Cade Martin, who started out in Richmond not knowing what he’d ever make of himself, now visits fascinating places, meets compelling people and makes photographs along the way. A little while ago, he wandered a Smithsonian storage facility to take images of an ancient Roman sarcophagus that President Andrew Jackson didn’t want, followed by a fashion shoot. Now, he's created miniature scenes of "Star Wars" in a Los Angeles studio using toys soon to be available at Target.
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Imperial Helmet: "I photographed this Imperial Helmet straight on, with a shallow depth of field," says Martin. "There had to be mist. Definitely mist. Red mist. Target red. The helmet dominates the image — no distortion, strong and foreboding, but like many of the darker 'Star Wars' characters, I pick up on a sense of oddity that takes the edge off of its menace. My camera is eye to eye to lend it heroic scale and to draw the viewer's gaze into the reflection of the approaching storm troopers. A small army of storm troopers reflects in the eyes, hinting at impending battle. While there is no action in the image, it implies something imminent." (Photo by Cade Martin)
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The Chase: Says Martin, "To capture this vignette, I wanted a slightly lower aerial POV where we are looking up just a bit into the blackness of space, dotted with stars and a red — Target red — glowing band, at the epic dogfight between the TIE Fighter and X-wing drone. Focus is on the aircraft, and the created perspective is from the inside of another TIE Fighter, both in the action and slightly removed from it. So many Star Wars battles take place isolated in the vast expanse of space, a focal point in an abyss." (Photo by Cade Martin)
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Just in Time: "The camera was positioned behind and a little below our Rebel Alliance figures, [encouraging] a skyward focus beyond them to a U-WIng landing to pick them up," says Martin. "The setting sun casts a red — a Target red — glow on the mountainous landscape in the distance. Despite the haze of kicked-up sand, the figures are clear in shadow, arms aloft, beckoning their rescue." (Photo by Cade Martin)
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Two Sides to Every Story: Martin says, "To capture these Funko Pop! figures, looming heroically large, I shot straight ahead, but just slightly below. The split screen is united by the figure but also the red circle, a red sun and red ship feature — Target red. The viewer stays engaged with both the characters and the combined narrative." (Photo by Cade Martin)
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Tinkering: "For this workbench vignette, we wanted the audience to see into the open cockpit, catch a sliver of the interior of the cockpit and the character in the Walker," explains Martin. "I positioned the camera above the Walker as it sits on the work surface; this also allowed for the viewer to also get a good perspective of the mechanic's garage. Ultimately, [it] allows us to be drawn to both the machine and the mechanic — illuminated by Target red light — as well as to the scale of the work he’s doing. It’s a tall order for that little mechanic to work on such a vehicle." (Photo by Cade Martin)
This kind of makes sense, in retrospect. Martin grew up on Hanover Avenue near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the son of artist Bernard Martin. The painter uses in his work pop cultural references from comic books and film; his art shows an interrelationship with both. The younger Martin grew up in an arts-rich environment, forming friendships with the children (often only children) of artists here. The whole whirl around the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café constituted a formative portion of his life.
“I grew up in that little community, but I never knew what I wanted to do,” says the Thomas Jefferson High School grad, who had tried Benedictine, but it wasn’t for him. “The only thing I was interested in doing was playing basketball. I was rudderless. I was fortunate in that I had parents who supported me in whatever I wanted to try.”
He was as regular at the Biograph Theater by the VCU campus, and the lighting and approach of moving pictures informed his still imagery. “I think I can learn something even from a bad movie. How it’s lit, how they’re framing the image.”
When old enough, he went first to Virginia Tech, but that didn’t suit him, and thus he came to Virginia Commonwealth University. “I thought it was a way station until I figured out where I wanted to go.” He took a hodgepodge of classes, including basic photography taught by grad student Elise Wright, “a Thursday-night class in the basement of a church,” he recalls.
Cade Martin grew up in Richmond and attended VCU. His international photography career spans a range of creative projects, including most recently a "Star Wars"-themed campaign for mega-retailer Target. (Photo courtesy Cade Martin Photography)
The classes involved earnest discussions about art and photography; he was intimidated and doubted that he could contribute. “I thought I was going to drop the class and I’d go play basketball, but I just never got around to dropping.” He started out with depth-of-field exercises and started getting encouraging feedback. This led to a summer class with Barbara Ames, another graduate student. He ended up graduating in general studies, “basically a liberal arts degree.”
The photography department’s head, George Nan, directed Martin to photographer David Stover, which led to an assistant position with Chuck Savage. “Working with Chuck was basically a graduate degree,” Martin says. “I’m really grateful to Chuck, who taught me what those VCU classes didn’t — which is how to make a living.”
After that, he spent a week trying to find himself in Portland and Seattle — right about the time of the plaid revolution of Nirvana and Soundgarden — and in the La Connor, Washington, home of novelist and former Richmonder Tom Robbins. Martin’s father created the cover for Robbins’ “Skinny Legs and All.” The younger Martin, for Penguin/Random House, photographed Robbins.
Then he went to Washington, D.C., and through the advice of filmmaker William Livingston he got an assignment with National Geographic. “We were chasing steam trains throughout India,” he says. “It ended up being a ‘death of steam’ story because they were transitioning to diesel and electric." The exotic expedition proved auspicious for more than just the trip on the Punjab Express: He married one of Livingston’s two employee, Malvina. “We’ve been together 20 years [and have] two children,” he says.
Martin thought D.C. was just another way station, but one thing led to another, from NatGeo to Discovery, from journalistic pieces, corporate clients and advertising to a book project — despite never having photographed dance before — for the Washington Ballet.
So much for general studies.
“I’m interested in characters,” Martin says. This has inspired him to make portraits of Civil War reenactors, costumed comic book enthusiasts and those who adorn their bodies with tattoos. He’d set up a booth at conventions and invite people in for their portraits. “They’re out of context to their environment; it’s just the person. It’s exhibitionism and voyeurism.” He just returned from Mexico, where he photographed a circus performer known as the “Wolf Man.”
“He was a nice, shy Wolf Man,” Martin says.
A call came from Target through Deutsch L.A., his representative agency on the West Coast. “The client in this case sends out ‘mood boards’ to indicate what they’re looking for,” Martin says. “They have in mind the kind of vignettes they want.” He’d been a still photographer on video sets and while waiting around for his time to jump in he’d studied lighting and scene direction. He's also a fan of Ray Harryhasuen’s incredible stop-motion techniques.
“I thought of 'Toy Story.' And without wanting to sound pretentious, I wanted to create small worlds and photograph them cinematically.”
Thus, for three days in a Burbank, California, studio, with a small team of assistants and some 30 people, including crew and representatives of various entities from Target to Disney to Lucasfilm, Martin made his own version of “Star Wars.” All the effects are practical — made in camera, created through lights, a smoke machine and good angles.
“This is for the 'Rogue One' movie that’s coming out,” he says. And, as of now, he doesn’t know how the images will get used, other than on the web. “I’ve seen them cropping up on Instagram and Pinterest, but I don’t know where they’ll end up other than that. It's par for the course, though, and I'd love to see them large and in print.”
Rather than a galaxy far away, Martin’s images may end up at a Target near you.