Interview by LA Maritime Museum Director Marifrances Trivelli.
The new children’s exhibit at the Museum: “What’s Going on in the Harbor Today?” is unique in that it focuses on the daily operations of LA Harbor, and features a custom work of art. Photographer and MaritimeMatters Founder, Martin Cox created a photo mosaic of harbor traffic from hundreds of photos he took from the Museum’s roof.Here’s how it happened…
So, the Museum presented you with a blank wall and you were commissioned to create something that would appeal to both children and adults. It had to be contemporary yet classic. How did you decide upon a photo mosaic?
I chose a collage or photo-mosaic approach for this commission for a few reasons. One being the theme of the new room: “What’s going on in the harbor today?” The port has such a lot going on, but usually not all at once. I knew I wanted to show the view from the Museum of the harbor, but with action such as container ships coming in, and bulk carriers going out, tugs on the move, birds, helicopters, yachts.There’s always a hive of activity and I wanted to catch that. There is a range of color and light reflecting from the ships, sky or cranes and onto the water. By shooting all these things as I saw them, I knew I could weave them into one single image. It’s a way of condensing time into one moment.
Another reason for using the mosaic approach was to distinguish what would be another huge photograph from other huge photographs already in the Museum’s collection. While some images might be interesting because of when they were taken, other might be valued by who took them or the subject, I wanted to make an art work that would read differently.
Two things influenced this project. One was David Hockney’s “Pearblossom Highway” where he used hundreds of photos to make an image of a desert crossroads, a kind of painting with photography. But unlike Hockney, who shot each element in the picture from a different vantage point, I chose one point of view and varied the scale within each picture.
My second influence was from my home port of Southampton, England. As a kid I would see medieval maritime tapestries of the port at the Tudor House Museum and at Southampton City Art Gallery. These tapestries used a slightly elevated point of view and “mapped” various activities in the port including warships and merchant vessels and other harbor activities that encompassed an idealized view while at the same time they often had that strange medieval perspective to our contemporary eye. It was this unusual perspective that intrigued me to attempt a similar view from the Maritime Museum’s roof.
Tell us about spending so much time on the roof of the Museum. What did you notice from that vantage point, in terms of the harbor traffic, or vistas?
I actually set up on the roof of the Museum with my camera and a long lens three times in different weather, mostly in the afternoon to get the light illuminating the incoming ships, but varied skies. I chose a spot just above the room where the mosaic is displayed so the viewer from the window will see more or less of what I saw when they look at the image on the wall and then turn to the look outside at the view, like an animated reflection.
I wanted a green ship in the picture. I already had an abundance of blue, so I consulted ship arrival timetables to find an Evergreen Shipping container vessel coming in (as I knew it has a green hull whereas many of the other container ships are blue or black). I spent a total of about six hours on the roof capturing sections of the view. By being there that long I would catch the tugs leaving their dock, various ships moving about and cranes at different positions.
Take us step-by-step as to what happened after you got off the roof and sat down in your studio.
I first started by printing small groups of photographs and line them up together. I had an idea in my mind of the overall image and this was not working at all. I edited some of the images by enlarging sections of them to bring some smaller areas closer and cropping the frames.I printed about twice as many images as are used in the final piece. I worked with groups of images like a jigsaw puzzle. The red tug, for example, is actually made up of three different tugs. I wanted to rebuild the tug but without make it exact, imply motion. This process moved to a wall where I taped up the photos in groups to connect parts of the image, then I’d sit back and imagine how that section might work with another area. Gradually, as the overall picture appeared and grew, scenes within the overall picture gradually met one another eventually reached the outside edge of the frame. I used between 250 and 300 pictures in the final piece. It took about two weeks to assemble.
Did any image or boat not make it into the final product, and why?
Yes, there were a few ships that passed by that did not make it into to the final image. Once I had established the position of the battleship IOWA, the bridge and the container ship, there was not room for similar sized vessels, so I used them instead in the far distance or dropped them from final piece. I included few helicopters.
What were some of the technical details that had to be worked out?
I was using standard machine made photographic prints measuring 6×4 inches. The image on my studio wall grew to about 7 feet in width, I knew when I re-photographed it for the print out with commercial output lab, the final picture would be about double the size so I decided to add a few details not easily noticed. (Note: the mural was printed and installed by Wellington Signs and Graphics of San Pedro)
The Museum had given me some digital images of the port from its historic photo collection and I added an old sailing ship that had been shot in black and white. I made this image partially transparent, like a piece of history bleeding through. I also made a few of my images into black and white or slightly exaggerated color to add to the layer effect. If you look closely at the red tug there is a chap holding a camera that might be me.
I turned over the large digital file to Wellington Signs & Graphics who were to make the giant printout for the wall. I worked with them to match color samples and we decided on a matte finish to reduce reflection from the windows opposite.
What are some of your current projects?
I am working on a new project that also has an element of time in it.I recently photographed an ancient manor house in the north of England that had been lived in by one family for over 700 years. The house was at a crucial moment in it’s history as it was being sold and cleared. This unearthing of historical debris, architectural contrasts and personal effects intrigued me enough yo go there for 10 days.This new photographic series had its first public viewing in January (2015) at the art far Photo LA (via Sarah Lee Projects) and will be featured in an upcoming article in Lenscratch and hopefully an exhibition later in the year.
I continue with MaritimeMatters.com which I founded in 1995, and I also have a website photo site at www.martincox.com with my photography projects and series with a sign up page for my email list.
Thank you Marifrances for both the opportunity to work with the Museum and the interview.
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.