Peter Martens: Down And Out In New York

category: > Features, > History Now/Then, > Photography

written by: Jaap Proost

DUTCH photographer Peter Martens frequently visited New York City in time when it was dirty and dangerous. And whenever he was there, he kept an eye out for those who call the streets home.


In Martens pictures the homeless look like the living dead, waiting for the end in a society that doesn’t care. He visited New York mostly in the period 1976-1986. The economic depression put the city in decline. Many people lost their jobs and homes and, with a smaller social safety net, ended up in the streets. Poverty, drug abuse and crime were part of everyday life in New York in those years. Martens took interest in the people on the edge of society and roamed the grime city to portray them.


Born in Rotterdam in 1937, Peter Martens started his career making wedding pictures. Taking photos of ‘the happiest day of their life’ must somehow felt unnatural for Martens, looking at his later oeuvre. As a photographer he focused on the underdogs and outcasts and traveled the world to portray them. Martens always stayed close to his subject. He rented rooms in shabby hotels in bad neighborhoods. No warm bath or a clean bed waited for him when he returned from his long walks through the gutter.




His pictures look like cold observations, but that was the way he wanted to work. Martens tried to filter out any sentiment. He once stated that photo machines you can find on railway stations make the most realistic portraits. ‘Just put in a coin. No other party is needed.’


He had no problems making pictures of these vulnerable persons. ‘If you really care and have a sincere interest, you may portray a person in every thinkable way. With an open eye and a warm heart’, he believed. The homeless, the deformed and the victims of violence, pain and solitude could always count on his sympathy. ‘Why him and not me?’, as Martens once said while talking about his work. ‘That questions is always in the back of my mind. You too can be outcast tomorrow, or someone you love’.


Peter Martens was nominated to join Magnum, but it didn’t resulted in a membership. He died in 1992. The pictures from the archive of the Nederlands Fotomuseum.


P.S. Notice the teddy bear in the first picture of the image gallery. Its slightly tilted head looks compassionate. Like it’s trying to say: ‘Hey buddy, are you all right?’ This bear cares.




Click on the double squares in the lower right corner to see the popout pictures




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