Cade Martin on bringing fantastical storytelling to life

The son of an art professor and a freethinking mother, Cade Martin had worlds opened up to him from an early age. After college, Cade became a photographer, working as a photojournalist for National Geographic and Discovery before utilizing his artistic sensibilities in commercial work.

He has created well-defined and innovative photography in a number of advertising campaigns, eventually being named by Lürzer’s Archive — one of the preeminent advertising industry trade publications — as one of the world’s 200 best photographers.

Self Portrait

Cade’s cinematic approach to his work stems from growing up around culture, and from a relentless determination, as he puts it, in “chasing characters.” Whether it is creating evocative portraits of Vietnam War era military pilots in “Over War,” his conceptual approach to advertising photography, or the playfully lively series on cosplayers at Comic Con, Cade’s elegantly defined photography expose with a penetrating vision and does indeed capture who he pursues.

In this interview with Focus on the Story, Cade discusses his background and approach to his photography, including his new project, Over War.

An image from Wonderland – a book of fantastical images featuring The Washington Ballet.

Mike Lee: Tell us a little about growing up, and the influence of your parents. What comes to mind that had the greatest impact on you that fueled you to become a photographer?

Cade Martin: Both my father and my mother were influential in my career choice, a little nature, a little nurture. My parents embraced the creative in their lives and work.

I grew up in a part of Richmond, Virginia that was really rich with art and culture. I was supported and empowered to make my own choices and follow my own trajectory. I feel compelled to tell you on their behalf, because that they would have been just as supportive if I had wanted to be a lawyer or a dentist.

My earliest interest in photography comes from the idea of characters. I grew up surrounded by really creative and eclectic people whose dinner table musings on art and culture and philosophy were a constant reinforcement of the idea that pursuing creative work was valuable and valid.

In addition, I was an only child, often escaping the adult world around me – getting lost in the tales and characters of comic books and movies, interested in not only who they were, but how they were revealed.

Images from a Starbucks campaign for Tazo Tea.

Lee: What strikes me the most about so much of your conceptual work is the fantasy elements and your striking wonderment of your imagination. Who and what inspired you?

Martin: I’ll start with where I left off in the last question – Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Bermuda Triangle, Lone Ranger, Tarzan and Zorro – I find it all captivating and mysterious. These are seeds planted by movies and comics; from that was to believe in the extraordinary.

Stories, legends and characters all provide inspiration – one thing always leads to another, the kernel of one inspires and informs the next.

The characters in comics and movies and fantasy have taken me everywhere–different countries, different worlds–in search of superheroes, secret identities, romance, war and evil lairs – and who doesn’t love an evil lair? – to name a few.

Colors, sights, sounds – different artists, different genres, nothing was too outlandish and anything was possible – the lack of boundaries in fairy tales is freeing, and has been very inspirational.

Lee: How does the fantasy influence dovetail with your portrait series “Comic Con Cosplay“?

Martin: The characters of fantasy and comic books are part of the same genre – where everything is possible and anyone can be anything, with a suspension of disbelief.

I’m fascinated by these subcultures. Comic Con is a perfect example of that. People gathered to share a specific aspect of themselves – really that intersection of uniqueness and commonality – have been a fascinating well to dip into as a portrait maker.

It wasn’t just the elaborate costumes you see in those portraits, but the character of the people wearing them. It’s people’s reality presented through the fantasy filter of cosplay.

Photographer William Eggleston

Lee: Talk about your “chasing characters,” which seems to guide you in your portrait work.

Martin: My personal work is often centered on the character and life revealed in a face, or in the way someone presents to the world. I’m looking for the stories and characters that reveal themselves when you slow down and look at things differently. Portrait work is by nature intimate, a closer look at someone. And the hope is that you reveal something beneath the surface, some part of their character.

John Piowaty, F-105 Thunderchief Pilot

They didn’t say much to me. They didn’t have to; their faces said so much. As they talked to each other and then later through interviews, I heard the things said echoed in what I saw through my lens. They share pain certainly, a solemn recall, but also brotherhood, support, pride and joy.

Lee: Tell us about the project “Over War.” There is a fascinating story about how this project came about. Could you tell us about these USAF veterans, and their role in the Vietnam War? What was it like for you to hear their stories while photographing them?

Martin: Kate Chase, my friend, former rep and now a producer, she’s the grain of sand that turned this project into a pearl. Kate’s beloved uncle “Moose” was an Air Force pilot who had served in Vietnam, and flew the F-105, as a Thunderchief. She heard from her mom that he would be attending a military reunion in San Antonio with other Thunderchiefs. Kate knows me and believed that as a photographer who chases characters and follows faces, I should get myself there.

So, two years ago I found myself in a hotel room in San Antonio photographing fighter pilots who had served in Vietnam.

The aerial war in Vietnam isn’t often the war we learn about. It is not the grainy old footage we see. Their story is under-told. As young men they had a unique vantage point of the scope and reality of the Vietnam War as they flew over the conflict below.

For years they have kept their stories to themselves, perhaps overshadowed by the tense political and cultural narrative attached to the war, or by the more visible stories of troops on the ground. Or maybe it was simply a desire to stay unnoticed – something that came naturally to these fighter pilots.

I like to go to the source for these group portrait projects, embed myself in the space and community they share. Here we set up in a rented conference room and pulled each pilot aside during breaks in their conversations. They didn’t say much to me. They didn’t have to; their faces said so much. As they talked to each other and then later through interviews, I heard the things said echoed in what I saw through my lens. They share pain certainly, a solemn recall, but also brotherhood, support, pride and joy.

Over several days I came back, observed and learned by watching, how deep their stories run. While I could have asked a hundred questions, it was clear this was a time to listen and let my camera translate what was unsaid. It was an honor and an extraordinary experience to be a witness to and recorder of this gathering. More on the evolution of this project can be seen here.

All images © Cade Martin. Martin is a storytelling photographer who splits his time between the East and West Coasts, creating images for editorial, advertising, fashion, and lifestyle clients. You can find more of Martin’s work on his website  and Instagram

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.