Trinity’s favourite location to parody itself is the noticeboard. Among the notices for a lost fountain pen and “fidget ball,” one poster in particular stands out. It says “”Venus” Wanted.” Students who have seen it may have been greeted with a bemused curiosity or perhaps mild revulsion as they filled their water bottle from a fountain. It goes on to inform us: “Tall Female Students Needed for Black & White Greek Art Photo Shoot.” Maybe you have seen another variant of this poster, with the simple headline “Models Wanted” in bold and underlined, but otherwise with the same content as its “”Venus” Wanted” counterpart. Both go on to try to convince the women of campus: “Be a part of Classic Greek ART!” To those interested, you also need to meet the physical requirements, specifically: “Height > 5ft 6inch + Medium/Long Hair.”
So, “Venus” is wanted, but beyond that, the poster raises a number of issues: Why is this on campus? Who is the person behind it? Most of all, the poster seems out of the ordinary even for Trinity, so I journeyed into the unknown and emailed the address provided. I heard back from its creator, Donal Martin, or Dee to his friends. Martin is a recognisable face in the 1937 Reading Room where he sits at an upstairs computer and is one of the few older patrons. When he arrived to meet me for the interview, he was donning a familiar black leather jacket and holding his trademark white plastic bag. Despite his familiarity to the postgraduate students in the Reading Room, Martin is not a student; he is a member of staff in the Statistics Department. Even though he posts notices for models around campus, he does not discuss his hobby with his colleagues. It is “a personal thing” that he chooses not to “announce.”
Contacting him raised more questions than it answered. I had first assumed that the poster might refer to a Classics, or Art History student project. However, the potential photoshoot is not attached to any department, or endorsed by any student society. It is entirely extra-curricular. Most importantly, however, a detail not mentioned on his poster became very apparent after getting in touch: Martin is looking for women willing to be photographed naked.
When we met, Martin explained that he has “always been interested in Greek statues.” For a number of years he had been trying to replicate “the incredible grace of the image” in black and white. “Art nude” soon became his particular area of interest after learning his trade from a French photographer. “It’s interesting: it’s actually quite difficult to make something art nude,” though it may “sound easy.” Martin reveals that the difficulty associated with art nude is drawing the distinction between it and pornography: “You have to extract an erotic element out” of the image. “Eye contact changes the image of a picture between an art nude and a page 3.” For him, it’s all about the “person’s expression and eye contact.”
However, from the outset it’s important to know that Martin does not believe in paying models for their work, even if his photographs are successful. Put succinctly, to pay the model “changes something.” If the work is “fee-based” then it becomes “less of an exchange of ideas.” Martin is far more enthusiastic about a collaborative working style which, he believes, can only be reached with the help of volunteers: “If you volunteer, it’s because you are interested, and you want to be involved, and you want to give something to the image.” Even though Martin refuses to pay his models, he will always offer them copies of their photographs so they can build up their own portfolios.
He believes that payment adds a “commercial element […] then you think maybe you’re shooting a style that you manoeuvre towards more of a fetish.” He does acknowledge that there is a large market for a more fetishisied image, but he is quick to distance himself from that industry. He believes his work belongs exclusively to the world of high art, and, as such, thinks it a shame people are reluctant to purchase or hang his work in public buildings in Ireland. However, some success came in 2009 when two of Martin’s photographs were exhibited at the Trinity Exhibition, a showcase of the work of students and staff of College organised by Trinity Visual Arts Society. More than 110 works initially submitted were for consideration for display.
Yet, if the work is not reimbursed, the question remains: why should women volunteer? With an idealistic tone, Martin answers simply: “Curiosity. Isn’t it part of living? To engage?”
Throughout our interview, Martin is keen to stress the importance of “consent in everything” and only asking women to do what they are comfortable with. This is another reason why he is averse to paying models: on a volunteer basis the process can be extended beyond one photoshoot. “Baby-steps” are taken with participants. “Say you’re a little bit nervous, let’s try this: come to the studio, meet me and if you don’t like it after half an hour, stop it.” Martin states that it makes him proud as an artist when he is able to take women “on a journey, from what they didn’t think they could do, to what they now can do, and they’ve changed.
Lack of interest
Unfortunately for him, Martin has yet to receive any interest in the project from Trinity students. So, I pose the question to him: why does he think women have been so reluctant to come forward? Might it have something to do with there being no payment, and the fact the project involves standing naked (perhaps with the cover of a thin silk cloth) for an amateur male photographer in an unfamiliar quay-side studio? But Martin believes the answer lies in a peculiarly Irish embarrassment surrounding the naked body. “There’s a huge lack of confidence about people’s physical bodies that doesn’t exist on the continent. Our image of our bodies is so negative.”
Next, he pulls out an example of his work, a booklet of high-quality photographs made in 2007, which he notes mostly show Russian, Slovak, and Czech models. He claims to have found these women using posters similar to the ones around campus, and also through the internet. Each photograph is of a woman posing completely nude. In some, there is a tactful use of shadow, silks and wooden chairs. By his own admittance, and having spent a lot of time in Prague, Martin bemoans the decline of an “explorative” culture in Irish universities. “Within the walls of Trinity,” he says, he had hoped people would be “much more open-minded.”
Yet, if his aim is to encourage more open-minded attitudes, and move away from the eroticised images of pornography, I offer that Martin might do well to photograph subjects other than young women. Has he ever considered photographing the male nude, for example? “I guess I’ve never thought about it. But I haven’t ruled it out.” He goes on to outline that while he believes public advertising campaigns designed to feature a variety of body shapes, colours, and ages, rather than an idealised body, do have their place, “it’s not what I’m interested in now.” Martin considers himself an artist above all else. Despite the scarcity of participants, he remains dedicated to his cause: “I think you choose what you choose. And you shouldn’t choose something just because you’re making it more equal.”
He says he is not looking for the ideal body – indeed, “there is no such thing” – so much as the “statuesque image.” More important than any of Martin’s physical requirements of models is that they are willing to be “engaged and suggestive” in trying to achieve this statuesque form, calling to mind the ancient Greek appreciation of the nude. He goes so far as to say that this collaborative process with the model is even more important than the end product of the shoot. Martin says that he has amassed such a collection of photographs that adding to it is no longer of great importance. For this reason, he is very happy to destroy the photographs if women are not happy with them.
Martin says his ultimate project is to embody the aesthetic of Film Noir through his photography. He thinks his work is best described as “imagery of women and their strong powerful persona” influenced by “strong and in control” female characters from the 1940s, including “Betty Davis, Joan Crawford and many others.” Looking towards the future, he is planning a “very ambitious project, involving a fallen angel theme inside a graveyard with operatic style feathered wings.” And if his art could be considered part of a wider movement in Ireland, Martin suggests it might be part of an effort to remove the fear associated with the nude female body. “This is not about me,” he says. True to form, Martin declined to be photographed for this article.
Additional reporting by Tadgh Healy.