Earlier this year before I traveled to Scotland, I got a little help from a native Scot named Martin Scott Powell. We met through Ellen Christine a mutual milliner friend (her interview is here). During Outlander‘s Season 2 promotion, I tweeted how beautiful the Departures magazine photos of Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe were. Ellen responded –“I know the photographer! He’s from Scotland and could help you with your trip!” – and we set a date for all of us to meet. That, ladies and gentleman, is how Outlander brings people together.
Martin currently resides in New York City and travels the world photographing for clients such as Condé Nast, Esquire, and the Edinburgh Royal Tattoo. His work consists of portraits, landscapes and, depending on the assignment, detailed objects such as textiles and tools. No matter the subject, his photographs highlight natural beauty. When I look at his landscapes they evoke a feeling of mystery and his portraits can reveal a longing in the individual but always their essence. Whether a location is Scotland or Colombia, he captures the place’s character through lighting and its physical presence in its own environment.
He was very generous helping me plan my trip (he already visited many of the locations for the magazine) so I thought I’d follow up by further pestering him with questions! I was curious to learn more of his story, craft, and how he got the opportunity to return to his native Scotland and shoot an Outlander themed piece. He was very easy going as we chatted about the country, what he aims to capture in his photography, how romantic the show is and (ahem) how much catching up he has to do for it. It was fun and I only had to look up one Scots word he used (haar)!
Read on to learn what that word means and why you should get your arse to Scotland.
Where did you grow up in Scotland?
I grew up in a wee town called Musselburgh which is just 5 miles outside of Edinburgh. It’s a little fishing village. Very quiet. Very different from where I am now. It’s one of those small little Scottish towns where everybody knows everybody. It’s a good place to grow up.
How did you get into photography?
On my 21st birthday I had asked for a decent camera. I was kinda into photography but not much. I used to be a goldsmith and I was planning to leave that and do a trip around the world. For that I wanted a decent camera. So it was really that that got me into photography….When I did this big trip when I was 23 that’s when I really got into photography. I enjoyed how having the camera made me go and do things I wouldn’t normally do. Go and visit a location to take a picture or speak to somebody to take a portrait. It just felt like it forced you to engage more with your surroundings. I think that was what I really enjoyed about it. Also met along the way other amateur photographers that knew a lot more than I did were teaching me little things. That’s where it all began. Then when I got back from the trip I decided I wasn’t going to be a goldsmith anymore and I wanted to try and go back to university to study photography.
I have so many questions! What is a goldsmith?
A jeweler! Wow. Was your family into that?
I left school quite young. I was 16. I wasn’t an academic or anything. I enjoyed more art subjects in school so I struggled a little bit and couldn’t wait to leave. So I left school at 16 and I got a job as an apprentice goldsmith. I did that until I was 23. That’s when I left to go traveling and put it behind me.
It sounds like you had a creative flair before photography.
Definitely. I was definitely interested more when I was a goldsmith. What I used to enjoy doing was designing jewelry and making the designs. There was a small family that did this in Edinburgh – really good jewelers – but we would have to stock stuff for the shop and I always found that a wee bit boring. So it was more designing and creating something from scratch that I found really exciting. But I didn’t get to do it that often hence why I decided to leave and find something new.
So you went to university to study photography?
That’s right. When I got back from my travels I was living in Glasgow. Because I didn’t have any grades when I left school it was very difficult to get into university. I had applied for a college course in Glasgow just to learn a little more. At the time my Anty was working at Napier University in Edinburgh and she called me up and she said “Why don’t you give them a call and see if they might accept you or they might not?” So I phoned the university and the lady I spoke to was the head of the photography program. She said, “We’re now past accepting people through UCAS” which is what you do after school. That’s the higher based entry for university which was great cause I never had any. She said, “We’re only taking people who have had a previous history with photography”. So I kind of told a few white lies and managed to get an interview. So I went and she said, “If you can bring in a portfolio…” and I think I provided a small essay on an image. So I did that, went in for the interview, and when I look at the portfolio now it’s so embarrassing. I went into the interview, showed them the work, and then they asked me a few questions about narrative and imagery because the course is more kind of fine art based so they were asking a few questions along those lines. After the interview finished I left and there was a gentleman who said “Would you mind if you stepped outside for a minute?” So I went outside the room and came back in and he said “We’ve had a little chat and we’d love to offer you a place and it has nothing to do with the portfolio. We just feel like you’re the type of person who’d give it his best shot.”
