Adrienne Martyn was sitting in a Dunedin School of Art class listening to art lecturer Raymond Ward dissect Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s Milk Maid painting when it just clicked.
Until then Martyn had been in a quandary about what to do with her photography.
It was the 1970s. She was working at the Otago Daily Times in the darkroom processing photographs when she decided to go to art school in search of direction.
That class on Vermeer "clinched it" for Martyn. "It just made sense to me, his focus on textures. It is still resonating in my work today."
While Martyn, who grew up in Invercargill, started playing with a camera when she was in high school, it was not until she moved to Dunedin in the 1960s, getting work at Ken and David Lloyd’s photographic studio darkroom, that she learned the techniques behind processing film photographs.
She then headed off to Sydney working as a darkroom technician for The Sydney Morning Herald and freelancing as a photographer.
When she returned to Dunedin in the 1970s her connection with the Lloyds helped her get a job in the ODT darkroom as the illustrations department was run by the Lloyds’ brother Tom.
So with an art practice now in mind, she used the ODT darkroom to develop her film and print photographs for her first solo exhibition at the old Bosshard Gallery in Princes St.
"I got a lot of support from the ODT."
"I was going to do it in my own style. It was a dream, totally impractical."
Back in Dunedin in the 1980s with her professional camera, studio lights and darkroom gear she set about making the dream come true renting a space in Moray Place.
"It soon transpired I wasn’t going to make a living."
Luckily, through a friend’s introduction, she secured some product advertising work which enabled her to survive while she worked on her art.
"I was free to experiment, to do the portraits I love doing."
Martyn, who played guitar back then, started out photographing her musician friends.
"I was a bit of a groupie. They [the photographs] were nothing special."
So it was a natural transition to start photographing her artist friends when she decided to "devote" herself to her art practice.
She photographed her friends such as Joanna Paul and Jeffrey Harris and strangers she "liked the look of" all in black and white.
Her photographs rarely featured the artist’s work, instead focusing on the person. In a few portraits there is a glimpse or hint of the artist’s work — one of Milan Mrkusich has his canvases turned to reveal their back.
"It was very deliberate. There is no easel."
That decision was made after photographing Andrew Drummond sitting on a sofa rolling a cigarette with one of his works on the wall behind him.
"It didn’t gel. It clarified my purpose. I wanted to separate them out."
Then an art dealer sent one of her portraits to the then National Art Gallery (now part of Te Papa) and galleries began buying them.
So when she moved to Auckland in the mid-1980s she put a proposal to the national gallery to do a series of artists portraits. She chose 30 from all over New Zealand and of varying gender, ages and cultural backgrounds.
Those taken outside of her studios were from a tripod but without flash or studio lights as she made the most of the natural light available.
The portraits included one of abstract artist Dame Louise Henderson (1902–94) who, while quite small, could be quite fierce and smoked like a train.
She invited Martyn for soup and toast and was happy to pose in front of her vast bedroom wall that she had painted herself.
In contrast, she photographed Dunedin-born artist Doris Lusk in her Christchurch studio after Lusk painted one of her famous Italian watercolour Arcade Awnings as a mural on the wall of the studio.
Di Ffrench is another artist Martyn remembers fondly agreeing to be photographed in the paint-splattered overalls she worked in.
"She was beautiful, so glam, the overalls were a lovely contrast."
A survey exhibition of those portraits (1979 to 1987) was held by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1988 and toured the country
A selection of these portraits digitally remastered will be exhibited at Olga Gallery in Dunedin this month, along with a few taken a bit earlier and later than the national gallery project.
To remaster the works, she scanned the original negatives into a computer and used computer programmes to make adjustments to them she could not do in the darkroom all those years ago.
"This time I could adjust the perspective and correct the verticals. It’s very subtle."
She then re-printed the photographs to create the images to be seen at Olga.
These days, Martyn works only in the digital format, having sold her Hasselblad and her developing equipment.
The more recent artist portraits she has done are in colour — images for the covers of Art NZ, one featuring Saskia Leek and another Nigel Brown. She also photographed good friend Cilla McQueen for the cover of her most recent book.
Her style has not changed. She still uses a frontal direction approach, a tripod and takes her time to compose an image using what light is available.
The transition to colour has been effortless, she thinks because while her earlier portraits were printed in black and white, the images were in colour when she took them.
