Picture perfect: New Eastsider Randy Martens documents the neighborhood

(Published Aug. 31, 2019)

By Jesse Wright

New Eastsider Randy Martens wasn’t always interested in street photography.

Growing up in the country, down in Mendota, Illinois, Martens said he got his start taking sports photographs for the local paper and then photos of barns and cows for fun. He’d taken a correspondence photography course, and over time he fell in love with the art.

“I feel in love with photography when I started working in an office in Mendota,” Martens said.

Martens worked as a billing supervisor and his career was moving along, but it didn’t move him.

“The day they offered me a promotion, they were going to make me assistant to the treasurer, I told them I wanted to quit because I wanted to be a photographer.”

He moved to Chicago in 1982 to pursue his passion. Looking through a viewfinder, it changed him

“It was freedom,” Martens said. “Just to do what you want. Not to have clocks and desks and things like that. Just to go around and see what you see. I was always a storyteller. I wrote poetry and things, but that was sort of labor intensive compared to just taking a picture.”

Martens first trained his camera on skyscrapers and the manmade world, though soon, wandering through the loop, he took a look at the river of humanity passing him by and when he wasn’t working his office job, he was out on the street, taking photographs.

In 1983, Martens met his future-wife and in 1986, they got married.

“I was working in an office in downtown Chicago, and after we got married she and could see I wasn’t very happy working in an office, she basically said to me, ‘I’ll make you a deal,’” Martens said. “She had a job in human resources in a law firm. … She said, ‘I tell you what. If you learn how to cook and keep the house clean, you can be a photographer and I’ll earn the money.’”

It sounded like a good deal to Martens, so he got busy in the kitchen.

“I learned to cook,” he said.

He also fell deep into photography. Today, thousands of photographs into his work, Martens has photographed all types of people in all sorts of places. For the most part, Martens said, people in the Loop have been receptive when he asks to take their picture.  

“I don’t know if I have a different aura or what, but I get a lot of yesses,” he said.

But not always. As Martens spends most of his time on the street, his photos include a lot of the street people he sees, but one man has remained elusive.

“There’s one guy I haven’t seen in three months, a black guy with rasta hair,” Martens said. “He used to walk around for 15 years and I hope he’s not gone. He has the darkest skin. I’ve walked up to him and I asked him if I could take his picture and he says ‘no I don’t do pictures,’ and I said, ‘I’ll give you $5 bucks and he says, ‘no.’ I’ll see him a year later and I offered him $10, and he turned it down. I once offered him $50 and he turned me down. Some people just don’t like the idea.”

Martens has self-published one book, though it’s not for sale anywhere. He said he is planning a show in the near future, and in the meantime people can check out his website, randymartensphotography.com.

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