out there and I don’t get a shot, I got to spend time out in that beautiful place in that quiet.

EB: Well, I appreciate you sharing it.

PM: I’m glad you like it.

Don’t drink and drive to other planets.

The ghost!