Subprime surreal estate
Haunted houses: Deserted $10m mansion in Connecticut, New England, from Edgar Martins' This Is Not A House exhibition
Haunted houses: Ghost estate in Atlanta, Georgia, from Edgar Martins' This Is Not A House exhibition
Haunted houses: Surreal seating from Phoenix, Arizona, from Edgar Martins' This Is Not A House exhibition
Haunted houses: An interior in Atlanta, from Edgar Martins' This Is Not A House exhibition
Edgar Martins has cleverly subverted our familiarity with house imagery in order to draw us in and then provide a surprise element
On the face of it, the work of the Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins, whose This Is Not A House exhibition is currently running at the Gallery of Photography in Meeting House Square, is a million miles away from the cute itsy-bitsy images we’re used to seeing on property websites. Huge, beautiful and almost unnervingly perfect, Martins’s pictures are clearly works of art in their own right.
In fact, however, Martins has cleverly subverted our familiarity with house imagery in order to draw us in and make the subject accessible. “I really want to give the viewer the sense that he or she is looking at a straight, objective photograph,” he says. “And then, slowly, you become aware that something else is going on within the images.”
In 2008, Martins was commissioned by the New York Times to produce a photo-essay about the economic downturn and the catastrophe of the subprime lending crisis. He spent six weeks travelling around 16 locations spread over six states, photographing “suburban homes, apartment blocks, hotels, ski resorts, golf courses . . . you name it”.
When the piece was published, Martins quickly found himself embroiled in a crisis of his own. “It became the focus of a heated debate, due to my decision to digitally reshape a few of the images,” he says. “People started questioning everything that was in the images.”
One of the most striking photographs in the exhibition is of a deserted $10-million (€7.6m) mansion in Connecticut. The viewer looks into a white room framed by a proscenium arch – it might be a theatre set – with a wooden floor leading to double doors. The heightened symmetry of the image gives it a weird beauty which is ratcheted up a notch by the presence of some very poetic leaves scattered across the hallway.
“People started asking whether the leaves were placed there on purpose,” Martins says, adding that there’s a debate to be had about the whole notion of photo-journalism and visual “truth” in the digital age, and that he’s happy to have contributed to that debate. “But, you know,” he adds, with regard to his Connecticut photograph, “the leaves were in fact there.”
As to how he got access to these extraordinary properties, he smiles. “In the case of the mansion, all I had to do was just open the door,” he says. “Nothing was locked. There were no security personnel.” What moved him most, though, was the sheer scale of the abandonment.