Yeah it was pretty amazing!
It sounds like you fell into photography and then it got you into university.
Yeah yeah. I think it’s kind of special when you don’t do well at school, so it’s nice when someone sees something and thinks “Ok let’s give him a go”. And I did. I gave it my best shot. I got a really good grade. I came in first class so it was really amazing.
Which school was it?
That was Edinburgh Napier University.
How would you describe your photographic style and what are you trying to capture in your work?
I think the most important thing for me—always difficult for me—when you’re shooting commercial stuff to have emotion or to have a kind of engagement. My aim is obviously to make someone feel something when they look at the picture. Everything now is so…Image making in today’s culture: Everybody just flips through no one stops, looks, and absorbs images anymore. So I think to try and create something where somebody will actually look at that for more than 5 seconds. I think there was a test done on images a while ago and they said the average time a person looks at an image is 6 seconds so if you can hit the 10 second mark, I think you’ve nailed it. But that for me is the most important thing—for the viewer to have an emotional response. Feels like they’re getting something more from this picture than it just being an image of a sub chamber.
That’s interesting that you bring that up because now we live in a culture of Instagramming and I find myself just scrolling through all the time. Whatever it’s original purpose, whether celebrating the image or sharing with everyone, it has the opposite effect of people not taking the time to look.
Yeah I think so. I never really jumped onboard Instagram. I definitely should as a professional it’s an amazing tool to have. You can see a lot of people getting work from Instagram. But as you say…I totally lost my train of thought. I’m looking out the window and saw a bird.
You’re such an artist Martin. Focus! [laughs]
I’m not very good at these things. A lot of professional photographers that didn’t kind of jump on board in the beginning, they got a lot of bad things to say about Instagram. But I think it’s only because they never jumped on board and got millions of followers and all that stuff. I don’t look at it that way. I think the people that jumped on board good on them. It’s another way to make money from photography in this day and age where there’s so much. It can be a difficult profession. Even though people are flicking through I think [Instagram] is a great platform. Back to your question about looking at images and taking time—The one thing that I think is missing is magazine print. Looking at photographs as you would in a gallery. I suppose that goes back to what I like to have in images. The pictures that I take I would love people to hang on their walls. I would like them to be of that standard. And that’s obviously really difficult. You can’t do that all the time. Nobody’s gonna hang a pair of trainers on their wall. They might. So the commercial images are very different but when you go to shoot editorial like the Outlander story, to try and create images that you’d say, “I’d love to have that on a wall” and you feel something from it, I think that’s important.
You’ve done a few assignments in Scotland. Does being Scottish influence how you photograph it in any way?
I don’t think so. It might. It doesn’t matter what country it is I always approach it the same way. Maybe it is being Scottish. In Scotland everything’s kind of moody mysterious so the landscape feels like when you get up in the morning there’s a haar (fog) covering the top of the loch. It feels beautiful and so romantic. It is quite special. For example, I did a project in Colombia for a book on denim and it was the same thing. I’d get up early in the morning and I’d go because these are always the best times to make things look moody mysterious. So perhaps it may be that that does have an influence due to the way that Scotland looks naturally. Or it might just be the way I like things to look.
I’m never really sure if being a native of a particular country and going back and working there maybe changes the way you see it?
Maybe yeah. Being in America obviously I miss Scotland a lot. I go back quite a lot. I look to portray it how it can and should be in its raw state. Even tourism, Visit Scotland in particular, they like to showcase Scotland with the sun shining and blue sky. You’ve been there. It doesn’t look like that! It’s always raining and the weather changes every five minutes. I think that’s what’s exciting about it. It has that mystery. It’s a small place and the things that have come from it are really special. It does make you look at it more romantically but I definitely am keen to portray it in that raw rugged way.
Though I do have to say my last week in Scotland was pure sunshine. I got lucky!
No way. That’s amazing. I just did a project for tourism board in Aberdeenshire so all east coast and a little bit northern east coast. And there, the new campaign, I shot it two weeks ago during the hurricane. It was a nightmare. It was one of those things you couldn’t change anything.
