Two Sides of Martha

Photographer Martha Casanave sitting in her archives. The box in front of her is one of the pinhole cameras she uses at times. Black-and-white portraiture is her specialty.

In the 1960s, Martha Casanave left Southern California and moved to Monterey to study Russian at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She brought her camera with her.

Nearly 60 years later, Casanave is being interviewed in her Pacific Grove apartment, legs curled up on the chair, windows open for a resort-like ocean view. There’s an oversized, saddled giraffe figure standing at the open window, studying the beach. But it’s not the stuffed animal that surprises in this setting but the colors – deep violet, full turquoise, one wall taken over by a big ceramic lizard. It is clear that this mistress of black-and-white photography enjoys color.

“Black-and-white photography seems more evocative,” she says when asked about photographers’ love of black-and-white. “It’s one more step away from reality,” she tests another answer. Also: “Black-and-white photography makes you pay attention to the light.”

There are currently two opportunities to explore Casanave’s work: First, Carmel’s Center for Photographic Art displays 60 pieces, drawing heavily from the iconic portraits published in book form as Trajectories, A Half Century of Portraits (2014).

“Environmental portraiture,” Casanave labels the work. “People pictured in their own spaces.”

But who are those people? First and foremost there are other artists, and then – since her interest in Russia never ceased – Russian and Jewish emigres in the U.S. There are also local icons – photos of and with Ansel Adams, a portrait of late psychiatrist Lotte Marcus with her husband, and a Hungarian friend from whom Casanave got a recipe for chicken paprikash.

The second exhibit is at the Monterey Museum of Art. When MMA Director Corey Madden heard about the CPA exhibit featuring people, she suggested a concurrent one in MMA featuring places: Casanave’s two pinhole photography series called Explorations Along an Imaginary Coastline and Explorations Along an Urban Coastline.

The first is an unforgettable series with a mysterious man in a 19th-century suit, staring at the crashing waves “as if in a storm could be found peace,” Casanave says, quoting the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov.

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