Photographer mines southern heritage

by Amy Kingsley

Artist Sarah Martin doesn’t much resemble your typical hipster art photographer. On a blazing summer day she’s dressed in a teal tunic and white tank top and wears a dash of crimson lipstick. With her soft Southern accent, she’s meditating on the consequences of the perm she’s planned for tomorrow. “It’ll make my hair stink for three days,” she says. Martin, 29, is a native of Nashville, Tenn. and a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Yale University. She holds the only full-time photography professorship in UNCG’s art department, where she’s been teaching for two years. “Sometimes I look at myself and think ‘I could see myself at the table twenty years from now,'” she says from a berth at Tate Street Coffee. This summer, Martin took a part-time job at Gail’s Consignment Shop on Spring Garden Road. It is the first summer she has spent outside of Tennessee. This means that change is in store for Martin’s photography, which has been exhibited all over the country and has, until now, dwelt upon the circle of family and friends with whom she attended church and Christian school. Her body of work includes two “Virgin Series,” portraits of women Martin grew up with who have made a bond to remain virgins until marriage. Martin herself used to belong to this club, according to her artist’s statement. Several times a year, the club gathers for an erotic photo shoot, and in her first series Martin tagged along, not so much to obtain the portraits the women send to boyfriends, but to document the process. The pictures seethe with seduction. It’s not just the women, who pose in bikinis and with guitars and fans covering their nudity, but also the scenery that is shot through with longing. Martin’s lens lovingly captures hillsides lush with summer growth and bedrooms yellowed by generations of use. Her photos are imbued with warmth, and the women come across not so much as cultural curiosities but as products – and producers of – a sexualized media culture. Religion is embedded in the subtext of her pictures. Martin was the Tennessee Bible Drill champion three years in a row in late elementary school. She memorized passages from the Good Book, and could recite the names of the books of the Bible in reverse order in fewer than 60 seconds. But Martin’s faith eroded when she left Tennessee for graduate school in Connecticut, she says. She had taken up photography as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, after following a cute boy into an art class during what she had assumed would be her last semester in college. “I was about to drop out and go to beauty school,” she says. “I told my father I’d take one more semester, but in my mind I had already made the decision to drop out and was just taking classes for fun.” The class turned out to be a revelation, and Martin was honored at graduation as the top art student. In Connecticut the separation from lifelong friends and exposure to a less church-centric culture caused her to drift from her Southern Baptist upbringing. She is still dealing with the fallout from her family. Recently when her father suffered a heart attack he begged her to come to his bedside because, he said, he feared he would not see her in heaven. “I think I’m just now getting over the guilt or the fear from my upbringing,” she says. Which is part of the reason Martin decided to break up with her hometown, she says. So this summer she is taking pictures of her coworkers and the regulars at Gail’s, which is also a center of dog rescue activity. And she will be compiling material culled from a decade of spending summers at her grandmother’s home in Sale Creek, Tenn. into a book and video project. “It’s going to be a process,” she says. “There is so much material. But I kind of like these challenges; sometimes, to me, photography seems like only part of the answer.” To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at