"I’m capturing the same image."
Martyn’s love of photography did take a dive when she found her heart was no longer in creating portraits.
"I tried but it went flat."
She took a break, instead taking up the paint brush and drawing and moving to Melbourne.
Martyn spent the next few years experimenting with all genres, from landscapes to water and still life.
She picked up the camera again and created images from photographs she had taken in the Louvre in Paris in the 1990s. She blacked out the paintings in the rooms leaving just the gilt-edged frames and walls to see.
Martyn, who plans and draws all her projects in black-covered notebooks, moved back to New Zealand to do her master’s degree at Elam completing it in 2006.
A key moment arrived in 2016 when she read an article on Invercargill art gallery Anderson House closing for earthquake strengthening. A sentence mentioning how they were emptying it out for this resonated strongly with her.
It was a gallery she spent a lot of time at as a child, as her grandfather Adrian Turner and great-uncle Alf Ball were involved in building it.
She knew she had to photograph the empty gallery.
"I got totally fired up and emailed off this whole proposal."
Martyn spent two weeks at the gallery photographing objects shrouded in dust cloths and moving works around so she could photograph empty walls.
That culminated in the exhibition "Shift".
"I still love those images."
The project has spawned a series of similar building interior projects.
After seeing that project, a friend suggested the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui was empty so Martyn might like to photograph it.
The Sarjeant was about to celebrate its centenary so it seemed a good time to do it and the gallery agreed. Just as at the Anderson, when Martyn arrived the gallery was still full of objects so this time she decided to concentrate on the objects, the plinths, the ladders and crates that filled the spaces.
"It was nice material for abstracts. There were places where they had stripped off the linings to check the earthquake strengthening. It was nice stuff."
A similar project involving another gallery is in the works.
While in the city, she visited McQueen in Bluff who pointed out the old Bluff Club Hotel. Back home, she kept tabs on the media accounts of the building’s demolition hearings and heard of McQueen’s poetry reading at one.
So she checked out some photographs taken by the Historic Places Trust and was blown away.
"Oh my goodness, it is extraordinary, outrageous, the textures are just mad crazy. It’s absolutely destroyed but there are some beautiful windows, high ceilings, multi-textured wallpapers from generations past."
At a dinner at McQueen’s it was suggested her poem from the hearing would make perfect text for Martyn’s work. So a joint project was born.
So, with the building owners, she took a tour through, taking photos on her iPhone to get an idea of what she could do.
She was a bit reluctant to return with her camera as the building was quite dangerous but decided to do it. Under lighting time constraints she moved quickly through the building documenting what she could.
"I shot vertically and with an ultra wide angle. I can see Vermeer still resonating through that work."
The pair chose eight verticals to exhibit at Miharoa in Invercargill in 2020, alongside McQueen’s poem Gossamer printed on silk. They also played a recording of McQueen reading the poem.
Her interest in photographing architecture goes back again to her time in Dunedin in the 1980s, she says.
She did an exhibition of architectural works called "Surfaces" at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1982.
Although her studio was in Moray Pl, she said her "real" studio was the old Excelsior Hotel on the corner of Princes and Dowling Sts.
"I loved the lighting in the bathroom and the soft light from the skylight in the stairwell. I used to take my brave friends and photograph them there. I shot The Clean there once with a towel."
When she came back to Dunedin many years later, the Excelsior was shut up and there was talk of demolition. The Historic Places Trust approached Martyn to take photos of its interior, in particular the kauri staircase and bannister.
She took the opportunity to have a good snoop around the empty building and take a good look, taking photos as she went.
Her interest in architecture increased when, visiting Sydney, she saw an exhibition by her, hero Bill Henson, an Australian photographer who had created large triptychs the centre image being a portrait and the two outside images the same architectural image.
"I fell in love."
So, in 1989, she played with the idea herself, combining the kauri staircase and cupola pictures from the Excelsior with a portrait of a woman in the middle. Those works became an exhibition "Absence Presence" shown in Dunedin that year.
These days, Martyn has settled in a "little property with a lovely garden" in Trentham, Upper Hutt, and is endeavouring to put a modernist touch on it.
She is planning on taking a step back once her present projects are over, although she does have a few ideas in mind to keep her busy.
"I don’t think I’ll be putting any new projects forward for a while."