A photographic record of the small modeling scene in 1990s Dublin – The Irish Times
When Paul Martin left school, he had considered a career in music. But, as he recalls in his new book First Face, which takes a unique look at the small Dublin modeling scene of the 1990s, he discovered a passion for beauty photography after falling into fashion.
“I used to wonder how I ended up doing fashion photography, but my mum was a photographer and I joined the photo club at school when I was 11, so I guess it’s not not so mysterious,” he says. “Then when I was living in London and found out someone was looking for a darkroom assistant, I got into the job.”
He started taking photos of friends in his spare time. He had a good eye for fashion and built up a small portfolio of work, but struggled to break out of the assistant role and only featured in a free magazine called Ms London.
Then in 1994, when he was back in Dublin, he called Assets Model Agency, and after some back and forth they looked at his portfolio and agreed to let him photograph a few of their models. The tests went well, earning him further tests with new models joining the agency, and he ended up commuting between London and Dublin every two weeks.
“Unwittingly, I put together an archive of work that was a unique glimpse into a world that people rarely have access to,” he says.
The 1990s marked a significant shift in fashion photography away from the traditional system where photographers had their own studios, towards a more raw and natural style. The Dublin fashion scene was small, but buzzing with energy and creative freedom, and Martin was part of it.
“My biggest influence was British photographer Corinne Day, who opened the door to a new generation who suddenly understood that fashion photography shouldn’t be an exclusive club for established photographers with big studios. She established the model in the alternate shot order a bag of clothes, the model and the stylist at the beach and just having fun mixing styles.
“90s fashion photography was a reaction against the artifice and facade of previous decades – and my combination of urban decay, makeshift studios, alternative models and limited equipment met with more success than I expected. never could have hoped for.”
With his fondness for less “conventional” models, the title of Martin’s book First Face refers to the fact that he has always captured new faces. The more established models were more likely to work with experienced photographers, but as he established himself he always enjoyed working with new models who didn’t have an established routine and looked more natural in front of the camera. Although most of the models that feature in First Face are unknown, the book also features some familiar faces, including the first test for a young Caitríona Balfe (who became the face of Calvin Klein and recently starred in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast), shot at Martin’s studio in Clontarf, Dublin, shortly after being scouted by Assets.
“While fashion photography across the decades is very well represented in capitals like London and New York, there is little valuable material from Dublin,” says Martin.
“Britpop was as big in Ireland as it was in the UK and as it was before the internet I used to religiously choose ID, The Face and Italian Vogue to keep up with trends and ideas. Photographers met regularly at professional labs like Primary Color to get the film processed and swap stories on set, and you’d regularly see models walking through town holding their books [portfolios].”
The 70 black-and-white images in the book are a selection of Martin’s best work, forgotten model tests and never-before-seen footage from editorial shoots, capturing the optimism of a generation of hopeful young models.
A lot has changed in the past three decades and fashion photography has fallen victim to digitalization, Martin believes.
“Most of the magazines have either closed or gone online, which is kind of the same thing,” he says. “At the time, there were a lot of creators with small shops, but unfortunately they all left and were not replaced, while go-sees and physical wallets were replaced by websites where customers can view photos, stats and follow models’ social media.
“It’s efficient, but it serves the commercial side of the business much more than the artistic and relational side.”
Martin got into education for a short time, creating a smartphone course for an online education academy, but soon left to join a small studio, which he eventually managed.
“Digital technology has transformed the industry, and while it initially offered a convenient and predictable workflow, the reduction in skills needed to produce photographs has eroded the art of fashion photography,” he says.
“Now I see works created by legends barely get 100 likes [on social media] while low-level influencers can easily get 10,000 and celebrities can get millions. This is how the world is today.
With First Face, Martin hopes to rekindle some of the magic of pre-internet photography, and says the latest technology isn’t necessarily always the best.
“I hope people will enjoy my book as a glimpse into the last decade of the millennium which also more or less coincided with the last decade of cinema,” he says.
“Don’t let digital fool you into thinking you’ve got the shot; there could be more magic there. Remember that fashion photography is less about photography and more about fashion, but even more about the model.
Martin says anyone considering photography as a career should be prepared for setbacks, but determination is key.
“Good fashion photography is where the model is first and the fashion is very close second,” he says. “The motivation to become a fashion photographer must be the desire to imagine stunning fashion images with a fresh new face, to craft fashion stories with a coterie of stylists, models, makeup artists and hairstylists. releases, don’t just show off the work you’ve already done; show editors what you can do for them and motivate them to work with you.”
Fashion photography is teamwork, he says. “Working with a good team that understands the nebulous and ineffable chemistry at work is essential. But don’t be seduced by seamless beauty; a lot of pretty girls fade in front of the camera, so always look for that quirky, quirky look – photographers succeed by seeing something that others don’t, and then being able to show what they see.
First Face is available exclusively from The Library Project in Temple Bar, thelibraryproject.ie