The American winner of the 2019 Taylor Wessing portrait prize tells the story behind his extraordinary portraits of his troubled mother
In 2015, while standing in front of a series of portraits by the American photographer Larry Sultan in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pat Martin suddenly found himself in tears. For weeks my friends had been telling me, You have to see the Sultan retrospective, youll love it, he recalls. And I did, but it triggered me. It was the first time I cried from seeing photographs that werent personal to me.
The portraits in question were of Sultans elderly parents, whom he had photographed throughout the 1980s when they were living in a retirement community in Palm Springs. He called the series Pictures from Home and, in a related text, described their deeper motivation: I realise that beyond the rolls of film and the few good pictures, the demands of my project and my confusion about its meaning, is the wish to take photography literally. To stop time. I want my parents to live for ever.
Martin, a young Los Angeles-based photographer still struggling to define his own style, found the Sultan exhibition overwhelming but not in the way he had expected. The portraits were just so beautiful but, alongside that, there was this realisation that, however good I became as a photographer, I could never make those kinds of images. I remember thinking, I dont know my father and I dont know if my mother will reach old age. My family album starts with me being born and continues for just a few of my birthdays. Then, its just blank. Completely blank. Nothing.