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Martin Charles (1940-2012)

Peter Davey remembers the work of the AR’s and AJ’s house photographer throughout the 60s,70s and 80s

Martin Charles, the outstanding architectural photographer, has died aged 71. He was the son of an architect, the distinguished and lively expert on historic timber-framed buildings, FWB (Freddie) Charles (1912-2002), who set up a conservation practice with his first wife Nancy in 1962. Clearly Martin was influenced by his parents’ preoccupations, but after graduating in drama from Bristol University, he began working life as a BBC trainee film editor. He proved adept, and after leaving the corporation following precocious successes, he edited six feature films in as many years.

The track record must have given him confidence, but, as at the BBC, Martin was too lively and individualistic to abide the complicated disciplines demanded by the film industry. Very bravely, with no specific training, he set up on his own as a freelance architectural photographer, exchanging the comparative security of the cinema world for a life at the mercy of the weather, architects’ egos and the wilfulness of editors. But he had found his metier. His work was clearly outstanding and he was published in the AR from the beginning.

He was one of the first architectural photographers fully to embrace the potential of colour. By the time Martin started, innovations in technology and printing machinery had enabled colour imagery to be used extensively in architectural magazines, but he was one of the first to understand the potential of the new processes. Now, coloured photographs are regarded as completely normal: then they could be eye-opening. Even in black and white, Martin was particularly good at capturing atmosphere, and he understood the importance of darkness in a photograph.

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The Pompidou Centre captured in it’s youth

Unlike many photographers, he avoided the trap of making everything seem as if it was in California, partly because he always studied the project in detail and, when possible, discussed it with the author and the architect. He had an English sensibility for the making of things: for materials and construction − an echo perhaps of his father’s work, some of the most original of which focused on the design and construction of joints in medieval timber-framed buildings.

For The Architects’ Journal, as well as celebrating new work, Martin illustrated an innovatory and revealing series called ‘The Masters of Building’. Edited by Dan Cruickshank, the articles (later published in book form) examined totemic buildings from the past in detail using techniques that would normally be applied to modern work and Martin’s approach was ideally suited to the project.

Martin’s work was far from being limited to old buildings. He became much sought after, and travelled the world from Cuba to South-East Asia to fulfil commissions from numerous magazines and book publishers. He was a delightful companion, sunny, witty and with a slightly high-pitched but very infectious laugh. He could get a bit grumpy with the weather sometimes, yet would regularly return to a shoot to capture the light as he imagined it should be. I can only remember him losing his temper once. We were in Hong Kong, having had a week studying Foster’s bank just before it opened to the public.

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A grandois shot of the tunneling view from the upper most exterior stairwell

On the way home, a customs official suddenly demanded that he should open the taped and sealed packages in which his undeveloped film and plates were protected from light. A week’s passionate and expensive work could have been ruined. Martin lost his jokey cheerfulness and became very fierce and firm in an argument that seemed to last for ages. Eventually, Martin won by sheer determination and toughness. (Those were the days before 9/11, but I think that he would have been the victor even after that dreadful date.) The altercation showed the tip of the inner strength that made him such a brilliant photographer.

Martin died after a three-year struggle with myeloma. He leaves two sons and his wife, Tessa Carter, who was a quiet and constant comrade, at one point giving up her profession of graphic artist for a while to become a primary school teacher, supporting him in his fledgling career. It is difficult to think of the world without Martin and his cheery presence. I shall miss his laughter, his enthusiasms and his insights. Thank goodness we still have his images.

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