Documentarian Dan Martensen: A Photographer You Should Know
by Libby Peterson
© Dan Martensen
Eddie (Jagadisa) Angulo stretches out onto a branch during one of the adventures Martensen took him and his brothers on around New York state.
February 12, 2016 —
Dan Martensen’s phone rang. It was his friend Crystal Moselle, a filmmaker. She had been walking down First Avenue in Manhattan and bumped into a group of boys, six brothers dressed like the gangsters from Reservoir Dogs in matching black suits and sunglasses. Is Martensen by chance in the city right now to shoot them, she asked? Sure, he replied, he had actually just come from his home in upstate New York to do a shoot in his studio—bring them by.
As Moselle walked into Martensen’s studio, six teenage boys, all with silky dark hair long enough to graze their waists, were silently trailing her. “They were amazing-looking, and at first that was it for me,” Martensen says of the boys, who were each given Sanskrit names: Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa. “They didn’t talk to me, like at all. But there was an energy there.”
It was September 2010 and Martensen didn’t know anything yet about the Angulo brothers, later nicknamed “The Wolfpack” (from Moselle’s documentary of the same name), whose collective backstory—growing up homeschooled, shielded by their father from the outside world in their three-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side, entertaining themselves by recreating films with remarkably accurate homemade costumes and props behind locked doors—would cause a media sensation at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, inspire in-depth reportage by The New Yorker and The New York Times (among others), and engross millions of people worldwide.
After their shoot that day, Martensen asked Moselle if he could photograph them again sometime. Just a couple weeks prior, the boys had ventured out on their own for the first time after 14 years of confinement. Following a few more meet-ups with her, they invited the photographer to their home.
Martensen walked in. Drawings covered the walls, from end to end and ceiling to floor, and the boys started assembling costumes and props for the camera. “There was just so much,” Martensen says, “I mean, for a photographer or filmmaker, this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to stumble upon.”
He raised his camera and clicked furiously, unaware that he had just begun creating his new book, Wolves Like Us, a devoted look at the Angulos and their wildly creative imagination, released this past fall. Martensen got hooked, he says, just like anyone who’s seen The Wolfpack. “They’re super sweet and beautiful and kind and they’re awesome,” he says in a burst. “They’re just awesome guys.”
“Everything in the photograph was considered and placed and staged and constructed,” he remembers. “I was more interested in being a photographic Caravaggio or something, trying to paint with light. As time went on, I found that it definitely wasn’t my best mode of communicating my vision or anything I was trying to say or do artistically.”
Martensen needed to figure out his game plan; photography was all he wanted, and he didn’t have backups. A friend referred him to Creative Exchange Agency to do some assisting, and he spent the next four years bouncing around from fashion photographers Alex Cayley and Tom Munro, to Stéphane Sednaoui (a friend to this day) and Annie Leibovitz. Leaving his constructionist interests in the dust, Martensen was adapting to a faster way of working.
Wang And Wasson
Martensen got paid more in a day shooting Wang’s lookbook than he did assisting, and “as Alex became Alex,” the photographer says, he flourished right alongside him, earning more recognition and gigs.
“Those pictures from that day became the archetype of what I do today: this intimate hang,” he says. It comes in handy in his editorial work for magazines like Interview, i-D and Vogue, and for his commercial clients—H&M, Ralph Lauren and Theory, among others. “Cutting loose seems to be something I’m apparently pretty good at doing. It’s always been my way to get people to engage with me, and when that translated into photography, it was seamless. It didn’t have to be contrived or look heavily produced. It just had to be honest.”
Making Wolves Like Us
Martensen wouldn’t consider Wolves Like Us—a name inspired by TV On the Radio’s song “Wolf Like Me”—a traditional narrative, nor all that tangential to Moselle’s film; to him, it’s more like a “diary of great moments.” It’s funny how it worked out: Martensen stopped staging and constructing his own photography only to dedicate one of his biggest projects to subjects who do just that. He shot them in their day-to-day, dressing up, acting out scenes and fantasies. You could say it was a form of escapism for them, that in spite of being locked for years in their home, the brothers had a whole world that they’d created for themselves. It was profound seeing them become these characters and leaving, going into the woods, to the beach, running around the city at night, Martensen says. “I just wanted the photography to feel true to their spirit and true to what it meant to be one of these brothers.”
They made an impact on the photographer in more ways than one: he shot the whole project on film, an uncommon practice in the rest of his work, but revisiting the older process actually motivated him to return to film for his editorial jobs. “I’m not sitting around with a group of people staring at a computer anymore, I’m not second-guessing or worrying about what other people think in that moment,” he says. “I’m just shooting, and that seems to be when I get my best pictures.”
Up until a year and a half ago, Martensen had no idea what he was going to do with his five years of photos. And then Moselle finished up The Wolfpack and sent it to Sundance in 2015; it won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize. “Crystal literally said something to the effect of, ‘Okay if you’re going to do that book, now’s a good time.’”
He hurriedly got things rolling, aiming to release the book on Halloween, an ambitious deadline for him but a favorite day for the Angulos. He blocked off a couple of weeks and went home to sift through his photos, printing, arranging and pinning them around. He enlisted Dean Langley (the former art director of i-D magazine) to help edit and design the book, and journalist Joseph Akel to edit and write a forward. “It was really painful to get rid of some of the images,” he says, but they managed to edit it down in a couple of weeks. Damiani was on board with publishing right away.
But not everything wrapped up as succinctly. A couple of the brothers became overwhelmed by the publicity, and one of them was uncomfortable with having his image in the movie or book at all.
The fact is, no one knew; it’s almost impossible to predict these things. Still, Martensen maintains the same “cool uncle” relationship with the rest of the pack and continues to take steps to rebuild trust.
With one huge project down, Martensen is facing what is perhaps a more daunting task on the horizon: hashing out what he can take from this adventure with the Angulos to carry out in his creative endeavors down the road.
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