Then you really got the moody stormy Scotland.
But for a tourism campaign that’s a tricky sell! [laughs]
I’m sure you made it look great!
I think there will be a lot of warmen up.
Has your work there in Scotland changed your experience of your country or how you perceive it?
Yeah probably. When I was in Scotland before I moved to New York I did used to travel a lot. My wife and I had a little camper van and we used to go up the Highlands.
I noticed that’s very popular there! I noticed they’re everywhere.
When we used to go there was hardly anybody but now I think it’s become so popular, I think partly due because of Outlander, the tourism has gone through the roof! It’s a great way to travel through the Highlands. Now being here and going back the projects I do mostly are about the landscapes and the people so I get to go to the best bits. My wife and kids are thinking about going back a wee bit more often next year. I think now when I go back I don’t want to go and live in the city. If we were there for five months out of the year, I’d want to live in the Highlands. I think probably it’s changed it from that respect and also it’s the complete opposite from Brooklyn so that’d be good. So yeah it probably does. When you travel about and experience those remote places it definitely makes you want to go back there instead of going back to the city.
When I was driving through the Highlands I thought, ‘Man I gotta get myself a cottage and come back here and spend a week or two in the middle of the Highlands not connected to the internet and just be here.’ That was something I discovered.
It’s very easy to do there. It’s very difficult to find an internet connection when you’re driving about.
So I’m a huge Outander fan. No surprise. I’m sure that’s news to you. How did you become the photographer for the Departures Outlander shoot? Did Sony or Starz or the magazine approach you?
The magazine Departures contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing it. The Photo Director, Leah, had contacted me and she said, “We have this project coming up for Outlander.” She was keen to have a Scottish photographer do it. She said, “I’d like to have somebody whose Scottish shoot the project” which is kind of amazing because it’s such a good project to work on. And what she wanted to do was, because I think it was maybe coming into September, she wanted me to go back to Scotland to shoot the travel portion of the story which was the locations of Outlander. Then we’d go back the following year once they finished filming and shoot Sam and Caitriona. So once they were done we would shoot their portraits right about that time. So I took the project on and went back and my assistant and myself just traveled about. We put together a few ideas for locations and shared it with the writer to see what she thought. We both were working on the same page—where we should go and what we should shoot. So my assistant and I just traveled around Scotland for a week shooting all the locations. It was amazing. It was a great job!
So with the concept—is that a collaborative process between you and the editor or the director?
To be honest they kind of left me to my own devices. “This is what we would like – landscapes, some food component…” There were little bits so they could tie in, obviously it being a travel magazine they tie in all those little elements, but with Outlander being an underlying theme. They were just keen to get content and then take it from there. The writer Patricia hadn’t written the article but I just shared a few ideas with her and said I’m going to travel here, here and here and shoot this, this and then we’ll take it from there. And then the portraits the following year would then start to tie in and fit together.
What was it like shooting with Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan? Had you seen the show before?
No I’d never seen it. When they asked me to do the project I had heard about the show. There was a woman, she used to work in one of the studios in New York, and every time I was in there she always used to harp on about Outlander because I was Scottish. “Have you ever read Outlander?” and I said no I never read it but I thought she was talking about the TV show at the time but I never watched it. Departures called, got the job, so I sat down, bought the first season and maybe watched two or three episodes before I had to go back and shoot the story. So I hadn’t seen it before then but I got into it. I suppose I needed to know the locations, where to go and have some rough ideas. So I watched it mostly as a kind of research project but I enjoyed it. It’s quite romantic!
Quite romantic but it also has other non-romantic elements to it, right? All the historical aspects and a little bit of war stuff…Ya know it has so much stuff there Martin. So much stuff.
I have to say I saw the first season, I watched a little bit of the second one which I thought was pretty amazing. I love the beginning when they arrive but I haven’t watched anymore.
Oh my gosh!
I know I know. You wanna hang up the phone right now.
I get it you’re busy but let’s just say Scotland is still the star of the show and amazingly beautiful as usual.
