Warping Reality: Photographer Cade Martin's Surreally Beautiful View of the World


Shadow Fantasies
“The concept was to create an image of an elegant dancer who was dramatically lit and that had the client’s logo as her shadow.” RP3 is the agency and Norfolk Southern Railroad the client.
All Photos © Cade Martin

For many of us, capturing what’s directly in front of the lens is our primary concern. We’re focused on reality. Some of us, however, like to step outside the box, to be inventive and let our imaginations soar. That, in a nutshell, describes the photography of Cade Martin. Martin isn’t satisfied with simply capturing moments in time, in finite space. He prefers to warp time and space, to enter his own dimension. And that quality in his work is what draws clients to him.

The Magic Forest
This image is from a campaign for the New York Philharmonic. “The idea was to create a magical forest, a Pied Piper scenario in which the music was drawing out the animals from the trees. I photographed the redwood forest in Northern California, and separately shot Leelanee Sterrett, a horn player with the Philharmonic, in a studio, concluding with the horses at an old circus that doubles as a prop rental house in Riverside, California.” A making-of video can be found online at https://vimeo.com/147330423.

Why Be Normal?
One thing that separates Martin from the pack is that he’s not afraid to push the envelope. “I’d like to say that my goal is to have clients see me as a photographer who will approach their project from this perspective,” Martin noted. “Certainly, I’ve evolved from where I started. I now also enjoy making nontraditional images; exploring what CGI (Computer Graphics Imaging) and postproduction can bring to the table as well. Ultimately, I want clients to consider me accommodating and easy to work with—collaborative and solutions-based—no matter the scope and scale of the project.”

So, how would one describe Martin’s fantastical, future-forward images? At least one blogger has called his work “surreal.” Asked to comment on this, Martin replied: “I’ve definitely heard the word surreal used to describe some of my work, but I’ve also heard highly realistic and very fantastic as well. For me as the photographer, I don’t rely too heavily on classification. Instead I make every effort to find the best technique and approach aesthetically for each project.”

How else would he describe his work? “It can be tough to talk about one’s work, but I can say that I’ve come to realize that, as a whole, my work has a somewhat minimalist feel to it. Whether or not I’m lighting something more cinematically, shooting composite images for post, or even a simple portrait, I strive to keep the overall image very simple and clean.”

I pushed the matter further, with a question concerning several of his website galleries, namely the ones titled “Style,” “Conceptual,” “Dance,” and “Personal,” noting that these are certainly edgy and out there. Martin responded: “I had to look back at those portfolios to see what would spark that question. In those situations, to bring concepts to life, I’ve definitely ended up pushing boundaries. In my personal projects I simply follow my instincts to end up with an image that showcases what I see and feel. When the possibilities are endless, you end up with photographs that are new and interesting and that challenge the viewer.”

“I collaborated with Design Army and the Washington Ballet to create a one-of-a-kind book commemorating Septime Webre’s 10th year as the dance company’s artistic director. With over 50 dancers performing in locations throughout Washington D.C., the commemorative book is a truly unique blend of art and fashion. It is aptly titled Wonderland.”

I’m a Little Teapot
This image was shot for the launch of the Starbucks Tazo tea collection. The images appeared on the packaging, as well as at the Tazo store in Seattle. “We worked in Los Angeles at a variety of locations—one being the Greystone Mansion. We cast dancers for some of the roles—specifically, people who could create interesting shapes with their bodies.” If you look closely, you’ll see the woman appears to be a teapot.

A Storyteller at Heart
Many of us can only strive to say something with our photographs. Martin actually succeeds in telling stories with his images, not as a photojournalist or photo documentarian, but simply as a photographer with an eye toward the illogical and unexpected. Where does that creative vision come from?

“Growing up I often found myself at the dinner table surrounded by an eclectic cast of characters—sculptors, writers, painters—and their presence shaped my artistic foundation,” Martin recalled. “That creative childhood formed my eye for the candid beauty to be found in people from all walks of life. I’ve been chasing characters and their stories ever since. I seek their stories in every picture I take. Storytelling is everything in a photograph.”

What influences his storytelling may surprise you. “I certainly look at and collect photography books, but I’ve always been influenced by the cinema. I can always learn something by watching a film. Also, I’ve been reading and collecting comics, as well as going to comic book conventions, since I was a little boy. Comics, their aesthetic and themes, are a big part of who I am. I’m an only child, and I, like a lot of only children, grew up surrounded by adults and invented my own worlds in my head. I’ve always been a bit of a daydreamer and my school years were often filled with my mind wandering to what I’d found and expanded upon in movies and comic books.

“For me, inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere, and it’s part of my job as a creative to be open to it. And I especially love commercial jobs where I get to collaborate with lots of people. Bringing together a team means that you never know when or where a great idea is going to come from.”

“I worked with the Starbucks in-house team on the Tazo tea campaign. Taking cues from my portfolio, they honed in on the use of movie lighting and we pushed the work in a cinematic direction. I pulled together a team with a lot of feature film experience to bolster that look and feel and we worked for three days at two Los Angeles locations, Greystone Mansion and the Huntington Botanical Gardens. The results exude a hint of whimsy and magic and are a nod to a blend of eras, places, and cultures.”

Washingtonian Bride & Groom Magazine
This image was created for an editorial project for Washingtonian Bride & Groom magazine. “I collaborated with Design Army, one of my favorite agencies to work with. The concept aimed to show the wedding to-do list in an interesting way.”

Cinematic Vision
Martin’s love of the movies, moviemaking, and dramatic lighting is key to his work. “As someone who grew up with a love for anything cinematic, getting the chance to create images with beautiful lighting and a majestic look and feel is about as good as it gets,” Martin noted. “I enjoy approaching my photography by studying the scenes and thinking about what type of lighting would make sense in reality. From there, I work out how to elevate the lighting and ultimately use it to create the final mood and reaction we are going for. On set, we always have complete control over all of these elements.

“The lighting approach, as well as the amount of gear, really depends on the project, environment, and tone we’re trying to set. It could just be the subject and myself in a field using only available light or it could be a large production with trucks full of lighting, grip equipment, and generators. The lighting design could incorporate Profoto strobe equipment and modifiers to Arrimax HMIs, depending on our approach and budget.”

Finally, I asked Martin if he had any shooting tips when it comes to creating fantasies with the camera? He responded: “Belief in yourself. If you get too caught up in why something might not work or what could go wrong, you lose the element of fantasy. Going for it—failing sometimes and then believing you can do it when you try again—that’s the key.”

Faster Is Better
“After being brought onboard to help promote the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in Chicago, I took to the streets to scout the perfect Chicago locations. It was no easy feat: each image had to represent a quality befitting both the ideal HR candidate and the conference itself, with each location physically fitting that defining term.”

“I collaborated with Design Army to create ONEderful, a whimsical world of fuzzy bunnies, baby chicks, talking bears, and smiling clouds for the ONE Show global campaign, where deadlines give way to creative euphoria and that ONE elusive idea suddenly hits you and takes form.”

Martin’s Favorite Gear
“My favorite piece of gear is a Husky knee pad. I probably use it every day when working.”

What’s in Martin’s Gear Bag
• Canon 5D Mark III (two bodies)
• Canon lenses: 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8

Cade Martin operates out of Los Angeles and New York City. To see more of his work, visit cademartin.com, or on Instagram: @cademartinphoto.