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Hometown Terre Haute: Photography from the Martin Studios

June 11-July 25, 2004


Frank J. Martin was employed at Terre Haute Traction and Light Company when he identified a need for his and other companies to create blueprints locally for the rapidly expanding city. In 1906, Martin purchased the city's first blueprinting machine and established an office at 681 Wabash Avenue. Soon thereafter, Martin expanded his business by establishing a commercial and portrait photography studio that would be known simply as Martin's Photo Shop. In only a few short years, Frank Martin had established his reputation as the finest photographer in the region.

Martin captured on film countless newsworthy events and social gatherings and sold the images to the city's three daily newspapers: the Tribune, Post, and Star. As the business grew, each of Frank Martin's six children assisted in their father's studio; however, it was Martin's sons Willard and Ken who would perpetuate the family company. In 1933, Frank Martin was tragically struck and killed by a vehicle while he was crossing Cherry Street on his way to photograph an ISU prom. Ken and Willard Martin purchased the business, already ailing from considerable losses due to the early days of the Great Depression, from their widowed mother and breathed new life into the company. Willard, the eldest, maintained the profitable portraiture department and Ken assumed the bustling commercial and news-printing department. Under the guidance of the capable young men, Martin's Photo Shop flourished for another forty years. (right: Martins in the Field, photo, Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society)

As was the philosophy of their father, Ken and Willard continued to pioneer new photographic technologies. The Martins were the first in the region to experiment with electric light flashes and bulbs, color film, and smokeless flashes for group portraits. The latter process would earn Ken the esteemed nickname "One-Shot Martin" who, through the blessings of technology and expertise, was able to take enormous group photos in only a single take. One of the attributes that propelled the Martin's to the top of their industry was their collective ability to catch the life and spirit of their subjects on film. Whether taking a formal portrait of a couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary or candidly photographing a tender reunion between soldiers and families, the Martins lovingly and unobtrusively captured life's dramas on film.

After a full career as a photographer, Ken Martin retired from his profession in 1976 thus concluding a seventy-year family tradition. During its operation, Martin's Photo Shop documented eight decades of Terre Haute's history. Together the Martins photographed nearly every president from FDR to Nixon as well as numerous actors, authors, athletes and everyday citizens. When the shop was closed, over a ton and a half of photographic records were removed from the studio. While significant parts of the collection were given to the Vigo County Library and Indiana State University, the lion's share of photographs were given to the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis from which images in this exhibit were loaned.

While the Martin collection is perhaps one of the most frequently reproduced and researched bodies of work in the state, the photos are generally viewed as historical documents rather than works of art. The exhibit Hometown Terre Haute: Photography from the Martin Studios reexamines some of the most unique photographs taken by Frank, Willard, and Ken Martin during the era of the Martin Photo Shop from 1906-1976. Hometown Terre Haute features exquisite portraits, landscapes and still lifes that portray the frenetic life of 20th century Terre Haute. The exhibit Hometown Terre Haute: Photography from the Martin Studios runs from June 11-July 25, 2004 at the Swope Art Museum. A special opening reception will be held Friday, June 11 from 5-8pm.


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