That’s good. And working with them? They were amazing. They were absolutely lovely. It was a pretty miserable day so we shot most of the stuff inside. They were really nice, really down to earth, really normal kinda cool folk.
Any fun anecdotes?
Not really. They both obviously get on. Caitriona it turns out, I live in Greenpoint on Norman avenue, and it turns out she used to live a couple of blocks from me. It’s funny. It’s a small world. The connections, the places. But there wasn’t any bloopers or anything. It all went well.
Do you think the Outlander story misrepresents or elevates Scottish history and culture to foreigners?
No I don’t think it really misrepresents. I think it’s brilliant. I think they’ve done a really good job, the way that it’s shot well. We were talking about that kind of rugged Scotland – It definitely portrays it well in that sense. The story is real, it feels real. Although as we were saying it’s kind of romantic—
You say it like it’s a bad thing! [laughs]
Well it is while you’re watching it. Ya know that’s not usually my cup of tea when I’m watching something. It’s not a bad thing. It feels kind of like a romance novel and it is to a certain extent. But it feels a lot like that that’s why I think it’s much more popular with the ladies [laughs]. If that’s alright to say? That’s a fair comment. That’s a fair comment, right?
I think it’s almost 50/50. I think a lot more women seem to read the book but I think for the TV show it’s about half or 55% women. A fair amount of men watch.
I suppose between the book and the story it does feel like a romance.
But I think in terms of what we were saying before I think it feels real. I think they’ve done a good job about the history and talking about what went on. Obviously apart from there was no touching of stones and going back to that era. Again we were talking about the mystery the romance all that stuff. It does a good job of bringing that all together.
A few years ago if you had asked me if I wanted to go to Scotland I would’ve said ‘You’re crazy. What is there to see? I don’t know anything about Scotland.’ What would you say to someone who isn’t familiar with Scotland who doesn’t have it on their To Visit list? What would you say to get their arses over there?
Everybody that asks me or says they’ve never been I always say to just go. You need to go! I’m biased I’m from there but I find there’s really nowhere else in the world like the Highlands of Scotland. It’s remote, it’s beautiful. It’s really special. You can only really get that feeling from being there. Now, maybe because of Outlander, there’s a huge boom in the tourism of Scotland. There are a lot more people going to see the Highlands and traveling about. But yeah I think it’s a really special place and the people are amazing. Very friendly, very welcoming. I think the further north you go the more warm people get. Once you get out into the islands it almost feels like the land that time forgot in places. It’s unspoiled. If anybody is thinking about going, just go. Now it’s not that expensive to get flights direct especially from New York. They’ve opened up the flights from Stewart airport. It’s so cheap to get there. Then get a car and drive about and find the hidden gems.
I have a friend in Oregon whom I got into the show. She keeps telling me, “Oregon is really beautiful. All the pictures you show me of Scotland, we have that here.” So I try really hard with a little bit of frustration to say “No it’s not the same thing at all! You have to go over there. It is not Oregon.”
I have to say landscape-wise it does look kind of similar. It’s very beautiful but it’s very different. You can’t get haggis in Oregon can you?
You cannot. Nowhere in the United States actually. I hear they’re trying to bring it back. They should start a new campaign. #bringhaggisback
Did you have haggis?
No. I’m a vegetarian but I didn’t even try the vegetarian one. I didn’t take the plunge.
Yes. So what are you working on now? What are we gonna see of yours?
The denim book that I worked on last year, they’re doing a new volume so I’m working on that with a few kinda nice little spots. The projects I’ve been working on lately are kinda commercial. A campaign for Holland and Sherry, a Scottish company I’ve been working with for a while. Visit Aberdeenshire, I just shot their campaign in the hurricane so that will be coming out soon. Some fashion brands as well. Most of the work aside from the denim project has been commercial. Shot a fashion story on Islay for Esquire a few weeks back. So that will be out pretty soon.
That’s all I have Martin. Thanks for answering my questions. Next Saturday night when you’re at home trying to figure out what to watch on TV, ya know, maybe just another Outlander show…
I know. What season are we on now?
They’re filming the new one right?
They are and they’re sticking in Scotland even though the story is supposed to be in America.
Just fill me in and I’ll catch up with the new one. Just kidding! I’ll save it for a rainy day. [laughs]
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